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How to 'Wai' as a Foreigner in Thailand (and What Not To Do)

How to ‘Wai’ as a Foreigner in Thailand (and What Not To Do)

The “wai” is a traditional Thai greeting done by pressing the palms together as if in prayer, raising the fingertips up to the nose, and bowing. Foreigners aren’t expected to initiate this greeting but are advised to return it.

Different situations and scenarios call for appropriate wait greetings, so we’ll look at what wai is, its history, how to properly do it, and the dos and don’ts when doing the wai.

How to ‘Wai’

The safest way for foreigners to do the wai in Thailand is to do what is called a “versatile” wai. This wai is done by placing one’s fingertips below the chin with the palms facing and touching each other. 

Then, while keeping the elbows tucked, slightly bow your head to the person you are greeting. 

This is the safest form of wai for foreigners or tourists but there are other types of wai that will be discussed later on in the article.

When to ‘Wai’

While the wai is generally used for greeting, Thais also do this act when saying goodbye, apologizing to someone, or even when expressing their gratitude. Locals will also do the wai when they pass anything related to the monarchy, shrines, and temples.

As such, foreigners may generally do the wai when they are greeting someone. Locals don’t expect these tourists to initiate doing the wai but Thais would certainly be delighted to see them return the greeting. 

In addition, the wai isn’t usually given to children as a simple nod and a smile will do. The types of wai afforded to certain groups of individuals will also depend on their age and their social status which we will get into later. 

History of the Thai Wai

The wai greeting which is so ingrained in Thai culture can be traced all the way back to the 12th century and is believed to have its roots in Buddhism. It is also believed to have originated similarly to Hinduism’s “namaste.”

Another possible explanation of the origins of the wai gesture is that it could have been used to indicate that a person comes in peace as the position of the hands shows that the person is not carrying any weapons.

Accompanying the wai gesture is the use of the word “Sawasdee” which roughly translates to either “hi” or “hello”. 

This verbal greeting was coined in the 1930s and was used as a general introduction to most government edicts, eventually making its way to the public for modern usage.

As such, it’s not surprising that as soon as young children are able to put their palms together, they are already taught this traditional Thai gesture by the family. After all, it is a deeply traditional and cultural gesture showing respect and regard for another person.

The Different Kinds of Wai

There are different kinds of Wai used for different occasions and based on the age or social standing of the person being treated. These are the monk wai, the respectful wai, and the peer-to-peer wai.

Foreigners and tourists are not expected to apply all of these different kinds of wai flawlessly. However, it would definitely make the locals feel more comfortable and even impressed if the proper wai form is used by a non-local. 

The Monk Wai

The Monk Wai

This is the highest form of wai and is usually afforded to monks and royalty. To do this kind of wai, press both palms facing each other as if in prayer, raise the palm up to the nose and the top-most end of the fingertips to the level of the forehead.

Next, make sure that both elbows are tucked before bowing one’s head into the thumbs. 

A variation of this gesture is to raise the pressed palms’ thumbs all the way up to the level of the forehead while bowing. 

Foreigners and tourists will observe locals doing the wai when they encounter monks and other people of high social standing. However, the said individuals may choose not to return the wai. 

The Respectful Wai

The Respectful Wai

The respectful wai, on the other hand, is used when greeting someone who is older and is of higher social standing. This kind of wai is especially used for the elderly.

To do this more respectful wai gesture, press the palms of the hand together and bring the fingertips up to the nose instead of up to the forehead. 

Foreigners and non-locals are not expected to regularly perform the respectful wai as they may not be familiar with the social status of everyone in the area. However, someone who is obviously older or the elderly should ideally be greeted using this wai.  

The Peer-to-Peer Wai

The Peer-to-Peer Wai

The wai is not just a greeting or a sign of respect but is also meant to show that an individual is regarded as an equal human being. This is where the Peer-to-Peer Wai comes in and is generally used for those within the same social standing. 

To do the peer-to-peer version of this gesture, clasp both palms together as if praying, then slowly bring the fingertips up to the chin, while ensuring that both elbows are tucked to the sides.

Aside from equals, this peer-to-peer wai which is also referred to as the “versatile wai” should also be used for individuals one has never met or encountered before.

The Do’s and Don’ts of the “Wai” as a Foreigner in Thailand

Thailand is a wonderful place to visit as a foreigner or as a tourist. Below are some do’s and don’ts of the Wai for foreigners to ensure a smoother and more pleasurable experience.


  • As mentioned earlier, there is no need for foreigners to initiate a wai. However, not returning a wai when the gesture is given to them is considered extremely rude. 

If you are a foreigner and unsure of what to do, a versatile wai, followed by a nod and a smile will do. After all, locals will already appreciate the effort and will not judge a foreigner for not knowing the exact nuances of the wai.

  • Doing the wai while holding something in your hands is perfectly fine as long as you can still do the gesture without any problems. Things like phones, car keys, or other small items still allow individuals to do a versatile wai.

However, if someone gives you the wai and your hands are indisposed due to holding numerous or large items, then a simple bow and smile are acceptable.

  • If a wai is not given to you by someone, then it’s safe to just offer a handshake for men. For women, it is advisable to just smile and give a small nod.
  • Aside from “hello” or “hi” a wai can be used to say goodbye, thank you, and even “I’m sorry”.


  • A wai should never be used on children or on anyone significantly younger. Children who gave you the wai can simply be smiled at and nodded to.

In addition, don’t be surprised if children regularly greet you with wais as Thais teach their kids to initiate the wai when they meet someone older.

  • There is no need to wai individuals in the service industry, laborers, or street vendors. A simple smile and nod to acknowledge them would do just fine.

Some of the said individuals, though, could be elderly, so it’s really up to you if you will still give them the wai based on this scenario.

  • Lastly, there is no need to overuse the wai. Doing so may actually make one look awkward and significantly reduce the value of the gesture.
Do’s Don’ts
Return a waiUse the wai on children
Do the wai even if you are carrying small itemsUse the wai on people in the service industry, laborers, or street vendors
Offer a handshake to men and a nod to women if a wai is not offeredOveruse the wai
Use the wai to say hi, thank you, goodbye, and I am sorry

What is the significance of the wai?

The wai has a  great cultural and traditional significance in Thailand. While one can say that it is the national or official greeting of Thais, it also signifies a couple of important things.

First, it can be compared or considered equivalent to the western wave or a handshake. This is the ultimate form of greeting and courtesy to people who are meeting for the first time and for people who are waving goodbye.

The respectful and the monk wai are also an indicator of seniority or status. This gesture is usually given by subordinates to a person who has a higher rank or social status based on their age and community standing.

Lastly, the versatile wai is used to denote general respect and courtesy to individuals with equal status or standing. 

This kind of wai basically shows that the person giving the wai acknowledges that the person he or she is greeting is an equal human being.

Are foreigners in Thailand expected to wai?

Foreigners are not expected to initiate the wai but they are supposed to return the gesture when a local gives them one. This is because failure to respond or return the wai can be seen as offensive or rude.

In addition, foreigners are also advised not to overuse the wai. It is much more ideal for foreigners and tourists to use the wai only when appropriate and when one receives it to avoid looking awkward.

What should foreigners do to avoid being rude in Thailand?

To avoid being considered rude in Thailand, foreigners should do the following things:

  • Returning a wai
  • Avoid throwing things at someone
  • Disrespect the monarchy
  • Lose their cool
  • Touch people’s heads
  • Point with their feet
  • Remove shoes when entering a temple or Thai homes

It is considered extremely rude to throw things at someone such as money. When paying for something, it is best to unfold bills before properly handing payment using one’s right hand.

Respecting the monarchy may seem like a no-brainer but in Thailand, foreigners are advised to be extra careful. Thai laws can actually land you in jail if you disrespect the monarchy.

Thailand is known as the land of smiles so losing one’s cool by shouting or aggressively arguing with someone is a big no-no in this country. 

The head is considered a revered or special part of the body for Thais. As such, even playfully touching the hair on the heads of kids is frowned upon.

Pointing at something or someone is considered rude across the globe and this applies to Thailand as well. Instead of pointing and being perceived as rude, use an open hand when referring to someone or something.

The feet are considered by Thais as the body’s dirtiest part so it’s natural for Thai people to get offended if you use your feet to point at them. It is also best not to expose your feet to other people when in Thailand.

Lastly, one is expected to remove their shoes (while keeping their socks on) when entering a temple or another person’s home. However, most restaurants and shops won’t require the removal of customers’ shoes. 

Is giving the thumbs-up gesture in Thailand rude? 

Giving the thumbs-up gesture is considered rude in Thailand as it is equivalent to giving them the middle finger. While younger Thais may understand the thumbs-up as “okay” or “I’m good”, doing so to older and more traditional Thais is considered offensive.

Interestingly, foreigners may notice that children can exchange these thumbs-up gestures during petty arguments. Keep in mind that they would do this to further annoy and childishly insult one another

So Instead of doing the thumbs-up gesture, foreigners can simply do the wai, nod, or smile if they want to show that they are pleased or if they want to acknowledge someone or something. Doing this will ensure that they avoid offending the locals.

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