My Survival Guide to Dining, Etiquette and Manners
How I Survived the Formal Society of the Thai and Lao
As a child, I grew up in a very formal setting. I was taught to sit down, sit still, behave, be quiet, clean, learn and listen. My parents, aunts and uncle taught me to stand straight, adjust my belt, hold my knife properly and always smiled. From learning how to hold and pour tea properly, to bowing and greeting someone, to lamvong dancing and how to attend special ceremonies, these are some of the basic proper guide to how I survived in a very formal Thai, Lao and Hmong Society.
The Royal Scenario:
It’s summertime in the midst of July and you are formally invited to a formal ceremonial celebration event that is honoring the Royal Lao Family, where you will meet a lot of privileged and distinguished guest and all people from different social and ethnic backgrounds.
We enter a beautiful white building, and enter a hallway and our seat is in the very back, away from the front tables, dance floor and stage. The doors open at 6pm. The schedule looks like this:
- 6:00pm Doors Open.
- 7:00pm-8:00pm Speeches by Host, Respected Old Men, etc.
- 9:00 Opening Entertainments & Dinner.
- 10:00-12:00 Music & Dancing.
This is probably the hardest part to process and understand. There are so many ways to properly greet each person, depending on their status, job and age. You greet each person differently, even men and women. Not only that, you have to watch how you walk, where your hands and feet are standing and how high your head is!
- Formal/Business/Casual Thai Etiquette
- Learn how to properly greet/bow/curtsey each guest by their social status and/or occasion.
- Shake every man’s hand and “wai” to women.
- Always put on a decent face and smile! A smile shows your personality!
- No touching and kissing or showing public affection.
- Don’t ever point your feet at anything or kick. The feet is considered the lowest thing of your body.
- Never touch people’s head, except children is okay.
- Never put your hands or anything above a persons head.
- Learn to take off your shoes when you enter people’s homes.
- Lower your head when you pass an older person.
- Especially if they are sitting down, lower your head.
- If they are sitting on the floor, lower your head.
- Keep your voice low and never ever point!
- Sit still, be quiet and listen to people speaking and announcements. There will be literally 2-4 hours of people doing speeches on stage and it is respectable to properly applaud to each one of them, even if you can’t understand them. They can go on for 40 minutes and switch between 1-4 languages within that time frame.
- Also, put away your phone! It’s disrespectful.
Also known as: Bathroom Breaks. You are now free to leave the table, go outside, use the bathroom, chitchat with people. This is the part where they’ll have little girls come and dance while everyone prepares to go and eat.
Eating is an enjoyable past time with friends and family. However, in some occasion, it can be such a hassle and it can take a very long time to even get to dinner, due to many people making announcements and speeches, we are all waiting for one person to begin eating or else we are waiting for all the honored guest or elders to eat first, before we can finally eat whatever is left on the tables.
- You need granted permission to eat. Usually wait until some engages to grab food first.
- Elders, honored people, older men, women, children and then us teenagers can finally eat if it is a buffet-style. This can be from a 20 minute to 1 hour waiting period.
- If you are asked to eat, refuse once and accept the second-third time.
- If they drag you to the dinner table, accept it and thank them. It will start being considered rude if you don’t eat. Even if you are full, eating one thing is fine.
- Don’t speak with your mouth full, keep your voice down, no elbows on the table, don’t spill stuff on the table.
- Stand up when the head of the house seats themselves.
- You cannot start eating, until the host eats first.
- If the host grab rice, then you can grab rice after them. If they start eating the chicken, you can now eat the chicken. What they eat, you are now freely able to eat.
- If they eat with their hand, you have permission use your hands too or else use the utensils.
- Don’t leave the table until the host is done eating. Until given permission.
- Do eat until you are full, but don’t make your plate full or take big portions. The host will give you or ask someone to give you big portions of food.
- It’s okay if you don’t finish your plate.
The Art of Rice and Tea:
Depending on your social standing within the family and social dynamics, you may have the opportunity to give rice to the elders or pour the tea or offer water, which is considered a blessing and an honorable thing to do.
- Remember never to have your hands or anything above the elders heads.
- Always keep their tea full.
- Pour without the tea spout pointing at them.
- Always keep their plates full of everything on the table.
- Remember: One scoop is for the dead. Two scoops is for the living.
- NEVER EVER put anything standing straight up on food! (Like a chopstick standing right up on rice!) That is like wishing for death and your face will be smacked.
- If they offer you their food they cannot finish, it’s considered a blessing.
Dress & Attires:
A guy can just wear a suit & tie and a blazer, and women can wear modern dresses or traditional dresses for festive occasions. If it was at my house or visiting someone, wear something semi-formal. No flip-flips, shorts or t-shirt. Show up in a respectable and mannerly person.
- Keep your close neat and clean.
- Men can dress nice in a suit & tie during formal events.
- Women may wear traditional or modern dresses during weddings, charities and celebrations.
Dancing is a fun social event after eating. They’ll play traditional songs in the beginning and then towards the ends more modern dancing music.
The Royal Family:
Many times to the Royal Lao Family or even Well-Known Family may come by in town to visit for special occasions and celebrations. Many times, I will see so many people who do not know how to properly greet the Royal Family. They stand up right in front of them while they are seated, they smile and give them a broke and unproper wai and they take pictures right in front of them like a celebrity. No, do not do that. This is not the proper protocol when you meet the Royal Family!
- Wai properly and bow down very lowly. (As seen in this photo!)
- “Saibaidee Sa-Jet” is the way to greet the Prince with a nice smiling face.
- Don’t look at them in the eye and do not touch them unless they offer you their hands first.
- You can greet them, but do not speak to them, unless spoken to.
- Your whole body and head must be lower than theirs at all times.
- Always try to get out of the way.
- When you take a picture of them, get on your knees, wai and greet them, and kneel on the ground.
- Only people with high privileges can hand things to them, and they are often offered on a silver/golden plate.
- Red & Gold are reserved for the Royal Family, so don’t wear a Red & Gold outfit.
And Ta-Da! You have survived your first night with me! And now since you have survived this very precious and formal event, you can now use these formal trainings on everyday life! This was the cultural etiquette and customs our parents had done as growing up and now taught to us. So, let’s learn the basics of learning how to properly wai, to bow to our elders and show our respect. Now we can go home after a day of sitting around during long ceremonial speeches, watching performances, eating, drinking and dancing.