Tourists behaving badly: how to be PC in Thailand

Written by on April 1, 2014 in Travel Tips - 26 Comments

Tourists behaving badly. It happens everywhere. I’m sure you’ve seen it: drunken bar fights with locals over a bill. Tagging an historic landmark. Taking smiling group photos in places which are disrespectful (like Auschwitz).

Living as an expat in Thailand, I am treated to this display of very non PC behavior/stuff to make Thais blush daily. It ranges from the minor no-nos (like ladies not covering your shoulders/knees at a temple) to the obscene (like men not taking “no” for an answer at a bar with bar girls). It really bothers me because a) visitors either don’t bother to read up on etiquette before visiting this amazing country and opt for a “head in the sand” or possess the “what works in my home country surely works here” assumption; or b) they know better but choose to disregard cultural norms, simply justifying their holiday as their holiday, which allows them to act however they deem fit (or unfit).

For those planning a trip to Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, here are some important things to keep in mind:

1. Don’t let it all hang out, ladies.

Thailand is conservative. I cannot count how many times I have seen women travelers donning nothing but a bikini under some sheer mesh shirt, and shorts that leave nothing to the imagination (including what their asses look like). Places like Chiang Mai are not beach towns. It isn’t respectful to walk around in next-to-nothing. Instead, cover up a bit. I know it gets hot here, so consider some linen dresses, pants, shirts. But, please, please, keep your goodies covered and leave people guessing a little. This counts even in tourist areas at the beach. If not on the water, pop a cute little cover-up over your swimmers.

Also, there have been stories reported in the news of women who rock up, scantilly clad to temples. This is a no-no. Shoulders and knees must be covered. Thai people are typically too polite to tell anyone to grab a scarf and cover up, but if shoulders are bare and shorts hang above the knees, know it isn’t OK.

2. Don’t haggle too much

The Sunday Walking Street in Chiang Mai

You can load up on cheap stuff at Chiang Mai’s Sunday Walking Street

Yes, bargaining is acceptable in Thailand. It can be fun and shop owners tend to negotiate prices with a smile when done politely. The markets are prime examples of where your shopping prowess and negotiating skills go hand-in-hand. When trying to lower the price (particularly at places like the Sunday Walking Street), only get involved if there is an actual plan to purchase the item. Especially if there are other people around waiting to haggle, too.

However, that does not mean every price tag in this country is negotiable. Food stalls, restaurants, goods and services — none of these things are appropriate to bargain for. I’ve seen people go up to red trucks and haggle for 10 baht. That is under 30 cents in USD. Is it worth it? Stories have been reported of westerners being killed over such a small amount of money. Remember, the salaries in Thailand are far less than what westerners make. And people have to make a living. Pennies are not worth a fight.

3. Men, be respectful

It is easy to get caught up in the bar girl and Thai dating scene in Thailand. I have seen so many men come to this country and act like it is a free-for-all because of the sex tourism. Sure, sex can be bought in Thailand. But, respect cannot. Acting like a douche will result in being treated like a douche, and likely being taken for a ride. And, just because sex is for sale does not mean every women out there is selling it or wants it. No is no is no, and arguing, being aggressive and worse will not result favorably. If a woman is not interested, do not continue to pursue her. If at a bar and she says  f&^% off, then do just that. Don’t get in trouble with the staff or the friends who will crawl out of the darkest corners to grant a proper ass kicking for treating a woman with a lack of respect.

4. Don’t cause a scene

In Thai culture, it is important to save face. This can mean anything from providing inaccurate directions because someone does not want to admit they do not know, to saying “yes” but meaning “no.” Don’t push. And never, ever cause a scene in public. Yelling, arguing or being rude does not go over well.

5. Public displays of affection — i.e. making out — are not OK

Recently, a couple was caught having sex on a public bus. While this is illegal in so much of the world, for some reason, it happened. And it caused quite an uproar in the national media. It is rare to even see Thai people exchange affection –even hugging. Be mindful of the environment. Getting it on in public, even a hot makeout session, is not acceptable.

6. Don’t touch someone’s head if they are older than you.

Touching someone’s head is disrespectful if the person is older than you. Even if it is an action as small as plucking a leaf from someone’s head, don’t do it to a Thai person. Instead, just let them know. And women — do not touch any monk.

7. Mind your feet

A temple in Chiang Mai

Before going into a temple, please remove shoes.

Shoes come off at temples, homes and other places in the country. If you aren’t sure whether or not to leave your kicks at the door, take a look at the ground. Are there shoes outside? If so, please take them off before you enter. Leaving shoes on and entering places is disrespectful. Also, because feet are the lowest realm of existence in Buddhist culture, never show the bottom of your feet to a Thai person or point at anything with your feet. If you are sitting, sit mermaid style so as not to point feet at anyone else. This is especially important when sitting in a temple.

About the Author

Diana Edelman is a travel writer and expat currently residing in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She is a former career breaker and long term solo traveler. Today, she helps promote responsible elephant tourism and is the co-founder of #RTTC, a weekly chat on Twitter focusing on responsible tourism. When she isn’t writing, Diana handles the PR and social media for Save Elephant Foundation, which runs the popular Elephant Nature Park. Her writing as appeared in About.com, Thought Catalog, The Huffington Post, Matador Network, Travel + Escape, Luna Luna, Vegas Seven, World Nomads, Viator, CheapOair, OneTravel and more.

26 Comments on " Tourists behaving badly: how to be PC in Thailand "

  1. Guido April 1, 2014 at 4:33 am · Reply

    Hi Diana. Great post, as always. The biggest display of disrespect I encountered was at the tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos. Having Westerners play mud volleyball and getting totally wasted in bikini/shorts in a conservative society was too inappropriate. No wonder they shut it down.

  2. Adam April 1, 2014 at 5:36 am · Reply

    Helpful reminders! Can’t wait to revisit Thailand next month :)

    • Diana April 3, 2014 at 10:39 pm · Reply

      And I can’t wait to see you next month!

  3. Giselle and Cody April 1, 2014 at 12:03 pm · Reply

    Great blogpost Diana. We can’t believe how many people don’t look up the etiquette when visiting a country. It’s almost like they feel entitled to behave however they choose because it is their holiday. We actually saw a girl in the Khao San rd. area wearing a tank top and no pants!!
    It is important to be respectful when visitng a country, it’s just the grown up thing to do.

    • Diana April 3, 2014 at 10:39 pm · Reply

      Thank you!! I always find it astonishing!

  4. Alex April 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm · Reply

    This has reminded me that I want to do a “What to Wear in Thailand” post when I get back. I actually think on the beach skimpy is okay, but I go into a rage when I see girls strutting around Bangkok in bikinis, or guys going topless in Pai. No thank you!

    • Diana April 3, 2014 at 10:39 pm · Reply

      Oh, please do! I have NO IDEA why people think it is OK to walk around in bikinis in Chiang Mai. I mean, what are they going to do? Swim in the moat?? You don’t walk around like that at home, why would you walk around like that here? Same with guys with their shirts hanging out of their pockets. I always say to take a cue from locals — do what they do. Never have I seen a local wearing a bikini top and ass-hanging-out shorts …

  5. Ayngelina April 2, 2014 at 7:23 pm · Reply

    Fantastic advice and honestly even I need to be reminded sometimes. I was on a long walk with my boyfriend in Thailand in shorts and a tank top and we approached a temple, I was so embarrassed when they told me that I couldn’t come in- I completely forgot that my clothing was unacceptable. That was years ago and since then I try to be much more aware.

    • Diana April 3, 2014 at 10:37 pm · Reply

      I forget sometimes when it comes to temples, too. Mostly because the random times I decide to go into a temple, it is hot and I have dressed for the weather, and not for the temple. I do try to be aware though, and I never dress like the people I mention in the post.

  6. Mindy & Ligeia April 3, 2014 at 8:06 am · Reply

    Great info, Diana! One more thing for women to be mindful of: don’t touch a monk or his clothing. I remember thinking too much about that rule when getting into a red truck, trying to avoid a monk’s cloth as he sat in the back seat. I was so nervous, that I fell into the truck! At least I didn’t touch him! :)

    • Diana April 3, 2014 at 10:35 pm · Reply

      Absolutely! I think that is in the post … but it isn’t in front of me at the moment to read. But, yes!!! Don’t touch monks!

  7. Alana - Paper Planes April 14, 2014 at 3:35 am · Reply

    I think all of these fall under the ‘Don’t act entitled’ category – more often than not visitors just think they can do whatever they want and get away with it. This is true, to a point, but that doesn’t mean they should take advantage of the fact and act in those ways. The really said thing is I think most people are completely oblivious to how they act or come across – I understand making mistakes or not knowing how things are done in new places, but even if you don’t know what’s socially acceptable you can pretty quickly figure it out by being observant of those around you…

    • Diana April 17, 2014 at 3:33 am · Reply

      So true!

  8. Selina April 15, 2014 at 5:07 pm · Reply

    Excellent, imporrtant advice – wish I’d taken more notice when I was younger, but I definitely do now!!

    Following you on Twitter so I can read more great tips!!

    • Diana April 17, 2014 at 3:32 am · Reply

      Thank you!!

  9. Hamish Healys April 21, 2014 at 4:34 am · Reply

    I’ve seen this happen on several occasions. Mostly male tourists behaving like they own the place and sometimes seeming to regard all Thai women as being cheap and easily bought. It’s shameless. Your guide should be a standard thing disseminated not only in Thailand but throughout Southeast Asia.

    • Diana April 22, 2014 at 5:28 am · Reply

      Thanks — would love for more people to know how to behave/be respectful when visiting the region!

  10. Candice - Desert to Jungle May 1, 2014 at 1:00 am · Reply

    I thought it was wrong to touch somebody’s head period. Even a child, is that not the case?

    The thing that drives me nuts when I see it (not often thankfully) is guys out running doing it topless around the moat. There’s absolutely no need for it. I see Western guys at the public gym working out topless. It doesn’t offend me, in fact it’s often quite nice :) but it’s totally inappropriate. At my Crossfit gym there are signs up requesting appropriate clothing but not in the public gym I use.

    • Diana May 6, 2014 at 3:19 am · Reply

      Touching the head of someone younger is not bad. My friend is Thai and a teacher here, and she says there is no problem with it. I can’t stand the topless, the girls who wear the low cut/deep cut sides on the shirts with the bras … boggles my mind!

  11. khaimook May 11, 2014 at 12:49 am · Reply

    thank you for visit thailand i hope you happy in here and may be you will come agian ps. im just get one card cause you come fitness :)

    • Diana May 13, 2014 at 12:41 am · Reply

      Thank you for sharing Fitness First with me! I have mentioned it on Facebook already!!

  12. BlogDaz June 26, 2014 at 3:38 am · Reply

    Great advice Diana, this post should be printed and displayed in every hotel, bar and restaurant in Thailand.

    • Diana June 26, 2014 at 9:44 am · Reply

      Thanks!!! :)

  13. Mumun July 16, 2014 at 12:57 am · Reply

    There’s just not enough of these post. People sometimes don’t know how to behave on foreign land. I love the way you explain things, easy and simple. Yay!

    • Diana July 16, 2014 at 2:35 am · Reply

      Thank you! I got so sick of seeing people come here and be so incredibly disrespectful. They still are, but it makes me feel better that at least there is one more piece of information out there calling them out on their bad behavior.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. A Local Guide To Chiang Mai Thailand | Epicure & Culture

Leave a Comment

Subscribe via email

Subscribe to monthly newsletter

As seen in

Get d travels 'round delivered to your inbox!

Copyright © 2014 Diana Edelman. All rights reserved.

Site Powered By

x