The wai is the traditional greeting of Thais. The hands are placed with the palms together in a prayer-like position and held in front of the forehead, face or chest, depending on the hierarchical status of the person being waied. Just as with the handshake, it isn’t used for every greeting. Young friends rarely wai each other, although children will wai their parents each day. The wai is actually more of a show of respect than a greeting and, therefore, has various rules and etiquette to be observed. Here are some of the rules:
• Don’t wai everyone
• Wai older people and officials (remember, the wai is part of the strict hierarchical social structure in Thailand, so you can cause great embarrassment by just waiing everyone)
• If somebody wais you, wai back
• Look at the place of the hands when you are being waied and repeat the gesture
• Most wais consist of the hands being held in front of the face, with the tips of the index fingers touching the end of the nose and with the head slightly bowed
• If you wai a monk, bow your head and place your hands in front of your forehead
• If you wai a child, place the hands in front of your chest
I have had a few strange experiences with the wai and it took me several years to become entirely comfortable with it. When I first met both my wife and former girlfriend’s family for the first time, I was expecting being introduced and was all unsure about whether I should shake hands, wai or just smile and nod inanely. On both occasions, I was totally ignored so there was nothing to worry about. Both my escorts were more interested in chatting with their families than introducing the farang. However, after hovering uncomfortably in the background for a while, I decided to take the lead and stepped forward to wai the oldest looking people in the group. It was as if I had suddenly appeared out of thin air as they performed double-takes, before waiing back whilst mumbling something about farangs through their smiling teeth. If in doubt, wai old people. It never fails.
Probably the strangest episode I had with the wai was when my wife was giving birth to my son in St Louis Hospital. She ended up being taken into the operating theatre for a Caesarian section, and I had to wait outside. It was the early hours of the morning as I sat there alone on the 12th floor. From time to time, nurses would emerge from the lift and walk past me before disappearing through a side entrance door. Every single one of them would wai me as they went past. This was most irregular, but I dutifully waied them all back. Perhaps it’s because they know I am waiting for someone undergoing an operation, I thought, and they are paying me respect and good luck. After some time, I had to go outside for a cigarette. When I returned, I realized why all the nurses had been waiing me. Behind where I had been sitting there was a statue of the Virgin Mary and the nurses had actually been waiing that. Thais often wai temples or shrines, even Hindu or Christian ones. The nurses must have thought that I was some weird farang waiing back.