Notice as you’re coming into convenience stores and the attendants clasp their hands together at chest height and slightly bow their heads? Or maybe you’ve seen this at your hotel reception or perhaps at a restaurant or bar. It’s rather popular in Thailand so if you haven’t seen it already, you most certainly will.
We’ll try to unveil some of the myths and origins of this ancient form of greeting that is not only specific for Thailand.
The gesture was popularized in Buddhism as a means to show one’s respect for another. A number of ancient stone carvings have been found depicting a form of the Thai Wai. Some of these carvings date back to 4,000 B.C.E. Other Buddhist regions of the world have their own forms of the Thai Wai. In Laos, China, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Brunai, and regions of Indonesia, the gesture is commonly used as a form of greeting with varying degrees of respect and meaning.
In Thailand, the Wai also has different degrees of respect and use. Typical Wais are performed by clasping palms together at chest height with the fingers pointing upwards and then tilting and lowering the head forward slightly. The higher the hands are placed on one’s body is said to reflect the respect given to the person to whom the Wai is destined for – the higher the hands, the more respect. For example, if you are Waiing the receptionist at your hotel, chest height is appropriate. If you are at Tiger Cave Temple, then clasping your hands at your forehead would be more appropriate.
The Thai Wai has some particularities to remember.
- Never Wai someone who is younger than yourself unless you have been Wai’d first.
- If you are carrying goods and cannot return a Wai (from anyone) using one palm and showing an attempt is a sufficient response.
- When Wai’d by someone who is older that yourself, always Wai them back.
- Face an individual who has Wai’d you, and never ‘Wai on the run.’