Friendly to visitors, accepting in nature due to Buddhist beliefs, and splendidly original, part of the beauty of Thailand is, without doubt, the warmth, hospitality, and wonderful quirkiness of the Thai people. Promising relaxed vacations and an intriguing culture, the real riches of a truly Thai experience come with understanding the nuances of long-held customs and traditions.
Even saying, ‘hello’ in Thailand comes with its own subtle yet defined rulebook, and understanding how the ‘wai’ Thai greeting works is a great way to feel connected to Thailand beyond its allure as a vacation destination, as well as create a bond with the Thai people.
What is a Wai?
A wai is a form of communication and a customary greeting in Thailand. Essentially, the palms of the hands are momentarily pressed together in a prayer-like gesture with fingers pointing upwards, usually close to the chest, and the head slightly bowed.
While the movement may be quick, the meaning is deeply ingrained, and you will receive a wai wherever you go and whomever you meet. Rather than being caught off guard, floundering with your hands and arms, not knowing where to put them and when, you first need to know why Thais wai.
As well as a greeting, and a way of saying goodbye, the wai is ultimately a sign of respect and is used instead of the traditional Western handshake or a wave. A wai can be a way of saying thanks, of showing understanding of a situation or person, and also as a polite way to apologize. You will also see Thais wai to temples, important monuments, pictures of Thai royalty, and spirit houses that guard properties, businesses, and roads as they pass.
Dating back to the 12th century, history suggests that the wai may have come about as a way of greeting to show that an individual is not carrying any weapons and comes in peace. Part of Thai etiquette, as soon as Thai children can put their hands together they are taught the importance of this traditional Thai gesture.
As well as exploring how to wai and when, you also need to learn how to say ‘hello’ in Thai as this often accompanies a wai.
Degrees of Wai
As a rule of thumb, the position of your hands is indicative of the level of respect within the classic Thai greeting. All wais are not the same and the different gestures generally relate to who the other person is. The palms are pressed together with a gap between the thumbs and fingers and the elbows tucked in. The starting position is with the wrist either touching or near the chest or what yogis would identify as the heart chakra. As the head nods the hands move up to various points of the face.
The Peer-to-Peer Wai: This is used in general with people who you meet socially. As you slightly nod the hands move up so that the thumbs briefly touch the chin. This is a quick action, similar to a ‘hi’ rather than some drawn-out greeting.
The More Respectful Wai: This is used when greeting older people or those you deem to have a higher standing in some way. From the starting position, as the head tips forward slightly the hands some up so that the thumbs touch the nose. Again, this is usually a fairly swift movement, although a slower style is often used to give the gesture greater meaning and gravitas.
The Monk Wai: A real sign of reverence is used when Thais wai to monks. In this instance, the nod turns into more of a bow and the hands slide up so that the thumbs touch the eyebrows. When it comes to a wai to royalty, Thais will bow or curtsey whilst they slowly make this gesture.
Saying Hello & Thank You
What you soon realize is that greeting Thais in the right way, in their own language, will not only delight them but will certainly enhance your stay too; locals appreciate the effort and will pay respect to you by going that extra mile to make your trip memorable.
As you wai, or even just to be polite if you choose not to wai, ‘hello’ is ‘sawasdee’ (sa-wah-dee). If you are female then you say, ‘sawasdee kha’ (sa-wah-dee kaa), with a soft ending. Males say, ‘sawasdee khrap’ (sa-wah-dee kap) with a sharper, rising tone. How you say these words, particularly the endings, can denote different levels of respect and meaning but as a non-Thai there is no need to be concerned with this, but you may want to listen out for the slight variations.
When you wai to say thanks, men and women use the same endings, adding ‘kop khun’ at the start. A slower, more drawn out ‘kha’ for women and a more clipped ‘khrap’ for men is a way to really emphasize your sincerity.
When Not to Wai
It is custom not to wai to children, even if you are greeted with the cutest wai from them. Instead, you can give a quick nod of the head, a warm smile or simply pull your hands up to the starting position and then drop them without moving the fingers up towards the face as a sign of acceptance.
This is also the case when dealing with anyone in the service industry, in restaurants, spas, security on shopping centre doors, and taxi drivers, regardless of their age. Whilst this may feel a little strange to many non-Thais, and almost rude not to return the favor, inappropriate use can make others feel a little bemused.
What is important in general though is that trying to show respect is always appreciated in Thailand and even if you do not always get it quite right, your status as a non-Thai gives you a lot of grace to make mistakes without being judged. Of course, if you are greeted with a firmly outstretched hand then politely shake hands instead!