Tuesday, October 02, 2007


The "WAI" is the Thai customary greeting and show of respect, indicated by pressing your palms together near your chest and bowing. The wai is a unique, graceful action practiced throughout Thailand. It plays a very important part in showing respect and is central to Thai etiquette.


1. As a foreigner, you will show and receive respect by following this customary greeting, although many Thais will also (somewhat reluctantly) accept a handshake from you.

2. For the most part Thais do not want to touch your sweaty, grubby little hands, so it's a good idea to learn how to wai. The European kiss-on-each-cheek-greeting will certainly alarm a Thai, especially if you are a man doing this to a woman who isn't your wife or girlfriend!

3. The wai can be very confusing for a foreigner, especially at large gatherings when you feel like you have been waiing, bowing and smiling a hundred times. However, the plus side is, when being wai-ed to by others you do start to feel quite important!

4. When being wai-ed to, you would be considered impolite if you didn't return or at least acknowledge the wai - something especially difficult to do when you are carrying a lot of bags or in the middle of stuffing your face when someone sneaks up on you. At the very least, you can grunt and nod. Only monks and royalty do not need to return a wai.

WHEN TO WAI -- As well as being a greeting, a wai is a show of respect.

1. You will wai when receiving a gift from a superior, as a sign of thanks. Wai first before you reach for the gift (and never ever open it in front of them!).

2. While listening to a Buddhist sermon, it is also customary to hold a wai during the entire programme.

3. It can be difficult to determine when you should wai or when someone should wai you. As a foreigner, it's just easiest to wai important people as soon as possible. If someone is going to wai you first, they probably already beat you to it.

4. The person of higher social status will be wai-ed to. You have only a few seconds to size up someone you meet and determine this but if you are unsure, I advise that you wai first to be on the safer side.

WHEN NOT TO WAI -- One easy determination is age.

1. Don’t wai the kids!

2. If someone is older than you, then you should wai them unless they are someone whom you employ, such as a housekeeper.

3. Never wai to anyone who you are paying for service, such as waiters, tailors, vendors, shopkeepers or taxi drivers. It could be misinterpreted as mocking or embarrassing them.

4. You also wouldn't wai your peers and friends. Alternatively, when leaving a party or other such gathering, you should wai everyone, as this is the polite way to excuse yourself from the festivities.

KINDS OF WAI’S - If all that wasn't confusing enough, there are different kinds of wais!

1. The normal wai is with your hands pressed together at about chest level, presenting a slight bow with your body.

2. The wai to a superior is with the tips of your fingers at nose level, still bowing with your body.

3. To convey the most respect and gratitude, you will wai with your fingertips at mouth level and present a deeper and longer bow.

The wai is a delicate, graceful gesture when performed by Thais. It may look somewhat more awkward and downright funny when you do it, but the attempt will still be most appreciated. It might take you some time to perfect your technique, but this charming greeting will become second-nature in no time!

-- From One Stop Chiang Mai website.

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eyron said...

for the military it is salute, for us filipinos it is 'mano'

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Anonymous said...

Interesting post, P' Pisanu. I just can't agree more that this is one of the unique Southeast Asian traits! We, Cambodians, Laos, Thais and Burmese, share the same form of greeting.

Just to share with everyone. Wai is known as "សំពះ" (Sampiah) in Khmer, and there are a lot of rules for it -- many of which have been mentioned here. For us, how high you put your hands when sampeah-ing signifies a lot about the amount of respect you have for the other person(s); i.e. there are different ways of doing it when you are in front of the King, monks or an elder. :)

John Halcyon von Rothschild said...

Is there a special wai if you were to meet Thai Royalty?

I remember when a Japanese investor visited us. My boss said we should bow, but I thought that since he was on US territory, he would do the customary handshake. I was right. But when my boss visited them in Japan, she had to bow.

Now when I see friends from Europe, we do the kiss each cheek twice. My Uncle does the same to all of us (He's French)

Filipinos only do the "mano" to older relatives. A handshake is more appropriate. As far as I know...

Andrea Preda said...

THIS IS SO INFURIATING! I was clicking some of your blog links and there's this blog who is outright copying BI.SEAN's ideas! The nerve! That stupid blog even have the "post the flowers individually" all over the month. That has been done here months ago!


HELLO! Can't he think of something else? And have to rob other blog's hard-worked research?

Take his link off your blog! THE NERVE! BE ORIGINAL!

Pisanu for BISEAN said...

@ Monkol, John & Eyron...yeah we got separate posts for those! =)

@ Andrea...REALLY? Let me check later. But I guess everybody knows we are the original. We even had an offer from the ASEAN Secretariat to offically blog for them but the stipulations are not agreeable. Thanks for the info.

재미 said...

Woah. I dont know how you can remember all the different sortsa wais. I mean, i can never commit to memory all the 'inauspicious' things I'm supposed to say or do.

diwata said...

Could you please explain that you cannot wai to someone that is younger to you? Is that true? And why?

Erick Lau said...

I love how the Thais do this. So graceful, so lovely.

Sanne Dee said...

Wai-ing is such a respectful gesture that honours respect. I WAI you.

Pisanu for BISEAN said...

@ Manami...just keep wai-ing and you'll get the geest of it.

@ Diwata...yes, it's customary. And because children are under you.

@ Sanne...awww...and I wai back. Did you curtsy? Girls are suppose to cursy when doing the wai. =) It's cuter.

MischMensch said...

Coolness~ I wai to all the BiSeaners

Erique Fat Owl said...

I absolutely agree that when the Thais wai, they look graceful and beautiful, but when I do it, I look stupid! I don't understand why! It looks simple, but actually, it's really hard to replicate.

After numerous visits to Thailand and practicing in front of the mirror rigorously, I think I have succeeded in doing a correct Wai.

Speaking of Wai, I think that the wai should be the universal greeting gesture of southeast asia. I mean, Indonesia also have a hand-gesture similar to the Wai, but we bend our knees a bit instead of bowing. That matter aside, the gesture is hardly seen in modern society (where handshake is more accepted). In fact, only politicians, heads of state, and Miss Universe/World/whatever contestants use the gesture.

Ayim Salleh said...

Interesting content... For us Malaysian the wai is known as sembah... basically use only when we are in front of our king.. it is similar to what you mention accept our way is a bit higher... you put the hand up to your nose or forehead (depending in which states that you live).. it is the symbol of respect to the king or sultan (of the state) and the His Majesty Yang Di-Pertuan Agong...

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