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Thailand - Culture, Society and Religion
In Thai culture, greetings are important and the traditional greeting is known as the ‘Wai’. This is when both hands are raised and the palms joined. The fingers should point upwards as if you are about to pray and the hands should be in contact with the body in the chest area, although some people choose to make contact with the face. It is considered to be a sign of respect for the person you are greeting. The head should be inclined slightly to meet the thumbs. A person does not have to be standing to make this greeting. Those who are younger or junior in status should offer the wai first. A wai may not be returned if the recipient considers that the social divide is too wide.
There is a great deal of respect for hierarchy in Thailand and the concept of superiority is strong. Parents are considered to be superior to their children and it is this concept which is used to teach respect and it is common for a Thai person to try to fit you into their own hierarchy so they can determine how you should be treated. In order to do this they may ask personal questions, they are not doing this to be nosy, they are trying to work out where you stand in their hierarchy. They will also be assessing your clothes, job and family name. Family values remain a strong part of Thai culture and families there are very close, with the family hierarchy being the one that people encounter first.
Politeness, kind behaviour and self-control are expected in Thai society. Aggression is to be avoided as the Buddhist religion teaches that being openly angry can cause the spirits to turn angry, which can have dire consequences. It is also considered to be very rude to openly criticise another person. It is important to them to always look for a compromise in a difficult situation.
Religion plays a very important part in Thai society. The main religion in Thailand is Buddhism and more than 95% of the population are estimated to be practising Buddhists, but there is religious freedom and no pressure to commit to any belief system. Other religions which are practised in the country include Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. The government has a religious affairs department which oversees the maintenance of religious buildings of all faiths and funds religious education in schools.
The practice of Buddhism in Thailand dates back to the 3rd century BC and proved so popular that peoples from other countries who had migrated there were happy to take on this new faith instead of continuing with their original faith. Buddhist temples can normally be found on the edge of the village or town and are formed from several buildings. These temples are more than a place to worship, they have often served as hospitals, pharmacies, community centres and even hotels from time to time. Those that are in larger towns often give accommodation to students, orphans or those who are considered to be in need of moral guidance.
The second largest religion in the country is Islam. This is mainly found in southern areas such as Yala and Satun and is thought to have been in existence in Thailand since the 13th century. Many Muslims in the country have Malay heritage. Around 99% of the Muslims in the country are Sunni Muslims and the remaining 1% are Shi’ite. There is a Muslim state counsellor to advise on all Islamic issues.
Christianity did not come to Thailand until the 16th century and was brought by European missionaries. These were Catholics at first but others such as Protestants and Baptists arrived later. Christianity is very much a minority religion but they did bring the printing press and knowledge of English and Latin to the country.
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