If you’re visiting Thailand, there are some basic rules of etiquette you need to be aware of. One of the most important concerns the feet. In Thailand, the head is regarded as the most important part of the body because it is where the spirit resides. The feet are the furthest removed away from the head and as such are the lowest part of the body physically and spiritually. If you are visiting temples and some tourists attractions in Thailand, there will be times when you must take off your shoes before entering. In most cases, there will be a sign in English asking you to remove your shoes, but there are other occasions when it might not be so obvious.
Visiting Thai Temples
If you are walking in the grounds of a Thai temple (wat) you don’t need to take off your shoes. But you will need to remove your footwear to go inside or visit areas where there are Buddha images or important relics. Most temples also have a raised threshold which you should step over before you enter (see further below). Once inside, you’ll notice that when Thai people are paying their respects to a Buddha image they do so in a seated position with their feet tucked behind them pointing away from the Buddha image. Pointing the soles of your feet at a Buddha image or monk is extremely rude in Thai culture. Thai women usually adopt the ‘mermaid’ posture whilst men simply kneel, but you can do whichever you find more comfortable. The important thing is not to point the soles of your feet in the direction of the Buddha image.
Visiting Stores & Homes
If you are fortunate enough to be invited into a Thai person’s home, you will normally be asked to remove your shoes and leave them outside. Visitors to Thailand may also come across small stores, restaurants or boutiques that form part of somebody’s home. In these cases you may also need to remove your shoes before entering. This isn’t always so obvious and there may or may not be a sign outside asking people to remove their footwear. As a general rule of etiquette in Thailand, if you see a shoe rack outside or there are shoes already on the floor outside, remove yours too before entering.
If you visit a Thai spa or dentist you will often need to leave your shoes outside and change into the slippers provided for indoor use. If you go for a foot massage in Thailand, you may notice the person giving you the massage perform a symbolic wai before touching your feet.
Mind Your Feet
In some traditional Thai households, it’s common to sit on the floor when eating. This is also true for some restaurants, especially in northern Thailand where food is served on small tables or trays known as khantoke. In circumstances like this, don’t point your feet at food and when you stand up make sure you don’t step over any plates of food, but walk around them instead.
We’ve probably all done it at some point; accidentally stepped on somebody’s foot. If you happen to do it in Thailand, whether you are in a crowded elevator or walking around a busy market, simply apologise with a gracious smile. And backpackers please note; tying your shoes/boots to your backpack might be practical for you, but not polite in busy areas like stations and airports and in confined spaces like buses and trains.
Etiquette Tip: Don’t Step on the Threshold
If you visit any building with a raised threshold, it is good etiquette to step over it and not on it. In Thai culture, there is a belief that this is where a benevolent spirit resides and helps protect the occupants inside. Stepping on the threshold can upset the spirit which could bring about bad luck not just for you, but also for the occupants of the building. And don’t under any circumstances do what the tourists in the photo below did and sit on the threshold of a temple with feet pointed towards the Buddha images.