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How and who to Wai in Thailand

Before I launch into some bloviation on the Thai wai I just want to say two things;

1) You're a foreigner, nobody expects you to wai correctly, an incorrect wai is better than no wai at all - the fact that you tried is enough to make people happy.

2) Only arrogant twats don't wai serving staff - if they wai you then you wai them back, just don't do it first and do make your wai lower than theirs. That applys whether you're Thai or foreign.

Dull verbiage follows, feel free to give up now and check the university knickers thread instead.

The wai, the Thai sign of respect and salutation is performed by raising both hands joined together, palm to palm, with the hands touching the body somewhere between the chest and the face. The higher the hands, the greater the respect shown. Whoever is inferior in age or social position initiates the wai. It should be immediately responded to by the recipient. The wai can be given while you are sitting, standing, taking a dump, or lying on the road because you hired a 400cc Phantom from Mr Beer as a preliminary step to riding on Thai roads for the first time in your life. The ultimate in good manners when wai-ing somebody is not only to raise your joined hands but to bow or incline your head while doing so.

The hands should be raised with a slow and graceful movement, never sharply or jerkily, and the upper parts of your arms should remain close to your body with the elbows kept in. The hands should not be extended, like a Christian saying a prayer, but should be pointed slightly inwards towards the body.

Those who have a very high boredom threshold can see the wai performed classically and correctly in its idealised form at a classical Lakorn performance. The hands are joined palm to palm and the finger-tips incline towards each other to make the shape of a budding lotus (Phanom Meu). This is the ideal way to hold the hands while making a wai but is rarely seen outside Lakorn, the highest echelons of Thai society, or temples.

Etiquette requires that the younger person initiates the wai and that, although rarely seen outside temples, schools, or royal circles these days, in the presence of somebody of great age or seniority the hands are held in the wai position at chest level while addressing that senior person.

If somebody receives a wai from an inferior or junior the response is normally a wai with the hands raised no higher than the chest. If, perhaps as a monk or a member of royalty, the person receiving a wai is not obliged to return it he will nod or raise his right hand hand in acknowledgment, this is called Rap Wai - acknowledging a wai. Those foreigners who nod in return to receiving a wai, no matter where, should be aware that they may be seen as impersonating monks or royalty and if they don't cause offence (it's unlikely they will) can be seen as a source of amusement.

As an act of noblesse oblige a superior may offer a western-style handshake to an inferior, but will never initiate a wai. If the person to whom the handshake is offered is greatly socially inferior he will return both a handshake and a wai. A child will always initiate a wai to an elder, unless the child is of royal blood or a monk, an adult should always return a child's wai although with the joined hands raised no higher than the chest.

Buddhist monks hold a higher rank than anybody else in Thailand, they should always be offered the most respectful wai possible but they will not wai in return. In theory they should not even wai the King although when I watched the 60th anniversary celebrations on TV I saw many monks wai-ing the King. I think this has more to do with their respect for Rama IX as a Thammaraj than the fact that he is king.

Rural people, when meeting somebody vastly higher than them in the social scale, will squat to the ground and wai at the same time, this can be seen in many poster and photos of the King. They will not stand up until the high ranking person has passed by. Devout Buddhists, passing a temple, will always wai the buddha image inside as will people using temple grounds as a car park, as a mark of gratitude. Many people will also wai spirit houses and land-spirit shrines as they pass them.

The wai is not unique to Thailand, similar gestures are used throughout India, China, and SE Asia. Each country has its own variations and the best way to learn the appropriate action is to what the locals do and learn by observation.

In the past no self-respecting Thai would ever wai a farang. This wasn't intended to be insulting but was based on the thought that without the required social background the Farang or the Thai could easily insult each other by using the wrong wai. Thais have learned from childhood how to place another Thais social position and age and know how to wai and respond correctly, they do not know how to do this with foreigners nor do foreigners know how to do this with them and the Thais preferred to avoid any chances of embarrassment. Even today a foreigner wai-ing can be seen as a source of mild amusement or amazement, on a par with a foreigner being able to eat sticky rice or spicy food without immediately dropping dead, but it's almost invariably genuinely appreciated as an act of politeness.

The most useful wai for a foreigner is the stranger's wai, elbows in towards the body, fingers joined in the budding lotus position, fingertips just touching the point of the chin, and the head inclined slightly forwards, remembering to raise the hands smoothly and gracefully. This wai is used by people who do not know the age or social position of the people they're addressing, is seen as the happy medium of wais, and is acceptable to everybody except those who require a "benchanga-pradit". But that's another story.

The above information is based on the writings of Phya Anuman Rajadhon and is talking about the ideal and proper way to wai, real life diifers but being more polite than strictly required is unlikely to cause offence. He was the greatest scholar of Thai Culture. An historian, ethnologist, linguist, philologist, and archaeologist, he was the Assistant Director General of the Department of Thai Folklore, President of the Royal Thai Institute, and Director General of the Fine Arts Department. Until his death he was professor of the departments of Philology, Comparative Literature, and Thai Custom and Tradition at Chulalongkorn University. He was chairman of the Thai History Revision Committee and editor-in-chief of the Thai Encyclopedia. Over the course of 50 years he produced hundreds of books, articles, and monographs on Thai Culture, a subject he dedicated his life to. Sadly only a few of these have ever been translated into English and the few that have no longer seem to be in print.

Written by DrB0b

More views on who to wai and how to wai can be found HERE
Thoughts on farangs wai'ing each other can be found HERE