The Way to Wai and Sawasdee in Thailand
EVERY CULTURE HAS ITS form of greeting, a way to introduce oneself or to pay formal respects to an elder. In most cases in the western world, the greeting is a handshake, although Russia, of course, drops its 'Iron Hand' when it comes to greetings when people kiss and hug each other warmly. This is probably due to the climate, a friendly embrace being necessary to keep each other warm during the introductions. The Eskimos rub noses as that is the only part of the anatomy that is not covered by layers of polar Bear Hide, while the Maori of New Zealand charge at their guest with spears while pulling faces - a show to frighten off those whose intentions are not genuine. However the act is so amusing that most people fall about laughing at the spectacle, thereby breaking the ice and making the introduction much more enjoyable. And so it goes around the world. In Thailand, the ceremony is far more complex because the traditional form of greeting is both formal and polite with the precise degree of respect conveyed in the expression.
Known as the "Wai", the greeting is actually both warm and charming, especially when accentuated with that magical smile that is so famous in this mystical land. In general, the Wai is performed by joining the hands at the palms and raising them to a position somewhere between the chest and forehead. One should be aware of the status of the person being 'wai-ed' for the exact position of holding the palms. Good friends would position the palms somewhere in the chest area because they are equals and know each other well. The opposite of that is when wai-ing Buddha images, when the palms, cupped in the shape of a lotus blossom would be brought all the way to the forehead while bowing the head. This can be done in a number of ways, standing for example, while walking past a Buddhist temple or from a kneeling position when in the temple. Kneeling is much more formal and comprises of three sets of wais, bowing the head all the way to the floor on each occasion. This form of paying respect is also used when wai-ing the deceased; standing while a procession passes, or kneeling if the deceased is laid out, however the wai would only be performed once.
Within the family, the wai is extreme to say the least. Young children wai their parents bringing the palms all the way to the forehead as a sign of respect and obedience. As they get older the wai will be come less extreme... but not by much. And of course, the parents do not return the wai. School is much like home, a place of learning and discipline, consequently children will wai their teachers as they wai their parents and same goes for employees when meeting their employer and the Thai of all ages and rank respectfully wai to monks. In all cases (the teacher, the employer and the monk) the wai will never be returned. In informal gatherings of equals, the wai will also be performed, everyone wai-ing each other but in a relatively casual way, the palms being positioned somewhere in the chest area. This is similar to western high society where ladies will greet each other with a peck on the cheek while the men either pat a shoulder or offer a brief handshake.
The wai is taken very seriously among the Thai that is, and from this brief description you will realize the awkwardness that will be suffered by a Thai who incorrectly wais. However as a visitor you will not offend any Thai when making a wai when meeting a Thai. The Thai are very pleased when visitors make the effort to participate in their traditions, be it performing a wai greeting, or quietly observing a ceremony in a temple. It is perfectly acceptable for foreigners to shake hands when greeting the Thai as well. A nod of the head in a slight bow is also an acceptable response to a wai from, say a waiter or the doorman at the hotel.
Of course, if you are Russian, then you may try a couple of kisses on the cheek and you will probably get away with it, but go easy on the hug. The Thai are generally smaller than the average Westerner. Likewise, the Eskimos among you could risk a quick rub of noses but again, the Thai nose is generally smaller and you could get so close before touching that it would become a kiss. And of course it is possible that a Maori warrior could not get a visa because he would truly frighten the Thai consul as the Thai are extremely wary of things that resemble 'pii' (ghosts and demons).
Oh yes, I nearly forgot ... The Wai means "Hello" but it also means "Goodbye"