Thailand Stories and Tips

The Urban Legend of the Lost Eye

Bangkok's Bay Photo, Thailand, Asia

In How close is too close?, I described how to avoid making mistakes while greeting Thais; yet, there is more than that to proper Thai manners. Walking properly along Bangkok’s streets is less trivial than it seems. More than ten million people live in this metropolis. During the rush hours, car can be seen to be oddly parked on the avenues themselves, in lines that run for miles. In every direction, thousands of people can be seen. Yet, while walking in this mayhem, no physical contact is done. No matter how dense the traffic is, graceful Thais would find the way to move around without bumping into others. If paying attention, one would easily discern a few rules for proper walking in Bangkok. The most obvious thing is the way Thais move their arms. They are no less expressive than Westerners, but they are more delicate, moving in subtle and sophisticated ways. They won’t wave their arms wildly around, pointing around unnecessarily at every flying dragon crossing their way.

One of the horrors Thais face daily is watching Westerners attempting to hail a taxi. The tourist would raise his hand as high as possible—sometimes even a bit beyond this point, standing on his stressed, sweaty toes—and wave towards the taxi as boldly as he can. Invariably, the tourist won’t check if someone would be hit by the stray arm. A local urban legend tells that many Thai eyes were lost in such a fashion. Instead, when hailing a public vehicle, Thais extend their arms sideways, while keeping their hands below the waist line, and wave gently downwards. There is no chance of harming innocent neighbors in such a way, yet the gesture is clear enough. There is a Thai proverb that that clearly defines the Western waving: "To ride an elephant to catch a grasshopper."

A related horror committed by tourists is the way they call each other, waving their hands with the palm upwards, or in clear sight. This is the ways Thais call animals. This latter claim was not said for the sake of emphasizing the point, it is literally true. In Thailand, a proper way of calling the attention of a fellow human is to wave with the palm pointing downwards or inwards.

Sometimes contact is unavoidable. The coffee must be paid; money must exchange hands. Thai politeness requires giving the object with the right hand while the left grips the right elbow, so that there would be no accidental contact with the impure hand. This is deeply rooted, and related to very strict hygiene practices.

Finally, before leaving the air conditioned coffee shop facing the sticky street where these observations were done, take a last look at the way Thais move. Listen to their walking. Regardless the nature of their shoes, they make no noise. They place their feet gracefully on the ground, showing blissful respect towards others’ ears. Their bodies are then carefully balanced and kindly blend with their surroundings in an awesome show of harmony. Take a last sip from your durian-flavored, grande-sized, moccachino-colored cup of coffee, and step on the street bravely; showing the entire world that you also are a properly walking Bangkokian.

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