Traditional Greeting the Thais and Lao Way

The Thais and Lao culture are very similar when it comes to greeting, instead of shaking hands, we wai (hands in upside down Y) instead.  I’ve had many friends that asked me if Lao or Thai people still wai each other when meet, and I do have to say that when I visited Laos and Thailand, it’s still a common practice amongst Lao and Thai people.  One thing that most don’t ask me is where do I place my hands (in an upside down Y) when I wai?  This I probably can’t tell, all I know is that my hands go up automatically, and mostly in the chest level area, obviously not the proper way for all occasions of wai.

Since so many people visit Thailand, the Thai Ministry of Culture have come up with a guide line of where to place your hands that I thought is interest, and good to know.  The Lao would follow the same guide line in my opinion since our greeting practiced is very similar.  This is Greeting: Thai Social Etiquette, Ministry of Culture, by Malithat Promathatavedi.

In Thailand, people in general greet one another with the word Sawatdi (Sabaidee in Lao). This word can be used at all times of day. A male would add the word khrap and a female the word kha after Sawatdi to show politeness (Lao people don’t add any word). The word Sawatdi (Sabaidee or Largone in Lao) can also be used when taking leave of someone or saying good-bye.

If the persons are friends or about the same age, the word Sawatdi (Sabaidee in Lao) alone is sufficient for greeting.  A wai is a gesture of pressing the palms together in the position of a budding lotus at chest level (upside down Y), with the fingertips touching the tip of the nose. There are three levels of wai.

1. For the Buddha images or the monks only

fig01

Raise the pressed palms until the thumbs touch the space between the eyebrows and the fingertips touch the hairline at the forehead. The tips of tbe index fingers are pressed against the forehead, not tilting to the left or right. This is the 1st level wai.

2. For parents, teachers, senior relatives, and the elderly

fig02

Raise the pressed palms until the thumbs touch the tip of the nose and the fingertips touch the space between the eyebrows. This is the 2nd level wai.

3. For respected persons in general including persons of the same status

fig031

Let the pressed palms touch the lower part of the face, with the tips of the thumbs touching the tip of the chin and tile tips of the index fingers touching the nose. Bow the head a little without stooping for both male and female. This is the 3rd level wai.

It should be noted that the level of bowing or stooping depends on status and seniority of both parties. The person greeted should rap wai or acknowledge the wai from a less senior person by pressing the palms together at chest level with the fingertips at the chin, head bowing a little. The rap wai should generally be performed as a gesture of mutual respect. To read more, please visit studyinthailand.org

Based on this, I would say that the level of your hands position is based on respect, the monk being the highest therefore at the eyebrows level, then eventually move down to nose, then chin level.  It is expected for the younger person to wai the elderly person first to show respect, and the elderly person can wai back and place his/her hands at a chest level.

18 thoughts on “Traditional Greeting the Thais and Lao Way

  1. Wow, I have not had to wai in a long time. Mostly when greeting someone older.

    I kind of like the Japanese version, no handshakes required. JK.

    Good info and nice drawings. 🙂

    • Salat, I think it’s not as common practice in the US, most of the time it’s sufficient to say Saibaidee, then smile, but I often wai if they’re my parent’s age, but if they are the same age or a bit older, I don’t wai them and it seems okay in the US.

      I also like the Japanese bow, while I was stranded in Thailand in Nov.08, we met a Japanese man and he recently got married to a Thai lady and emailed to tell us about it, and he wrote, Deep bow at the end of his email, I thought it’s kind of nice to see the tradition of Deep bow goes into writing as well.

    • Hi Jody, In Thai, Sawadhii Ka is used for greeting if you are a female, and Swadhii Krup if you are a male, it is the Thai central or Bangkok dialect, very formal.

      Sabaihdhi (Saibaidee) is more of Issan or Lao Issan dialect, also used for greeting. If used as greeting, then it means “how are you?”, but if used as answer, it literally means “feel good”, but basically it means “Hello, or fine”.

  2. very nice tradition that we have… too bad that some of our Lao-American youth doesn’t know this type of greeting even exist.

    • lady0fdarkness, sometimes once they pass that stage, then they’d want to learn it themselves, but it’s better if we teach them young, your daughter would be an ideal age, wouldn’t hurt and they look so cute doing the wai. 🙂

  3. as a matter of fact, my daughter does it . She does it when she pass by my buddha shrine and when her grandma comes over.

    • Horus, this is so true, the proper way of Wai is very important, I think once we know the proper way, we’d have more confident, and feel more comfortable in doing so.

    • Sawadhi Ka Jody, now you know and if you see that they’re not doing it proper, you can point this out to them, this would be so cool, a Farang who knows more than the locals. 🙂

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