Bowing in Thailand
A few years ago, a group of women on a short-term mission trip from the states came to a Thai temple and to the horror of their host began to hug some of the child novices! They explained, “We just couldn’t resist, they were so cute in their little saffron robes and bald heads!” This underlines the steep learning curve new missionaries must climb as they navigate the various protocols within Thai culture, especially the “wai”.
The Thai “wai” or bow is used to greet/thank people or just show respect. To the casual tourist it may look like a simple gesture, but it ends up being quite involved. It is an all-purpose gesture because you use it for both greeting/good-byes as well as when you want to apologize (ie. if you inadvertently jossle someone you “wai” and say “excuse me”, which must be followed by “never mind”).
It is often comical on both sides of the cultural divide to see a new missionary negotiating Thai greetings or a Thai using their left hand to “wai” as they extend their right hand to a foreigner, not quite knowing just which to use! Missionaries often get so enthusiastic in their greetings that they “wai” everyone, even little children. As with the 12 different Thai “smiles” that Thai can give to others, there are a number of alternatives when it comes to greeting a Thai person:
Four levels of “wai” depending on respect shown as you say “Sawatdiikrap/kha”.
1. To monk or Buddha image – thumbs touch between eyebrows (Note: Need to use “Sawatdiithan” and when I meet a monk it causes a dilemma, so I most often opt for #2)
2. Parent/teacher – thumbs touch nose
3. Elder/co-worker – thumbs at chin
4. Receiving a “wai” from a younger person or inferior –thumbs at chest or polite nod
A few others I have observed are:
Politician – You can trust me “wai”
Beggar – Can you spare some change “wai”?
Polite – The rather quick “Don’t bother me “wai”
As I review these cultural ways of bowing to others, it reminds me that bowing in ancient Israel, as in most cultures, is a similar expression of respect and worship. When bowing before the Lord one could take various physical postures: 1)Kneeling – Dan. 6:10; 2)Standing – 1 Sam. 1:26; 3)Sitting down – 2 Sam 7:18; 4)Lying down – Ps. 4:4 or 5)Prostration – 2 Chron 20:18. When meeting the king of Thailand, so high is the level of respect that one must follow a strict protocol of greeting which includes bowing to the ground, never turning your back and not making eye contact. As I see Thai bowing to their king and superiors, my prayer is that one day the Thai would learn to approach the true King of Kings with the respect and obedience that is reserved only for Him.