When I was a Waldorf teacher, I remember having one of those dreaded Second Grade parent meetings. But instead of the usual “please get me outta here” scenario, one of the parents asked question that prompted an answer I’ve yet to forget.

“Sadie has such good manners. She’s a very polite child. What did you tell her, so I can tell my kid?”

“I showed Sadie my passport and asked her if she knew what this was. She didn’t, so I explained that this little book allowed her to visit other countries. I gave it to her to look at. Then I talked about good manners, using ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is like a passport too, if she kept it in her pocket, she could use it to travel the world.”

What followed were Ooos and Ahhhs, nods and smiles, and rightly so. I wish more parents would take the time to teach their children the importance of manners, which is really a form of respect. Of course, I’m not blaming parents, that’s another jar of curry paste.

It’s amazing what tourists get away with to the tune of “I’m on holiday” in Thailand. But perhaps amazing is the wrong word. I think we have to be conscious of using any excuse as a means to behave poorly. Alcohol, drugs and even the words, “I’m worth it” just seem like sidesteps to the truth. If you want to act like a fool, just say it and own up to it.

But if you are an American, could you not do it here? I have to admit, I get embarrassed when I hear or see a fellow US citizen acting stupid on vacation. When they are Aussie, Kiwis, Brits or Brats, I feel so much better. I know I’m a horrible person for thinking this way. I guess we all want to feel good about where we hail from and when someone does something to tarnish our already delicate reputation, well, it stinks.

To be sure, anyone who has lived here has their tourists-behaving-badly story. I remember a friend telling me that at Immigration she saw a backpacker put his muddy boots on the counter. Regardless of how the Thais feel about feet (lowest, dirtiest part of the body), putting your shoes on the counter or any place where you are conducting business, is a bad idea.

Another friend told me about a drunk woman (?) who cut in line at 7-11, she was being obnoxious, speaking loudly and saying in her defense, “What? They do it all the time.” Everyone just politely smiled and let her jump the cue. I find her comment interesting and a clear indication she felt the need for “redemption”.

Here are more examples, along with tips on how to behave and misbehave in the Land of Smiles:

I remember one of my Thai teachers, who is pretty good-natured, telling us a story about how some foreigner was going off about how Thais were stupid. Since her English is excellent is was able to retort, much to the shock of the tourist/expat/random White guy.

I’m fairly relaxed about tourists, I guess because I grew up in one of the most touristic places in the US, Hawaii. So I’ve seen a lot of tender sunburned pink flesh and matching Aloha wear. Other dead giveaways are Mustang convertible rent-a-cars, maps and Teva sandals. Locals were slippahs or flip flops.

So, I usually can turn a glass eye away from tourists, but when I saw three 20somethings, two of which were bare chested (folks think CM is the beach), strutting down Ratchdamnoen with Akha Ama headgear I couldn’t help, but look horrified. Tribal headgear is sacred, it’s not even something that should be displayed as decoration.

Like I said, everyone has their story…and mine isn’t the last one, it’s the first of many.

8 replies on “How to Avoid Looking like Tourist Trash

  1. Oh, soooo many stories. Like you, I usually forgive the faux pas that occur out of total ignorance. But the times that made me angry were when tourists would be openly mocking or mean-spirited in nature towards locals. Luckily, that's a small minority among foreign nationals in Thailand, but still a painfully visible one.


  2. Hi Lani,What a nice metaphor to explain a child about being polite by showing your passport.I often ask local people who deal with tourists on a daily basis which country's people they like and which they don't.It seems that they don't like people from countries nearby.For example I often heard from Thai people that in general they don't like Chinese tourists. In some cases they were (partly) of Chinese ancestry themselves. Here in Cambodia, I was told Malay people somehow have a bad name.Personally, I tend to overlook 'bad' behaviour from people coming from countries nearby.As you, I'm much more annoyed by ignorant Western tourists behaving badly.Mass tourism is an industry where the country and it's people become the product. “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” ~ Goethe


  3. @Mr.T: I've been fairly lucky. I haven't overheard any tourists mocking Thais and if I did I'm not sure what I would do…@I-nomad: I like your Goethe quote 🙂


  4. Just today in BKK at the Emporium an American man first mumbling (loudly) to his Thai gf, “Stupid idiots, put the price tag in the wrong place”. Then as the salesperson approaches he gets louder, and tells her she will lose a sale because he can’t read the details under the label, he’s P.O’ed because he wants to know if this China is “Made in China”. As she turns, I give her the sympathetic look that I sincerely hopes conveys “Yes, he’s American, but we’re not ALL like that”. When she get’s closer I say “Jai rawn rawn” and she smiles.


  5. It’s so difficult, isn’t it? Our culture is so ingrained into our very being that we have the darndest time seeing things from another perspective.

    I didn’t know price tags could be in the wrong place! 😛


  6. It is horrible how people ditch the rules when they leave their own country sometimes. Yes, I get that the rules are different. It’s a bit freaky. You feel uncertain. You’re not 100% sure how to act anymore so you’re just going to try it all out!

    But seriously – some rules are just universal and you still need to give it your best shot and anyway, this is a conversation I expect to have with my 5yo, not a 20-something at a bar in Khao San Rd.

    As an aside, how old was Sadie? I’ve had similar conversations so many times but it hasn’t sunk in yet…


    1. Sadie was 7 or 8 as this was the 2nd grade in the US. I think what was interesting was Sadie’s father had a passport in his and and showed it to her, so they weren’t just talking abstractly. But it probably was a combo of her age, the right time and her interest…

      And I can honestly say, I’ve never heard of such a great analogy for manners ever since.

      It’s funny, I’m not sure why these things are so important to me. When I see kids acting crazy (and it wasn’t like I wasn’t ever 20), I can’t help but think, “How were you raised?” or “I’m sure your parents would be real proud.” Why am I even thinking this way???


      1. It is a really good analogy – and I’m hoping by Sadie’s example we might hit a breakthrough soon, then. I might even try to word it that way next time I’m holding a passport.

        I think most of us would like to know what on earth makes the person annoying us right now think that it’s a good idea to carry on like that. I suppose there are usually a variety of explanations, from “having one of those days” to something more ingrained/sinister.

        Liked by 1 person

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