Life in South East Asia isn’t all different to life in Britain; we go to work every day, we’ve got plenty of fast food joints and burger restaurants in our big cities, we have our own unique culture and our own set of customs and etiquettes which have been cultivated and refined over hundreds of years. You say ‘Cheers!’ we say ‘Chon gaew!’, ‘Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!’, ‘Jul mouy!’ or ‘Sorakan!’. You greet with a strong handshake, we with a respectful wai.
Learn how to Wai.
So, if you’re planning a visit to Indochina and don’t want to make a faux pas, it might be helpful to learn a little about our customs and behavior – or you can try them out in the UK, to show off your wisdom!
If you were to loosely translate the Thai concept of ‘Greng Jai’ into English, your closest comparison would probably be ‘considerate’. But it’s so much more than just that. To be Greng Jai is a way of life, and it means actively going out of your way to never upset, distress, offend or annoy someone – and to foreigners this might seem a little alien. Have you ever come away from indulging in a vegetarian Thai Basil curry to find your teeth are stuck silly with basil? Or accidentally walked out of the bathroom with your flies only half done up? A Western friend might make a joke, but being Greng Jai means making a special effort not to embarrass anyone, even for a moment – so drawing public attention to a friend’s mistake would be out of the question! Expect a discreet word in your ear instead – it’s the Greng Jai way!
Raising your voice… pointing your finger… all of these aggressive kinds of behavior are frowned upon in Indochinese society.
Much akin to Greng Jai, behaving yourself in public and not giving rise to emotional or ego-based outbursts is considered an important indicator of character, and is linked to the Buddhist principle of Upekkha, which translates as level-headedness.
As you travel Indochina, you might be lucky enough to be invited to dinner at a local’s house. These invitations are often spontaneous and in many places it is considered rude to refuse. Once you’ve accepted, there could be pitfalls in your culinary etiquette, too. In Vietnam the traditional way to drink rice wine is to have one cup which is shared between all the guests. As it is passed around, if the glass empties, you refill it. The last thing you should do is ask for a personal cup – this would be considered very impolite.
In some situations, eating with your hands is not only allowed, it’s the norm! This is particularly true when you’re served Laos sticky rice.
Eating Laos sticky rice is an art in and of itself, and it’s a dish that’s served at almost every meal –so it’s worth getting the hang of it. Unlike sloppily grabbing for a slice of pizza, you don’t simply reach into the bowl and grab a handful – there’s a tried and tested technique to getting it right.
First (once you’ve washed your hands, of course) pick up a handful of rice in your left hand and roll the rice up into a ball or a cylinder – this will serve you for your next few mouthfuls. You then break off part of your ball of rice and either eat it, or re-roll it and dip it into soups or a sauce like the tasty, spicy jeow.
Despite having the Western name ‘glutinous rice’ there’s actually no gluten in Laos sticky rice at all! Excellent for all you coeliac sufferers and gluten-free dieters out there.
In Indochinese countries like Thailand and Vietnam, there are strict customs around paying for bills – primarily that the host pays. If you have been invited out for dinner, it is common courtesy to allow the host to foot the bill. Offering to pay after someone else has already volunteered is considered very impolite, so if your host offers to take care of the bill the next time you’re invited out to a Thai restaurant, accept the gift and thank your host graciously, rather than insisting on paying your own way.
In Thailand, the anatomy is tied very closely with spirituality, and the head is the location of ‘kwan’, the spiritual life-force. As a result, patting someone on the head is considered deeply impolite – it is a sacred spot. At the other end of the body, the foot, as the lowest part of the body, is unclean. As a result, be mindful of how you’re positioning your feet. If you are sat down, tuck them under your body, and under no circumstances should you ever point your tootsies in the direction of someone else’s head.
So that’s one thing that’s definitely a no-no in both our cultures – no feet on the table!
As you travel the breadth of Indochina, you’ll find that most locals will be tolerant and understanding of any cultural difference that could cause inadvertent offence – but it doesn’t hurt to make a special effort to be considerate. It is the Greng Jai way, after all! And you might be surprised at how adopting some of the Indochinese principles of behavior might benefit your life in the West – at heart it’s a culture of tolerance, politeness and consideration, and who couldn’t use a little more of that?