Thai Culture and the practice of “Wai”.
One of the things about our Thai culture that I know can seem confusing to many Westerners (Farang) when they spend some time in Thailand is our practice of “Wai”. Just in case you are not sure what this is it is when we put our hands together in what you would call a prayer position and seem to pray to any Temple, Buddha statue or even buildings. It is also what we use to say “Sawasdee” or Hello. I hear many Farang ask “Why does my Thai Girlfriend” do this all the time so I will try to explain “Why we Wai” all the time. First though I would ask that you try not to compare our various cultures to your Western concepts of religion. To us although this may seem like a religious practice it really has nothing to do with religion or God. Also please understand I don’y say that our culture is any better or there is any right or wrong, I just want to give you a Thai perspective that you will hopefully understand better our culture.
Really I think we could say that the practice of “Wai” in our culture is a mixture of Cultural habit or tradition, Social conditioning and some Thai National doctrines as well as Buddhism, which of course is not so much of a religion as more of a philosophy or a way of living and being. You may well have noticed that Thai people from all walks of life will stop and ‘wai’ at various places such as any statues or figures of Buddha, Temples with Buddha, other types of shrines, pictures and anything to do with the Thai King and also previous Thai Kings and a few other places as well. Sometimes we may stop and kneel and seem to say a small prayer and other times we will simply “wai” in passing. When we are more serious about ‘wai’ I am sure you have all seen us burning incense sticks and presenting all types of gifts and flowers at various shrines and Temples and other Holy Places as well as the simple small shrines you can see almost everywhere on the streets of Thailand.
So let me try to explain a few things for you here about this Thai Culture
The practice of “wai” is more often to do with showing respect than it is praying to anything in particular and it is also done through more concern of what will happen if we don’t. This is not to be confused with the traditional Western view of a “God” or some other Holy being that will punish you if you do not pray or do good things. In Thai culture we believe that by showing respect to such things that we cannot see but believe to be there, such as spirits, then we can avoid any bad thing happening to us like an accident or some sort of misfortune.
The truth is that much of this is almost socially and culturally habitual and works almost like the 100 monkey effect rather than a strict doctrine or rule of being Thai. If you ask many Thai people how they know to do this they will simply say “I don’t know, we just do”. Although some of this is taught in Thai schools it really is just something we do as Thai people.
This is why I say there is a mixture of reasons behind it all..
“Faith and Belief are sometimes taken automatically from our culture without question”
Let me show you something….an example that might make it clear for you….
Imagine there is a very old tree, let’s say well over 100 years old in a park. ..I could go and buy 3 silk colored scarves pink, yellow and green to respect the tree with and carefully tie them around the tree trunk. Then I could ‘wai’ with 9 incense sticks placed into the ground under the tree and also some ” pung ma lai ” ( Garland) because these are symbols that have meaning in Thai culture. That’s it… finished and I just leave everything there with the tree. ……..Do you know what would happen?…….. Thai people passing who see this will begin to ‘wai’ as they pass and some will also kneel and ‘wai’ to the tree , even though they don’t know the story of that tree it’s because they see and know the meaning of symbols. Eventually this tree will become a regular place to ‘wai’ and bare gifts to because the belief will grow that there is something Holy about this tree as more symbols are placed there and so rather than pass it without any concern Thai people will ‘wai’ as a sign of respect”……… Even I would do the same.
I know it may seem a little strange to Farang but that is the belief system we have in our Thai culture. This is why you may see some shrines at the front of houses or in the corners of buildings. they may just be to honor deceased people and so everyone passing will ‘wai’ even if only for a quick second. You can see that it is almost automatic.
To put it into a Western perspective you could say that Thai Culture is quite Superstitious.
Now something to consider here is that it doesn’t take only good Thai people to do this. It is not exclusive to good people, Buddhists or anything like that. A criminal who has just killed someone is just as likely to stop and ‘wai’ at some shrine as is a person of good. Thai TV and film also have humor about this when sometimes they show criminals trying to escape from police running down backstreets but stopping to ‘wai’ when they pass a statue of Buddha.
It is for this reason that I know some Farang men get confused if they have become embroiled with Thai bar girls or Thai girls who have cheated them because they can’t separate the western view of people who practice religion as only being good from the Thai culture of ‘wai’. So they think if their Thai girlfriend ‘wai’ all the time then surely she must be a good person and would not cheat them. But as you can see this is not the case and some can ‘wai’ and then quite easily cheat you for money the next moment.
Thai Culture, Wai, The Buddhist way and Monks
Something I have not really mentioned here is “Thai Monks”. There are 2 very real doctrines that Thai Culture does impose and one is that we must always show respect to Thai Kings and the other is the respect we show to Monks.
Of course the practice of being a monk comes from Buddhism and Buddha and being a Thai monk is more of a religious practice because they must follow quite strict way of life as laid down by the doctrines of Buddism. Because of this Thai people will always show respect in many ways to Monks similar in the way that Western people might show respect to a priest.