Before we get into the whys and wherefores of waiing we need to understand the meaning of the word “farang”. In this and other diatribes with which I hope to inform and amuse you about the delights of Thailand, you will come across farang frequently.
If you’re Caucasian and not Oriental, then, in Thailand you’re farang. Thais, as with other natives in this part of the world, juxtapose the l and r when speaking, so farang becomes falang, lobster becomes robster and they have an awful problem saying library!
Its derivative is the Thai word for the French; farangset, and goes all the way back to the 17th century.
How to wai.
Place the palms of your hands together with fingertips touching as you might adopt in prayer. Now lift your hands so that the tips of your fingers touch the bridge of your nose.
Simple, you might agree. Then why do so many backpackers get it so wrong? I saw one young backpacker here in Ayutthaya with his hands compressed in the region of his navel with a grin on his face suggesting that he had reached nirvana. Not that the Thais mind at all. They laughed along with the rest of us, which is something important to remember about the Thais; they laugh with you, not at you.
Another mistake made by farang is to wai and bow at the same time. There’s no need to bow, although one sees Thais bowing occasionally it’s usually done to someone they consider to be greatly superior to themselves.
When to wai.
The when is considerably more complex than the why. I’ve seen farang waiing at every man and his dog! Complex it may be, but there are some rules.
Rule no.1: The younger always wais before the elder. In other words when you feel that it’s a proper time to wai consider, is this person younger than, or older than me? If he/she is younger you must wait for them to wai first. At the age of 64 I very rarely wai first and most Thais I meet for the first time feel that it’s not necessary to wai a farang.
Rule no.2: It’s not necessary to wai Thais who are offering a service. At the restaurant you will be welcomed with a wai. Don’t return it. If, however, at the end of your meal you consider the service to have been outstanding then you can return the wai as a mark of respect.
Rule no.3: With the exception of rule 2 above, you should always return a wai. Why? Imagine meeting someone in your own country, he proffers his hand to shake, and you ignore it. It would be considered an affront, as not returning a wai would be.
One can regularly see Thais waiing at Buddha images. It’s fundamental to Buddhism but it really is up to you whether you wish to wai or not. Should you choose to, then do it respectfully and try to remember that, where possible, you should not have your head above the Buddha. That’s one of the few things the Thais can get rather cross about.
Essentially just go with the flow. Thais are very laid back and they don’t expect farang to know Thai customs, but at those moments when you wai in the correct manner and at the right time the famous Thai smile will be witness to his or her delight.