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Your cultural compass for travelling abroad: 3 tips on how to observe travel etiquette


Travelling abroad holds the promise of adventure, and some think of travelling as an opportunity to relax, explore, celebrate and live lavishly. For others, travelling is as much about these benefits as it is about learning. Being immersed in an unfamiliar culture, belief system and way of life can be immensely rewarding. The key to making the most out of these kinds of experiences is to practice cultural etiquette.

South Africans in particular, as members of one of the most diverse societies in the world, will attest to great joys of experiencing different cultures, traditions and rituals. Living life to the fullest as part of The Rainbow Nation means being open-minded, willing to learn and able to see the beauty that lies within each person’s uniqueness. The same applies while travelling. Principles like respect, cooperation and honesty can go a long way in turning an overseas trip into a truly transformative experience.

Offering his perspective on the topic of cultural appreciation and travel etiquette is Chaiwat Tamthai, Director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Dubai for the Middle East and Africa, who says that: “one of the things that South Africans enjoy most about visiting Thailand is the country’s rich cultural history. Every year, thousands of South Africans visit sites like the Wat Phra Mahathat and Wat Phra That Phanom temples not only for their grandeur and historical value but also because they are great symbols of spiritual devotion and national identity.

And while Thai people may speak a different language, dress differently, and have different lifestyles to foreigners like South Africans, simple gestures of respect can go a long way in bridging the language and cultural gap. When we meet each other halfway, we open up the potential to learn from each other, share our experiences and be inspired. This is one of the most valuable advantages of travelling abroad.”

For travellers looking to visit Thailand or other foreign countries, Tamthai has the following 3 tips on how to uphold good etiquette while travelling:

Keep it tidy, watch your tone

Cultures vary in terms of acceptable speaking volumes and tones. In some cultures, speaking softly and calmly is valued, while in others, speaking with enthusiasm and animation is the norm. Pay attention to your tone and volume of voice to avoid unintentionally causing offense.

As Tamthai explains: “Thai people are loved all over the world for being polite and gracious in the way they relate to each other. In general, visitors should refrain from shouting or having loud, heated debates in public, which is frowned upon. With Thailand having earned a reputation for being The Land of Smiles, it’s more customary to say mai pen rai (‘no big deal/that’s okay’) when the bus you’re on breaks down than to start an argument.”

Be friendly, but have boundaries

In Western culture physical touch during conversation or a playful moment is not widely regarded as being inappropriate, but in other cultures it can be. In Thailand specifically, touching someone’s head or even ruffling a child’s hair can be seen as disrespectful.

“Thai people revere the head as being the most sacred part of the body, while the feet are thought of as being the lowest or most unclean body part. For this reason, it’s seen as a sign of disrespect to touch someone’s head, sit in a position where your feet are raised above someone’s head or to step over someone who is sitting or sleeping on the ground.

This is especially true of how you interact with elders and figures of authority and is something to be mindful of when attending traditional gatherings or visiting religious sites,” says Tamthai.

Be culturally curious

When travelling, embrace cultural differences with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Recognise that what may seem unusual or unfamiliar to you is simply part of the fabric of daily life for locals. Approach new experiences with curiosity and respect rather than judgment.

This is one of the fundamentals of travel etiquette – when unsure of what to do, feel free to ask rather than to respond or react without fully understanding the context of the situation.

As Tamthai advises: “before jetting off to a new destination, take the time to research the local culture, customs, and etiquette norms. Understanding basic greetings, gestures, and social taboos will help you navigate interactions with locals respectfully and make your trip truly enriching and meaningful.”

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