The wai is an important gesture in Thailand culture. Thai people use the wai to greet one another, to pray, and show respect. The wai may be included with a thank you. It is even performed when apologizing. This aspect of Thailand culture is displayed in all of the aforementioned situations. In addition, the position of the wai relative to the body has different meanings as well.
First, let’s talk about form. Touch hands together at the chest level. You then place the hands and fingers together in symmetry. Elbows should be close to the sides of the body as opposed to out and away in the air. This is the standard form. You may raise the wai to the nose level to show a bit more respect. Next, you raise it even higher to the eyebrow level to show respect to elders or people of high social standing. Meanwhile, you lift the fingers all the way to the hairline if performing in regards to monks or royalty.
The wai is perhaps most used as a greeting and coupled with the words ‘sawatdee ka’ or ‘sawatdee krup’. Females speak the word Ka while males say Krup. Thai people use these as expressions of politeness. As previously mentioned, position of the hands is important. Thai people do not not use it with all greetings. For instance, you would not return the action of workers serving you. These people are doing their job. Examples would be restaurant servers, street vendors, and 7-11 clerks. Importantly, foreigners should never perform a wai with children, as reasons exist why this is reserved for family.
Social status plays a large role in properly using the wai. However, as a tourist there will be some tolerance. Thai people understand it is not an aspect of all cultures. They will generally accept the standard wai of tourists albeit maybe with a laugh to their selves. Yet, I highly recommend learning proper use if staying an extended period of time in the country. Those with Thai spouses will also want to explore this part of the culture more deeply. Buddhist tourists exploring temples and interacting with monks should learn the proper use too.
For those digging in more about the culture, the Thai may use the expression in situations of thanks. In this situation it couples with the words ‘kob khun ka’ or ‘kob khun krup’. These are the Thai language expressions for ‘Thank you’ from a female and male speaker, respectively. Again, do not wai when thanking workers. Position of the hands plays a factor as always. The above also holds true when apologizing and when saying goodbye. The Thai use the same words sawatdee ka, or krup, for goodbyes.
Thai people also wai for religious reasons. You can use it towards a monk, but a monk will never return the greeting with you as they only wai with other monks. Remember to use the highest position of the form. Men will also bow the upper half of the body. Women will do the same, but in addition will slightly bend the knees. Taller persons need pay attention that when doing so that they remain lower than height of the monk. Understand that bowing to a monk is not about respecting the individual monk, but the entire community of Buddhist monks known as the ‘Sangha’. Thai people use the wai when praying too. Buddhists perform the wai three times, with the hands coming down to touch the ground after each one. Once is for Buddha, the second for his teachings (Dharma), and the third for the Sangha.
There is more to the wai than what appears at first glance. Thai people use the gesture in different scenarios. Sometimes people reciprocate and sometimes not. There are even different positions relative to the body for the gesture. Whether greeting, thanking, departing, or praying, a proper wai is essential in Thai culture. For a foreigner to know all of this and do it properly will surely impress Thai people. Now you know why the wai is such an important element of Thailand. Sawatdee krup!