The Head and Feet
In Thai culture, the highest and lowest physical extremes of the human body take on added spiritual significance. There are many social rules related to the head and feet that farangs often fall foul of through ignorance. While Thais will usually suffer in silence because they are being greng jai, you can be sure that they are simmering beneath the surface when their well-established protocol boundaries are breached.
The closest comparison we have in Western culture is the personal space rule. I feel strangely uneasy if someone stands right in front of me on a relatively un-crowded sky-train. While there is no logical reason that I can explain for this sensation, it is what has been ingrained into my farang psyche. This feeling of unease is what Thais experience when we step on their cultural toes. Just because we don’t understand the etiquette, it doesn’t make it any less of an invasion of their sensitivities nor excuse its repeated abuse.
The head is the highest part of the body, both physically and spiritually. You should, therefore, never touch someone on the head, although I have observed some flexibility of this rule with children and lovers being exceptions. Overall, this is a pretty easy social practice to pick up and there’s no excuse for not assimilating it quickly.
The rules that seem to cause more problems, however, are the ones related to the feet. This is simply because these rules are so different from Western cultures where the feet have no significance. To Thais, the feet are the lowest part of the physical and spiritual body with the soles, in particular, considered unclean. You should, therefore, never expose the bottom of your feet or shoes. While Westerners think nothing of stretching out with the soles of their feet directly facing someone else, this would cause great discomfort to a Thai, who would interpret this as a sign of gross disrespect.
Even worse is if the feet are facing any religious or royal representation. This is particularly difficult in temples where we should take off our shoes before entering. We are then usually expected to sit on the floor and the natural instinct is to sit cross legged or even with the feet stretched out in front of us as we lean back and rest on our hands. This is a major no-no. The correct position is one that looks as if we were kneeling and then someone pushed us from the side so that we toppled halfway over.
The etiquette even extends to not stepping over someone or something of religious, royal or other cultural importance. This includes books and food.
Another common instance of this rule being broken is when farangs sit in tuk-tuks with their feet resting on the back of the driver’s seat. The driver may say nothing, but you can be sure his contempt for rude farangs is stretching to cut itself a lofty new notch.
Try to remember the feet’s significance on sky-trains, too. It’s a natural position for farangs to sit with their legs crossed in the classic 4 shape. However, this exposes the sole of your foot to the person sitting next to you. Think about how you would feel if a stranger stood silently right in front of you in an empty elevator, and that is how the Thai sitting next to you feels.
Basically, if you learn to avoid touching Thais on the head or exposing the bottom of your feet to them, you will have taken one small step along the path of cultural understanding. This is one of the easiest ones to assimilate, and I even find myself being careful not to fall foul of this with farangs, and cringing and squirming when I see it.