To Wai or Not to Wai...
Written by Wit
..that is the
through my mental backlog of blog ideas I remembered this was
one of the first I thought to write for Thai-blogs I just never
got around to it
is one of the most famous of symbols that people recognize as
being 'Thailand.' To do it right is almost an art form and
something that many Thais take great care to express properly
and sincerely because not only is it ingrained from an early age
into Thai culture it also comes from the heart and it is
literally a true measure of how much respect to show someone.
the foreigners perspective if you want to socialize in Thailand
so Thai people will a) be somewhat impressed and b) prove not
all farangs are uncultured bores only into Thai women (or men if
the case may be) and ruining Thai culture with our western ways
then take the time to learn some Ways of the Wai. Sounds
cool doesn't it?
glance the 'Wai' looks simple and easy however to
understand the rules to a proper Wai you soon realize
this is no simple slick Thai style 'handshake' or even an
exotic-cool, a la Vulcan 'Live Long and Prosper', salutation. Oh
no. But I'll get on with the rules a little later, for now I'll
get on with the jokes.
For me making
a proper Wai was almost, if not more, nerve wrecking in
the beginning learning Thai culture than trying to say maai
mai mai mai mai
(a Thai tongue twister meaning "New wood doesn't burn, does
it?") in all the right tones while learning to speak Thai !
To make things
more interesting I'll let you in on a secret. However you might
imagine me to be like according to my blog personality in real
life I am very much the opposite. Not shy but reserved and quiet
most of the time preferring the sidelines and keeping to myself
in crowds rather than draw a lot of attention. Hence my
ingrained American reluctance to do something publicly that
would look odd to any one other than a Thai.
But I do have
my moments where you put me in the spotlight especially if I
know what I am doing, or blogging about, and I can take center
stage no problem! In fact I hope this will be a good skill for
pursuing a future teaching career in Thailand when I finally
break orbit from Planet America.
If you ever
watch a Thai perform the wai it is amazing the skill they
have. They can gracefully and respectfully wai carrying
anything! Imagine trying to see an American do that with a
mobile phone in one hand, Starbucks coffee in the other and
always rushing somewhere because we Americans are always late
for everything. In the beginning making my first attempts to
wai I was doing good just to manage a wai with two
bare empty hands but I felt so awkward and self conscious! Yes
even with something as simple as pressing your palms together in
greeting I would do it so fast my hands made a clapping sound
and it looked like I was trying a strange new way to swat
mozzies! With practice though eventually I got more smooth and
graceful at it and my bathroom mirror, kitchen refrigerator and
the mailbox down the street on the corner have never been shown
so much respect!
this out on actual real people was not as easy. At the museum
where I used to work there is a lady who is Thai and she was
older than me so every morning when I walked into work I would
say a fast Sawasdee Krab! nervouslly give her one of my
shotgun blast wais and quickly run away, kind of a 'hit
and run' just to get into habit of doing it.
At first she
would give a startled (maybe stunned is a better word) wai
back like she had been caught napping. She had been living
in the US the past 16 years so that might be true. I got over my
nervousness eventually but this was serious business! The last
thing I wanted was to appear to be mocking someone Thai since
this is not Thailand and you don't see this kind of formality
everyday. I had to be sure I was comfortable and doing this
right. I remember now there was one time at the museum when I
met some tourists from Thailand and they were my customers. A
young couple that I chatted with for a bit and when they started
to leave the guy sat his packages down and smartly gave me a
wai. I was surpised since in my status I was to him a store
clerk but still it was touching.
though it gets complicated. In Thai class at the temple I always
bow deeply with my head lowered and wai with the tips of
my thumbs almost touching my eyebrows. Each year we have a
summer school where young boys here ordain as monks for a few
weeks. When they are at the temple I wai because they are
real monks, even if temporarily, and I bow lower because I am so
tall even though as an adult under any other circumstance I
would not wai a child.
One time I
wai'd the monks and one of the Thai ladies that helps out
around the temple. Her son Billy was there too taking the Thai
class. Billy was not a monk and almost half my age so I didn't
wai him but gave a 'Wassup dude.' I thought I knew the
rules and did everything right.
immediately asked why I didn't wai him as well! Uh,
well..according the the Wai Code Book, Paragraph 14, sub heading
9 ...... Erm, oh forget it, instead of making a scene I
quickly wai'd, mumbled an 'excuse me' then slunk back to
The rule to
understand is not how to Wai but to whom.
For example try this brain teaser on for size..
foreigner meets a Thai girl for lunch. She does the wai
and he returns the gesture. To go back to his hotel he hails a
taxi. The older driver, upon receiving a good tip, wais
him, then drives off. The foreigner waves his hand to mean
later, the girl invites him to her house. An old man walks out
and she introduces her father, whom he instantly recognizes as
none other than the taxi driver.
the westerner, say a manager of some firm (status), recognizing
the taxi-driver father (elder person), wai first? Or not
wai but mumble something in English as a detour? Or
merely extend a hand for a handshake? Do nothing to see what
Before he can
sort himself out, a woman looking younger than he walks in and
his girlfriend introduces the woman as her stepmother. Should he
wai this younger woman first or wait for her to do it
first? An elderly woman now comes in and it turns out she is the
chief servant. He becomes confused. Wai quickly?
something in French or Chinese? Over to you.
actually from the book
"Do's & Don't in Thailand"
available at the online book shop in Richards school. There are
numerous books on Thai customs but this book is great. It's
written in an easy to read style but straight forward and also
curious to see how to try one of these? well for starters here
are the basics. First up is the
Rules of Usage
common use for the Wai is in greeting someone. You clasp
your hands together in front of you and lower your head while
smiling and saying 'Sawasdee' for hello. Gentlemen can bow
slightly at the waist while Ladies may make a small courtsey.
is also meant as a sign of respect and is often shown by a
person of lower status wai-ing to someone of higher
status first. Illustrated by the -
The person of
lower status would also bend lower, lower his head more and
clasp his hands higher. You will usually guess the status of two
people that meet by watching the way they wai each other.
The lower the head/body, the higher the hands, the higher the
status and respect offered. L x HB x HH = W = S Taking notes so
It is also
protocol that if someone wais you, you don't have to
return the wai but it is very disrespectful to not
acknowleadge it. A smile or a nod will usually suffice. Monks
and Thai Royality will never return a wai but a King will
wai a monk, such are the rules of status in Thailand.
When to Wai
always depend on 'who' as in who has the higher status or
seniority. If your lower in status then you wai first.
Most tourist and farang generally would not have to worry about
wai-ing first out of general respect from Thai people for
your status as a foreigner plus we aren't expected to understand
However you do
go a long way by wai-ing with the proper respect to
monks, members of the Royal Family and elder persons. Be careful
you don't go in the wrong way by wai-ing to children,
service people like cooks, clerks, taxi drivers or anyone
obviously younger than yourself. People and friends of equal
status may only wai each other when coming or going.
Origins of Wai
cousin to the wai is the Indian Namaste which
means welcome, relax and enjoy. Namaste, an Indian word is the
highest form of greeting considered an honorable tribute from
one being to another. The Chinese way of greeting, or 'Koh
Kung', also uses the same handlike gesture. It's pretty obvious
that Thai culture not only shares this tradition but was
influenced a great deal by it. I've always thought Thailand was
a unique blend of East and West (Asia that is - although
technically India is South Asia but the East/West bit sounds
more intriging right?)
Buddha is often shown in a similar pose with his hands clasped
together as a sign of peace. Whether the origin of the wai
comes from India, or China or perhaps sprung completely on it's
own from the people that tamed Thailand eons ago the fact is it
is Thailand. It's the heart and warmth of the Thai people
and it is with grace, sincerity and beauty that it is offered.
Makes the handshake look kinda primitive afterwards doesn't it?
So even if you
can't speak a lick of Thai to save your life if you know the
rules, always smile and can master a good Wai from all
I've heard so far you'll go over like gangbusters and if you
won't take it from me ask someone whose actually been to
Till next time
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