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The wai, pronounced like the word “why,” is the traditional greeting of Thailand. Though foreigners should not go around giving the wai to everyone they see, they are often expected to return the greeting. The wai greeting is usually paired with the word “hello” in Thai, which is sawasdee, thereby making it a greeting and a way to say hello; however, it is also a way in which to show someone respect.
While the wai is the way in which people greet each other, Thais also wai one another when thanking someone, apologizing to someone, or saying goodbye. Many Thais will also wai when they pass spirit houses, temples, shrines, or anything in regards to the monarchy—for example, a picture of the king. Many Thais will wai Buddhist monks, but monks are not expected to return the greeting. The safest bet is to wai someone who greets you in this way; however, do not wai anyone who is younger than you. Instead, give them a nod and smile. Oftentimes, a person’s social ranking is determined by age in Thailand, thus, the reason for not greeting children in this traditional way.
First, put your palms together in front of your chest so that each finger is touching its counterpart. Then, bring your hands to touch the middle of your chest and slightly bow your head so that your index fingers touch your nose; this is the basic wai, and it most resembles a slight bow. Instead of bending at the hips, this greeting only requires people to slightly bend their necks, almost like a nod. Men and women also wai a bit differently, in that women bend their knees and men only slightly bend their heads.
There are three different ways in which visitors in Thailand should wai. The first way, as described above, is the most common and relaxed version of this greeting. You can use this wai for friends and people who are the same age as you or those who have the same social status as you. The second, and a bit more formal, way to wai is to bring your thumbs to the tip of your nose and your index fingers to your forehead. The third and most respectful way to wai is to lower your head until your thumbs are in-between your eyebrows with your palms at your chest. You should also bow slightly. This wai is used for the royal family, monks, and people who are greatly respected.