What is the Wai?
The Wai is a gesture commonly used for greeting one another in Thailand. It dates back to the early 12th century, where placing both hands together would prove that you were not holding a weapon. Today, it’s seen as a massive sign of respect and has become an iconic aspect of the Thai culture.
How do you Wai?
OK, so the best way to think about the Wai, is that the height of your hands in relation to your head typically dictates the level of respect that you are affording. Now, this can be confusing as you wouldn’t want to make anyone feel inadequate. As such, we’ve got a few different options for you to try, including a safe option that you can practice and use on everyone throughout your stay without causing offence.
1 – Equals
The safe option is to adopt what is known as the versatile Wai—whereby your fingertips go just below your chin (much like a person praying). Ensure that your palms are touching and that you keep your elbows tucked into your sides. This is a common gesture used for equals, or someone that you haven’t met before.
2 – For more respect
If you’d like to afford someone more respect, then allow your fingertips to rest at the tip of your nose. This Wai is ideal for someone that you’ve met before and enjoy being around.
3 – For people of high-standing
As a foreigner, it’s not always easy to spot a person of high-standing out of the crowd, or to know when to use such a Wai. The general rule of thumb is to use this Wai when you are greeting someone who is older than you, especially the elderly. With this Wai, your fingertips must be level with your eyebrows.
Please note, that you don’t have to Wai children, as it is generally a sign of respect for their elders. If you come across a little toddler and would like to encourage them to Wai you back, then that’s absolutely fine, but there really is no need.
4 – For Royalty and Monks
The odds are that you’re not going to bump into many Royal family members on your travels, however, you will certainly come across a few Monks, especially when exploring one of the many beautiful temples. This Wai requires that your fingertips touch your hairline and should be accompanied with a bow for men, and a curtsy for women.
Waiting in Thailand as a Foreigner
You’re welcome to try and apply the various courtesies listed above, however as a foreigner in Thailand, you’re not expected to get it perfect or to completely understand the many nuances that go with it. That said, your best efforts are always greatly appreciated, so why not give it a go?
If somebody Wai’s you and you’re not certain how to react, a simple Wai with a smile and a nod will be perfect. Even if the Wai is considered a little too low, a Thai isn’t going to judge you or take offence from it.
Do you Wai in shops and restaurants?
You’re not required to Wai anyone in the service industry, however that doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed. When a waiter or barman Wai’s you, you can either return the Wai, or offer them a kind smile which is perfectly acceptable.
My hands are full! What do I do?!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking with my hands full when someone Wai’s me—needless to say, the first few times I looked rather silly, and felt incredibly awkward. If you’re holding a phone or something that can be held between your hands, then simply Wai as you normally would. However, if your hands are full and you can’t do it without putting whatever is in your hands on the floor, don’t panic! A simple nod and slight bow/curtsy will be very polite; that said, a kind smile is more than acceptable.
Don’t panic, the Thai’s are a very patient and understanding people. Again, just as long as you make an effort, you’ll be received with a smile.