A reason why gay visitors are welcomed with warm smiles is because Thais don’t make the same distinctions between gay and straight as we do. You may offend if you embrace your lover on the street, but only because all public displays of unbridled affection are frowned upon regardless of sexual preference.
Similarly, Thai culture doesn’t place the same premium on youth. Altogether, this means that older Western men may be considered more attractive in Thailand than they are back home, and certainly there are handsome Thai guys who are keen to meet Westerners, but that’s only half the story.
It’s not so much a belief in equality or a lack of ageism; instead it appears that old-fashioned values prevail. When exiting a station on Bangkok’s Skytrain network, I saw an elderly lady take the arm of the young woman beside her, and the pair proceeded down the stairs together. Once at street level, both women parted company without having exchanged anything besides that link of arms. Clearly strangers, the old lady nevertheless felt able to take support from a random arm, and the young woman wordlessly obliged, suggesting this is such a commonplace occurrence that not even a look of acknowledgement or a word of thanks were required.
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As well as their elders, Thai’s retain respect for neighbors and strangers, for monks and religion, and for their king. Indeed, you must never defame, insult, threaten, or make jokes about the king or the royal family, and you should always rise when the national anthem is played. While traveling around Thailand, you’ll likely see billboard-size portraits of H. M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (known simply as Rama IX) and Queen Sirikit alongside flags bearing royal insignias and proclamations of “Long Live The King.” The majority of homes, offices, and public buildings also display a royal portrait.
Such adoration might seem at odds with Western society and our inherent right to criticize and sometimes ridicule our leaders, and alarm bells may ring in cynical Western ears when we learn there’s an actual Thai law known as lèse majesté that means the king must be treated with respect. But King Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning current head of state, seems genuinely beloved. He has popular support for the many advantages he’s brought for ordinary Thais, and his achievements have earned international recognition: UN Secretary General Kofi Annan presented him with the United Nations first and only Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
In a country where traditional customs and good manners are revered, it’s advisable to learn a few fundamentals to ensure you share the respect. The typical Thai greeting known as the wai consists of a slight bow with palms and fingertips touching in a prayer-like fashion. It’s a multitasking gesture that can be used as a welcome, to express gratitude, or as an apology, so it’s worth remembering in case you need to wai yourself out of a sticky situation. Even Ronald McDonald statues ingratiate themselves in Thailand by performing a wai.
It is, however, more complicated than it looks. How high you position your hands and how low you bow indicates how much respect or reverence you’re showing, and there are subtle variants depending on factors like age, gender, occupation, and social status. A wai at chest level is typically the norm, but if in doubt it’s permissible for Westerners to smile in lieu of a wai, this is, after all, the self-proclaimed land of smiles.
Although Thais are intrinsically tolerant, remember to show particular respect when visiting a temple. Thais reserve the most revered wai for worshiping an image of Buddha or saluting a Buddhist monk, but tourists simply need not to wear shorts, tank tops, or sandals. Despite the sweaty heat, this dress code is strictly enforced at must-see attractions such as Bangkok’s dazzling Grand Palace. Should you arrive with ankles and shoulders exposed, you may rent long loose pants and long wraps, but at peak times it’s quicker to buy whatever you need from the market traders outside, thus avoiding additional queuing inside.
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