Know when (and why) you take your shoes off before going inside, make sure you're picking the right outfit to visit the temples, and a few other things to know before visiting.
One of my favorite things about traveling abroad for a whole semester is that I come home feeling more like a local than just a tourist. By the end of my semester in Asia with ILP, I was able to give other tourists directions to my favorite spots! Another big perk about living somewhere for a few months is being able to completely surround yourself with the culture — the people, the language, the food, and all the incredible history and customs that come with it.
Call Thailand home for a semester
Come spend a semester volunteering in Thailand with ILP
In Thailand, I was particularly glad I knew a few things about their culture before I visited. Every country has elements that are pretty different than home ... and truth be told, there are some customs and beliefs I would love to bring back with me (I loved not wearing shoes indoors).
When To Take Your Shoes Off
One of the most apparent cultural differences was not wearing shoes indoors. When I was in Thailand, I noticed piles of shoes outside of my bedroom, outside of the school, even outside of little shops when we would go out shopping. I was pretty used to not wearing shoes inside of my house, but it was a little different taking my shoes off to go shop for socks at this little boutique!
It's common in Thailand (and a few other Southeast Asian countries) to take your shoes off before entering a home, hotel, small shop, or a temple. Shoes are known to be pretty dirty, so it's a way to help keep these special places clean. Shoes are also associated with the feet, which is considered the lowest part of the body. You won't take your shoes off before entering every single store or restaurant, but it's common enough that you'll want to pack a pair of slip-on shoes — I typically travel in Tevas, but I loved wearing my Birkenstocks while in Thailand because they were much easier to take on and off.
If you're ever not sure when to take your shoes off, just check to see if there's already a pile of shoes outside of the entrance (or if the people or staff inside are barefoot). You typically keep shoes on when visiting high-traffic spots like malls, big shopping centers, or chain stores (like Tesco or 7-11).
Watch Your Feet (And Your Head)
Speaking of shoes and feet, it's important to understand a little bit about Thai culture when it comes to your head and your feet. Feet are considered the lowest part of the body and there are a few things to remember about that custom. It's best to avoid pointing with your feet or raising them higher than someone's head (like putting your feet on top of the seat in front of you while riding a bus). When you sit down on the floor, tuck your feet behind you (instead of out front) so you're not pointing your feet at anyone. Also, keep yourself from pointing to something (typically on the ground) with your feet: bend down, and point with your fingers instead.
Heads, on the other hand, are considered the highest and most sacred part of the body. Avoid touching someone's head — it can be kinda tricky when you have your darling Thai students walking by and you just want to pat their little heads as they line up in the hallway.
Visiting Buddhist sites while in this part of the world was a huge highlight for me, especially having some personal experiences with the monks. In Thailand, it's not uncommon to see monks walking around everywhere: the bright orange robes are pretty hard to miss. Buddhism is the most popular religion in the country, with over 90% of the population practicing this ancient belief of Theravada Buddhism. With that background, you can see how the religion has merged with the culture — and the monks are a big part of your Thailand experience. They're the center of this faith, serving as role models for the Thai people. You'll notice that many locals will give up their seat on public transportation to a monk (and it's customary for tourists to do the same).
When I first visited Thailand, I didn't want to be disrespectful so I shied away thinking I was supposed to talk to them. I was so surprised when outside of the mall one day a monk walked up to my ILP group and started talking to us, wanting to practice his English. He also wanted to bless one of the girls in our group! We just stood there sort of stunned thinking, on a Thai street, watching a monk give our friend a blessing ... pinch me so I know I'm not dreaming right now. After that we had many other encounters with monks and it opened my mind a bit more to the culture and wanting to learn more about the people who dedicate their lives to that lifestyle.
So if you're in the same boat of wanting to be respectful but not sure how, my advice is to watch others around you. You may notice people say "hello" to monks in a different way — instead of pressing your palms together in front of your chest (like Thai locals often do to greet each other), when you greet a monk, raise you pressed palms up to your head, pressing your thumbs between your eyebrows (your fingertips should be up by your hairline). Give a slight bow.
If a monk is sitting, it's respectful to sit as well before starting a conversation (and avoid sitting higher than a monk if you can help it). Remember, don't point your feet at any Buddhist while sitting down. It's respectful to use your right hand to give or receive anything. Women, should never touch a monk or hand something directly.
There may be a few things to keep in mind about monks, but don't let it intimidate you. Several temples will have times where monks will talk with anyone who'd like to join. There are also locations where you can get blessed by a monk (which is an incredible experience) — at many temples you'll see a monk sitting and visitors will come kneel in front, that's how you know it's an opportunity for you to receive a blessing. Just watch what others are doing and follow their lead.
As part of the the monastic codes that the Buddha established for the monks, they are not allowed to do anything to make the living. Locals frequently give support through donations and it's encouraged that you leave something when receiving a blessing — the amount is up to you, but because you purchase most things in cash in Thailand I always had some change in my purse that I put towards this.
Conversations About The King
This is a big one — being respectful of the Thai King! The king of Thailand is second only to Buddha in importance, and he is always spoken of respectfully. That was a unique cultural thing to experience when I visited Thailand. In the United States, it's not uncommon for people to criticize or comment on the President, but that's not appreciated or done in Thailand. Talking about the King is a sacred, revered, and respectful conversation that is taken seriously — anyone who defames, insults, or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent, or the regent can serve up to 15 years in jail.
No matter what, the King and the royal family are respected. There's a song, kind of like our pledge of Allegiance that happens before certain events — sometimes even before a movie starts at the movie theater! You'll see pictures of the King all over, too: look out for posters in restaurants, pictures in taxi cabs, displays in airports, and more. In the little Thai town I visited, there was a big poster of the King rimmed with flowers in the middle of the round-about.
Wearing The Right Thing
The culture here is rather modest and conservative, which is something to be aware of before visiting ... especially since something you'd wear here isn't seen the same way as in Thailand. You know those tight biker shorts people wear (like leggings?) that's considered underwear in Thailand, so definitely not something you'd want to be seen with in public. Yep, it's hot and humid in Thailand, having your shoulders covered and wearing long, loose, and flowy clothing is a good way to go when you're teaching and when you're out exploring. Most volunteers recommend wearing those t-shirt dresses because they keep you covered up and help keep you cool.
Visit the temples in Thailand was one of my favorite parts about the country — they are so beautiful! I was so glad my sister gave me a head's up about what to pack so I could follow the dress code at the temples. It's extremely important all visitors are dressed modestly when visiting religious sites. For the ladies, keep your chest, belly, back, and shoulders covered, and wear a long skirt or a loose pair of long pants. I typically wore a t-shirt that covered my shoulders, and a long, flowy skirt that helped keep me cool. You'll also need to take off your shoes.
This dress code is an enforced requirement that temples will have sarongs visits can rent before entering the space. Typically you'll pay just a dollar or two for a rental, but in some places, they are more expensive. Just make sure you've dressed appropriately and save yourself a few baht. You can get a little more info on what to wear (and what to expect) at Thai Temples here.
Want to experience more of Thailand?
Make sure you check out the ILP Instagram and #ILPThailand for some awesome pictures from our ILP Thailand volunteers. They're always up to quite a bit of exploring when they're not teaching! Volunteers are only teaching part time (no more than 20 hours a week) so you have plenty of time to soak up what this country has to offer. Come snag a spot in paradise.