12 Thai Traits Every Teacher Should Know

by Andrew Bond

Thailand is a popular destination for teaching jobs abroad, because it seems like such an easy fit, with easy-going hosts. But behind the cliché’d Thai smile are some important traits which every resident foreigner learns to work around.

Monks praying in a Thai temple.
Monks praying in a Thai temple. Photo by Troy Peden

12. Deceptive Smiles 

Thais have a smile for all occasions, a friendly smile, a disapproving smile, an insulted smile. Don’t be fooled, they may be tolerant and patient, but you should become perceptive to their unspoken feelings; they will seldom make them clear. 

11. Respect

It starts at the top with their beloved King and percolates down in a complex hierarchy of status and seniority. Elders, monks, and teachers are afforded particular respect, and you should always defer to those older than you. The Royal family are held in highest esteem and showing them disrespect could land you in jail. There are other cultural differences that may seem extreme, but there are many resources to help anyone who decides to teach in Thailand.

10. Why Wai

Central to the decorum of respect and politeness is to wai those older, or far more important, than you. It takes some practicing and foreigners are excused, but learning this graceful prayer-like gesture and its degrees of respect will certainly earn you brownie points. The junior always initiates the wai, and it's then reciprocated.

9. Cool Hearted

This is probably the single biggest trait that makes Thailand such a relaxed social place. Thais seldom lose their cool in public or show impatience. It’s ugly and the ultimate loss of face. To get hot-headed or show arrogance is reserved for foreigners and tourists, but that doesn't mean you should be one of them.

8. Mai Pen Rai 

It means never mind, but it can also mean: that one no have today; I forgive you, you forgive me, right?; sorry I’m two hours late; I crashed your motorbike; you broke my iPad; and many more. Thais are easy-going and forgiving, and they will expect the same from you if you decide to teach English in Thailand.

7. Fun Fun Fun!

That is the mantra for most Thais, be it in the classroom, workplace, or after hours. If it’s not fun, they lose interest; a clown of a teacher is quite acceptable in Thailand if they are able to engage the kids. Thais would sooner eat, travel, socialise, study, and exercise together than hibernate alone with a book; they’re social and communal and will expect you to join in.

Boats, Thailand

6. Patience 

Patience is certainly an important virtue in Thailand; nothing happens in a hurry. People drive their cars badly, bureaucrats make you grow old wrapped in red tape, and errands might take two or three visits to complete. The locals shrug it off and get back to their Facebook app while they wait. On that note, expect a free-for-all on mobile phone etiquette. 

5. Presentation Counts 

Whether it’s a well groomed set of toenails, smart uniform, Christmas tree in the lobby, neat parting on your CV photo, or hand writing on the blackboard, it will be noticed. Look your best always and you’ll gain respect. Tips for teaching job interviews in Thailand will make sure you nail the appearance portion and get off to a great start. 

4. Piously Buddhist 

This is how the entire nation goes about business, Buddhas are wai’d in passing, cars need blessings by monks, ceremonies frequently stop the traffic, superstition reigns supreme, and the clergy are given priority ... ALWAYS. Curiously, when the merit is made, they go back to a cut-throat routine of bribery and infidelity. Bad karma can be remedied with future offerings to the spirits. 

3. Head & Toes

This is a popular classroom song, but there’s more to it; never touch a Thai’s head, and never point with your toes – feet are metaphorically low and dirty. Shoes are items that are always left at the door of the house, and that includes your classroom.

2. Logic 

This is a subjective Western notion based on a completely different set of values and priorities. In the Orient you’re advised to simply yield and go with the flow, you’ll never make sense of it. Thais are not known for their critical thinking ability unfortunately, but they’re good at being practical and working around problems, as you will come to notice while teaching in Thailand.

1. Business Ethics 

They are somewhat fluid. If there’s money to be made, corners might be cut, ideas copied, teachers switched at the last minute, and tax receipts fudged. It’s all part a super competitive 21st Century Asia. Take the time to get accustomed to the way deals are done. The law is a flexible and financial arrangement. 

Wat Pho, Bangkok

Accept Tradition & Love Every Minute

Thailand is quite literally “the land of the free,” it’s a beguiling and magical place, warts and all. Most foreigners who decide to teach English in Thailand deal with it in a love-hate manner, exasperated one day, enchanted the next. Periodically it experiences political flare-ups that bring out all the contradictions in its people, precisely because problems are routinely swept under the carpet. 

The best way to deal with it, is to look on bemused, nothing is more tiresome to Thais than a complaining foreigner trying to change the world or expecting improvement. Offering suggestions or corrections ought to be done in a subtle and passive manner. Thailand is peopled by a proud nation who have achieved a great deal, both past and present. After all, there is more than 700 years of history that has formed the present Siamese character, and some of it is rooted deeply in tradition. It’s all part of the experience and what makes teaching in Thailand unique.

Editor's Note: The team at GoAbroad.com would like to inform our readers that the author of this wonderful piece has tragically passed away. We send our thoughts to his friends and family and know that he touched many lives while in Thailand and beyond. He will always be an inspiration!