Travelers: Be a Gracious Guest, Not a Pest
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Be forewarned, I’m going on a rant on this Mindful Monday.  (Okay fine, I’ll stop with the speaking in the third person thing…)

At the Sunday night market, we witnessed a case of cultural disrespect that was just one-act too many for me.  To us, traveling in another country (or any place outside your own home for that matter) comes with great responsibility.  We are GUESTS, and as such, need to act in a respectful manner toward the people in our host country.  You are not just a tourist, going to have a smashing good time, but you are also a diplomat of the country listed on the cover of the passport you are holding.

I’m not really into preachy “How to behave …” type posts, but tonight I’m making an exception.  I made a list of things one should or should not do, based on what I’ve learned here in Chiang Mai:


  • Stand up.  Here in Thailand, to our knowledge, many public places will broadcast the national anthem at 8am and 6pm, and the appropriate thing to do is to follow what the Thais do:  Stand up, be silent, be respectful.  Once the anthem ends, then go about your business.  We witnessed many a tourist, who, despite seeing everyone standing still, continue walking, talking, or even eating!  One couple tonight was sitting down, chowing down, even though it was quite obvious everyone around them was standing for the anthem..  Hey, I’m not asking you to be a Thai loyalist.  It’s not about politics, it’s about being polite.  I’ve attended Christian weddings, Catholic Masses, and Buddhist ceremonies.  I went through the appropriate motions in each occasion.  Being a conformist here isn’t a bad thing.  You’re being polite in someone else’s home.  In addition, the answer is “Yes” to the question, “Should I stand when they play the King’s song in the movie theater?”
  • Wear a shirt.  Is that too much to ask?  I’ve seen too many touristy dudes and expats here who walk around completely shirtless.  Hey, FYI guys, Chiang Mai is not a beach town, nor is it Khao San Road, where that might be normal.  This week we witnessed this dude strut around Chiang Mai gate like he was the second coming.  If his biceps weren’t the size of my legs, I would have said something to his face.  Instead, I’m writing about him from the safety of our blog.  Want a starter for appropriate attire?  “A” wrote up a great summary of Do’s and Don’ts when visiting Buddhist Temples. Yeah, the weather is mild here, but you’re not in Miami Beach, Venice Beach, or any ‘beach’ for that matter.  The wonderful moat surrounding the old city is not an excuse to go topless, okay?  There’s an appropriate place for that (lack of) attire, and it isn’t here…it just makes you look narcissistic (which you are, shirtless dude) and oblivious to the local norms.
  • Drive like a local.  You might assume by watching Thai traffic from afar that it’s “Anything goes!”  However, once you ride around consistently, you’ll see there is an order to the madness.   I ride daily (I’ve come a long way since this post), and I see the vast majority of motorbike riders and vehicles use their turn signals.  Nearly all pass you on the right side, and rarely will anyone honk at you out of spite, but to warn you that they are behind you.  Thais are very patient, even when you clog up the left lane near a traffic light where motorbikes can take a left.  No one will honk at you.  I’ve seen many foreigners (usually in packs) who zoom around traffic like others are standing still.  Is that how you act in someone’s home?  You’re not six, so grow up and drive and ride responsibly, will you?  The streets aren’t a playground for you to run amok, so tone it down and be safe.  Oh, and put on the helmet, even if the many of the locals don’t.
  • This seems to go without saying, but don’t get offended when a Thai person doesn’t speak English.  Wake up and smell the Thai coffee (while we’re on the topic, we recommend Akha Ama Coffee.  Go say Hi to Lee and Jenny!)!  I recommend that each time you’re frustrated by a person’s lack of English skills, think about how much Thai you know… Yeah, it should go without saying, but we still see the impatient tourists giving Thais the dirty look.

  • The “Smoothie Lady” has a name, and it isn’t “Smoothie Lady.” People have names.  I’m issuing a challenge to travelers, and our Team Chiang Mai friends, including yours truly, to start addressing the Thai people that we’ve grown to love and admire by their actual NAMES, not by cute nicknames, like the “Samosa Lady,” “Smoothie Lady,” “Soup Guy,” “Potato Lady,” or “My maid” and so on.  Those of us who have stayed in Chiang Mai for more than a few weeks really have a responsibility to be, again, respectful to our hosts, and the first step would be to know their names.  I am totally guilty of this, and rationalized it as using terms of endearment, but really these nicknames are dehumanizing at some level, especially to someone who is older.  Hey, we can’t know all the merchants’ names, but for those we’ve made a connection with, we should try.  We’ve run into several of the friendly Thais outside of their work context, and seems silly to think of them as the “Smoothie Lady” when standing next to them in seven-eleven.

You get the drift… I can’t list every single ‘rule’ of good behavior, but as long as you are mindful that you’re someone’s guest, you’re probably doing well wherever you go.  Try to leave a positive impression in the places you visit.  That’s what we try to do.

By the way, our friend (at Chiang Mai gate area) Smoothie Lady’s name is Ms. Pha.  That’s a first step…

Cheers!

We Say NO to the Status Quo.

Live Green.  Live Small.  Give Large. Take Little.

Take Notice.  Take Action


Comments

Travelers: Be a Gracious Guest, Not a Pest — 37 Comments

  1. I completely agree with you on all of these points, but the one that really hits home right now is #4. When I was at Bangkok airport this weekend, waiting in line at an internet cafe to print out a document, a young American couple in front of me was treating the women at the printing counter horrendously, simply because she didn’t understand English! There was a problem with the computer, and the American guy would just yell tech instructions in English at the counter worker (um yeah guy, tech speak doesn’t transcend *all* communication boundaries!). When she (understandably, in my opinion) smiled politely, ignored him and went about trying to fix the issue, he would say things like, “I’m talking to you! You need to look at me when I’m talking to you!”

    Ugh, the whole scene was just so outrageously rude, I couldn’t even bear it. I could have (and probably should have) said something…next time I will!

    • Hey Paddy, thanks for dropping by! It was cathartic to write the post, and I’m glad it’s “out there” now. Yes, people can be so rude, and just aren’t aware, or don’t care, about how they come across…

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  3. “rarely will anyone honk at you out of spite, but to warn you that they are behind you.”
    – That’s a TREMENDOUS cultural shift from Houston streets and traffic… where the horn may as well be called the “Angry Button” (in contrast to the Easy Button).

    “don’t get offended when a Thai person doesn’t speak English”
    – The ethnocentric perspective of many Americans has always surprised me; I believe it borders on racism when folks here seem irritated or upset by simply hearing Spanish or other languages spoken in informal settings. Traveling? It certainly shouldn’t be expected. Two things. One, I’ve always asked non-native English speakers – particularly students in my class – to not apologize to me for their English… at least not until I start speaking their language even semi-fluently. Second, “What do you call someone traveling internationally that speaks only one language?” — An American Tourist. I know there are ethnocentric cultures globally, but I’ve always been amazed and concerned by the ethnocentrism my culture seems to exhibit.

    Shameful.

    -cmd

    • Hey Duke, I’m not sure if Americans are MORE prone to ethnocentrism than others, but perhaps it feels that way since we are Americans, and will thus notice more acts of Americans acting this way. People can travel, and still be insulated, if they only stay in hotels and see the main tourist attractions, and literally sight-see and not engaging with anyone locally. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but they won’t get the ‘benefit’ of learning and expanding their cultural horizons…

      • Well, I’m not American, I’m from Romania and, without meaning any disrespect, I’ve noticed a tendency of North American (meaning US) people to ignore details related to how things are done in differnet countries. Let me give you an example: I watch an American consultant at dinner in a restaurant in Bucharest and saw he never looked around to see if there were special eating customs – for instance, diffrently from the States we never put the bread in the plate to cut it with a knife and fork. It was not a big deal because he did not do anything offending but I saw a Chinese guest, under the same circumstances, looking discretly and very carefully at the people around him to see how they were behaving. The attitude was very different. I’m not saying all US people are like that and other peoples are not rude or disrespectful, just that the US people look more like kids in these cases.

    • “What do you call someone traveling internationally that speaks only one language?” — An American Tourist.

      CMD, I’m really hoping this is a joke…

      Do you truly believe that all international travelers from every country (besides America) know a second language? Are you out of your mind!?

      While I agree that a majority of Americans are seriously lacking in the foreign language department, I know for a fact that many Australians, New Zealanders, Irish, English, Spanish, and every other traveler you see on the road have yet to learn a second language either. Do yourself a favor and don’t assume that Americans are the only international travelers that know one language because that’s far from the truth. Next time your on the road put your ignorance aside and open your eyes and ears. If you happen to see an Australian, New Zealander, Canadian, or Brit be sure to ask them if they know a second language. I’m sure you’ll be very surprised with the results.

      Is it “shameful” that Americans don’t know a second language? I wouldn’t go that far as to call it shameful. If anything your comment is shameful!

      • You’re absolutely right; actually the travelers that know a second language are those whose mother tongue is not an international (or largely spread) language. It’s not just a US case. And it’s human (I’m not saying it’s right) to be a little bit lazy in learning a foreign language when you can manage with your own in many parts of the globe. Certainly, learning a foreign language is not only helpful for the daily communication but also a good tool to get to know more about another country’s culture and habits which travel should be all about.

  4. Good post, and one I totally agree with. I hadn’t given as much thought as I should have about the whole ‘call people by their real name’ thing – like you, I saw it as a term of endearment rather than the laziness that it probably actually is. If people don’t know who you’re talking about when you use a person’s real name, there’s nothing wrong with ‘Ms Pha, who runs the smoothie stall at CM gate’. Provides some context as well as, y’know, their real name.

    I wouldn’t call the staff at my favourite coffee shop here in Melbourne ‘the coffee chick’ or ‘the latte guy’ – I’d call them Steph. Or Lana. Or Craig. Because, well, that’s their names. Why should I not extend that courtesy to people in other countries?

    You’ve got me thinking today, mate. Not an easy feat after 4 hours sleep, so nice work!

    • Hey Drifting, was up? I’m honored that you dropped by! Yes, your point is so valid, about the coffee chick, etc. I’m not saying we learn the names of every drive through attendant we go to, but if we’re here frequenting the same establishments, and they know our child’s name, the least we can do is to learn how to ask “What is your name?” in Thai, “Khun Cher aRai Khrop?” Yup, it’s all about ‘uncommon’ courtesy and ‘uncommon’ sense…

  5. You’re so right. Names, I need to start learning names, good call. All such good points, and ignorance can only go so far, those people not standing or continuing on their merry way can’t pretend like they didn’t notice every single person stopping out of respect! Follow the locals in the cases where your research didn’t prepare you for some situation (like the daily National Anthem).

    • Hey Shannon! Funny, I’m responding while sitting 3 feet away from you at Akha Ama coffee. ;-) I think next time we witness such a cultural faux pas, that we should do a kind intervention and educate the tourist that it’s proper to stand during the national anthem. Shall I order you a coffee?

  6. You’re right, it’s never enough to keep repeating that we are guests in another country and we should behave as such, as well as when we’re guests at friends’ house, we don’t even think about yelling at them!

    When I arrived in China, I spoke zero (ZERO) Mandarin and the beginning was incredibly hard, made it harder by the fact that nobody spoke English. Despite the problems though, I never could really blame them, it’s China right? Why should they speak another language if they have no intention to travel? I’m the one moving here, why should *they* adapt to me and not the other way around?

    Besides, if Chinese people travel to Italy, what is the possibility they will find someone able to help them in Chinese? Very likely, not even in English!

    Great post, gives food for thought.

    • Hey Angela, thanks! Being a mandarin speaking person, I think the odds are great to run into mandarin speaking people anywhere on the globe… It’s actually becoming a popular foreign language elective. I think, even with language barrier, simple politeness goes a long way.

  7. The honking thing caught me so off guard in Barbados – they do the same thing – honking to let you know they are there or even if they are saying hello.

    I’m totally with you on learning names. I’m sure they appreciate it quite a bit.:)

    • I’m sure someone has written a book on the cultural norms of honking around the world. … ;-) Oh, now I’m very conscious of thinking of the merchants we see on a regular basis, not only about their names, but what their daily life is like, and what they do in their ‘off’ time.

  8. Respecting customs and habits in a foreign country (actually anywhere) should be simple common sense. A good, strong education from home should include paying attention to others and trying to act so as not to offend anybody with a rude or insensitive behaviour.

    I guess one way of dealing with people who seem to have no basic notion of polite, normal social behaviours is to raw their attention, as you did with this article and even directly.

    I believe, more and more, that we should not keep quiet when we see people who disturb those around them . We should politely draw their attention; some mght be offended and react improperly but there might be others who will understand and learn a lesson.

  9. I totally agree… I would add also ‘be patient’. The notion of time is pretty different from what we’re used to in western countries. Once I was in 7/11 and saw this american girl waiting for some food to be microwaved and asking with an excited/stressy tone ‘how long is it going to take? I have to be at ‘x place’ in two minutes!!! I laughed in my mind seeing the miscomprehensing face of the vendor, I really wanted to tell her ‘hey girl, relax you’re in Thailand’. Two minutes, haha.
    I also saw that girl wandering in bikini through Somphet Market (I swear! A triangle bikini, flip-flops and a backpack was all she was wearing). Everyone got out of their shops with round eyes, or shaking heads.
    When I see some guy go shirtless I always think ‘hey, is there a swimming pool nearby?’. I don’t get why so many tourists coming to Chiang Mai think Thailand is just a big beach or tourist attraction. That’s so disrespectful.
    Yep, you’re right for the names, I have to do some effort on that one :)

    • Gives new application to the terms ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ eh? Didn’t think it’s about us ‘tolerating’ the misguided travelers and rude guests… I guess as a teacher, I can think of those as ‘teachable moments.’

  10. Great list! We posted something similar when we were in Thailand because we were appalled by the lack of respect we saw from tourists in that country. I don’t know why Thailand causes non-Thai people to act like idiots, but it’s a big problem (see the last picture on this post which is still, to this day, the most appalling lack of uncivility I have ever seen in any country: http://www.theroadforks.com/offtheroad/being_a_good_thai_traveler

    I love your last tip – it is such a good one and one that we forget very quickly. We try very hard to learn people’s names but it is often difficult.

  11. I think these suggestions should be taken on board by every traveller anywhere in the world. Some people just don’t know how to behave! And I am noticing this on our travels by people from all over. Just yesterday in the library three German girls came in, sat down and had a very noisy chat for over half an hour, disturbiing all of us sitting around them. New Zealanders are too nice to say anything but I thought it was so rude! Why not go to a cafe or pub for that?

  12. Honestly, this is a great post. No matter where I go, I always end up running into at least one thoughtless and oblivious traveler who just completely misses it.

    But one thing that really struck home with me is your “smoothie lady” comment. I admit, this is something I’m guilty of. I lived in Thailand for 3 months for a volunteer project and almost everyday I ate at this women’s road-side restaurant but never even asked for her name! I feel ashamed.

    Thank you for reminding me that even though we may have little effective communication with locals, it’s still important to ask for their names.

    • It truly boils down to the language barrier, and because of it, we give ourselves an “out” on pleasantries. Oh, I don’t mean we’re not polite to people, I’m sure most are, but with just a little effort, we can break down the imaginary boundary and start to see people as people, not just a vendor, maid, hairstylist, cook, etc…
      Even here in Thailand, if we’re frequenting places where people speak great English, chances are we know THEIR names… and isn’t it nice when they know YOUR name? It’s joy that needs to be passed along…
      Thanks for visiting!

  13. Terrific post !
    I keep seeing tourists acting like #2, #3 and #4. I absolutely hate it for all the reasons you mentionned.
    How come so many tourists can be that rude ?
    Hmm, all this remind me i wish i could come back to Chiang Mai soon :D

    • Thanks for dropping by!! I guess like anything else, just because someone can afford to travel, doesn’t mean that they are ‘smart’ or culturally sensitive travelers.

      Yes, when you come back to CM, feel free to drop us a line to say Hi!

  14. Excellent post! This article highlights some of the many issues that affect Chiang Mai, and Thailand as a whole. Not standing up for the anthem is extremely offensive. I think the major issue is that people still don’t understand that they’re not in their home country! When you travel the number one most important thing is to acknowledge where you are and understand the rules and regulations of the country. Because you’re Canadian, or American, or Spanish doesn’t mean you can play by the rules of your home country while abroad. You would think this is quite obvious but unfortunately we have to remind people of these things on a daily basis.

  15. GREAT post!! Really, we should be respectful ANYWHERE we go, but especially when we find ourselves outside of our ‘home’ environment. It’s extremely important for us as travelers, tourists, and whatever nationality we may be, to observe the customs around us and as you mentioned, it is NOT political. It is RESPECTFUL. Great article, I’ll pass it along!

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  18. Wow, people expect Thais to speak English? Really! There is this thing called the Rosetta Stone, and you might want to get that when traveling to another country.

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