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Thailand Dining Etiquette — Eat like a Thai Local

Thailand Dining Etiquette — Eat like a Thai Local

By Chris QuanUpdated Sep. 10, 2021

Travelling to feast on amazing local Thai food is one of the main reasons that tourists flock to Thailand year after year for their holidays. If you're making your way to the Kingdom to eat, we feel that it's crucial to share with you the do's and don't of Thai etiquette.

When in Thailand, you should eat as the Thais do. It's essential to follow the proper food etiquette of any country you travel to, this ensures you fully respect the local culture.

Most table manners in Thailand stem from the fact that Thai's usually eat their meals communally with friends and family. Dining in Thailand is always a social affair, and the status of the people dining often dictates how the meal will go.

Many western-style restaurants in Thailand have adopted western philosophies when it comes to dining, but if you are planning on going local (which is how you'll find the most authentic food), you'll want to take a look at our top tips guide for eating out Thai style.

Where You Should Sit

In the west, the most important person, or the 'head of the family,' will usually sit at the head of the table. In Thailand, however, the senior member of the group will sit in the middle.

For a western diner, it can be a little confusing at first, so we would suggest you wait until you are shown to a seat by a member of your party, rather than choosing a place yourself. This will save any awkward moments later!

If you are dining alone at a restaurant or street stall, it's common for the staff to ask you to sit with another group if the restaurant or shophouse is busy. Don't be alarmed; it's perfectly normal in Thailand to dine with people you don't know.

Thais are extremely friendly and welcoming, especially when they see you eating and enjoying the local food! If you are dining in the countryside, you could well find yourself sitting on a mat on the floor. In this situation, it's important to make sure you don't point your feet at anyone. Showing someone your feet is considered extremely rude in Thailand.

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What to Do when Ordering

All group meals in Thailand are communal affairs. By all means, order anything that you like the look of, but be mindful that you will be sharing the dish with the rest of the table. Never order a dish in a group situation and eat it all yourself.

It won't go down well with the other diners. If you order a plate of something and enjoy it, you can always order another portion or two for the table later.

A communal Thai meal will typically consist of rice, sticky or Jasmine, which can be individually portioned or served in a big bowl in the middle of the table, a soup, which can be sour, spicy or both, a curry and a vegetable dish or salad of some description.

On the side, you'll find condiments such as shrimp paste and chilli dips, fresh herbs, and raw, crunchy vegetables. It is also common to order a fruit plate for the table after a meal or at least one kind of Thai dessert, such as the famous and much-loved mango and sticky rice.

The Table Setting and Eating Utensils

Contrary to popular beliefs, Thai people don't use chopsticks nearly as much as people think they do. You will only be given chopsticks if you are eating noodles, either in soup or fried form.

Don't ask for chopsticks if your eating rice or meat dishes. The only time it's acceptable to ask for chopsticks is if you are eating noodles, and the server hasn't given you a pair because they think you can't use them!

When you sit down, the server will hand you a plate or bowl of rice, another bowl for soup, a spoon and fork, and a soup spoon. If you are eating a noodle dish, you will be given a fork, as well and a pair of chopsticks so you can choose which suits you best.

You'll find a container full of napkins on the table, as well as an array of condiments to flavour the food to your own taste. These include fish sauce, dried chilli flakes, chilli vinegar and sugar…. Thais love sugar.

You will have the choice between free filtered water by the cup or a bottle of water that you can pay for if you prefer. If you are dining in a group, there should be a separate serving spoon, so you don't have to use the spoon you are eating with.

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Table manners

Unlike many western countries, you are not expected to finish all of the food on your plate (although it's not rude to do so). Finish whatever you can and only stop when you're full. It's never a good idea to waste food, but it's not seen as much of an issue in Thailand when compared to other places you might visit.

In Thailand, the locals eat slowly, so it's a good idea to take your time. Dining is a time for Thais to enjoy catching up with friends and family, which should never be rushed.

Take your time to savour each dish and take in the whole experience of traditional family-style Thai dining. Remember to wait for someone to serve you; this will usually be one of the youngest people at your table.

If you do decide to help yourself, be sure to take a small amount of rice, followed by a small number of your desired dish. Thais don't pile food on their plates as we do in the west, they take a little at a time amount and keep going back for more.

Remember always to serve yourself using the large serving spoon, not with the spoon you're eating with, and never help yourself with your fork.

If you are serving yourself, It is polite to serve the person sitting next to you first. Make sure the people around you are well fed.

Eat with your spoon, never put the fork into your mouth. Instead, use the fork to push the food onto the spoon. Thais even put noodles onto their spoon with chopsticks when eating noodle soup.

It would be best if you never rest your chin in your hand or your elbow on the table while talking to the other people in the group. This is considered very disrespectful in Thailand.

Tipping in Thailand

The tipping culture in Thailand changes vastly depending on what sort of place you decide to dine in. If you are ordering street food, it's uncommon to tip, and even more unusual for them to accept it.

If you really enjoy your meal, make sure to say 'aroy' (the Thai word for delicious ) with a big smile on your face. Knowing you've enjoyed the food is usually tip enough for them. If you really want to give a tip, leave it on the table out of sight or give it to a younger member of staff.

If you are eating in higher class restaurants or cafes, tipping is a good idea. Although some tourists feel uncomfortable tipping on top of the already added 10% service charge, it's worth noting that most Thai wait staff work extremely long hours for very little pay when compared with western workers. Leaving your 20 or 40 baht change as a tip can make all the difference to their day.

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Paying the Bill

In Thailand, it's the oldest member of the wealthiest person in the group that pays for the bill, regardless of how many people are dining. Don't offer to pay for the bill unless you are eating with people that are poorer than yourself; you might end up insulting someone!

A Quick Summary of the Do's and Don'ts about Thai Dining Etiquette

Do's

  • Do eat slowly. Savour every part of the meal. Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Do wait for someone to invite you before sitting. And don't sit in the middle of the table.
  • Do use the fork to push food onto the spoon. Never put your fork into your mouth.
  • Do serve the person sitting next to you before you help yourself. Make sure the people around you are well fed.
  • Do compliment the cook by saying 'aroy,' which means delicious in Thai. This is always much appreciated!
  • Do allow the oldest member of the group to pay for your dinner.

Don'ts:

  • Don't talk with your mouth full. Thais don't appreciate people that eat and speak at the same time.
  • Don't take more food than you can eat at one time. You can always come back for more later.
  • Don't order a dish to eat by yourself. Always make sure you share your dish with the other diners in your group.
  • Don't serve yourself using your own spoon or fork; use the serving spoon provided.
  • Don't talk with your mouth. Wait until you've swallowed your food before speaking.
  • Please don't put your elbows on the table; it's not good manners.
  • Don't ask for chopsticks unless you are eating noodles.

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