3 etiquette tips to help make the most of your travels abroad

A white temple and cultural attraction in Bangkok, Thailand. Picture: Unsplash

A white temple and cultural attraction in Bangkok, Thailand. Picture: Unsplash

Published May 28, 2024


Travelling abroad holds the promise of adventure.

Many see travelling as an opportunity to relax and explore. For others, travelling is about learning and being immersed in an unfamiliar culture, belief system and way of life. This can be rewarding.

The key to making the most out of these kinds of experiences is to practice cultural etiquette.

South Africans come from one of the most diverse societies in the world, and being part of the rainbow nation means being open-minded, willing to learn and able to see the beauty that lies within each person’s uniqueness.

The same applies while travelling. Principles like respect, co-operation and honesty can go a long way in turning an overseas trip into a truly transformative experience.

According to Chaiwat Tamthai, Director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Dubai for the Middle East and Africa, when it comes to cultural appreciation and etiquette one of the things that South Africans enjoy most about visiting Thailand is the country’s rich cultural history.

“Every year, thousands of South Africans visit sites like the Wat Phra Mahathat and Wat Phra That Phanom temples not only for their grandeur and historical value but also because they are great symbols of spiritual devotion and national identity,” said Tamthai.

He said that while Thai people may speak a different language, dress differently, and have different lifestyles to foreigners like South Africans, simple gestures of respect can go a long way in bridging the language and cultural gap.

“When we meet each other halfway, we open up the potential to learn from each other, share our experiences and be inspired. This is one of the most valuable advantages of travelling abroad,” said Tamthai.

For travellers looking to visit Thailand or other foreign countries, here are some etiquette tips to follow.

Keep it tidy, watch your tone

According to the travel expert, cultures vary in terms of acceptable speaking volumes and tones. He said that in some cultures, speaking softly and calmly is valued, while in others, speaking with enthusiasm and animation is the norm so it’s best to pay attention to your tone and volume of voice to avoid unintentionally causing offence.

Be friendly, but have boundaries

Tamthai pointed out that in Western culture physical touch during conversation or a playful moment is not widely regarded as being inappropriate, however, in other cultures it can be.

“In Thailand specifically, touching someone’s head or even ruffling a child’s hair can be seen as disrespectful. Thai people revere the head as being the most sacred part of the body, while the feet are thought of as being the lowest or most unclean body part.

“For this reason, it’s seen as a sign of disrespect to touch someone’s head, sit in a position where your feet are raised above someone’s head or to step over someone who is sitting or sleeping on the ground,” said Tamthai.

He said that this is especially true of how you interact with elders and figures of authority and is something to be mindful of when attending traditional gatherings or visiting religious sites.

Be culturally curious

The travel expert also advised that when travelling, embrace cultural differences with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

“Recognise that what may seem unusual or unfamiliar to you is simply part of the fabric of daily life for locals. Approach new experiences with curiosity and respect rather than judgement,” he said.

Tamthai said that this is one of the fundamentals of travel etiquette and when unsure of what to do, feel free to ask rather than to respond or react without fully understanding the context of the situation.

“Before jetting off to a new destination, take the time to research the local culture, customs and etiquette norms,” said Tamthai.