When it comes to Thailand do’s and don’ts, most guidebooks and travel guides will warn you not to point with your feet whilst you are in Thailand. This might seem like strange advice; after all, how often do you point at anything with your feet? And what is the big deal with the feet anyway?
In Thai culture, the head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body and the most important because it is where the spirit resides. At the lowest end of the body, the feet are considered to be the most unclean and least important. This is ingrained in Thai culture and etiquette and it is easier than you might think to commit a social faux-pas. Unfortunately, one that I’ve seen on a number of occasions involves foreign visitors sitting down in a temple with their back propped against the wall and their feet stretched out in front of them. With feet pointing at a monk or Buddha image, this is considered particularly vulgar behaviour. There are times in Thailand where you will need to take off your shoes before entering a building, most obviously at temples, but also in some shops. And try not to step on that raised threshold; it’s considered bad luck in Thailand.
Some inanimate objects such as books are also considered to be high status because they are associated with knowledge and by association, the head. So don’t prop your feet up on that pile of Lonely Planet guide books on the coffee table at your guest-house. In some Thai households it is common to sit on the floor when eating. If you are invited into a Thai person’s home to eat and find yourself sat on the floor, don’t point at the food with your feet. In northern Thailand you may find yourself visiting a khan toke dinner, so be equally careful about where your feet are pointing and if you need to get up to go to the toilet, don’t step over any food or trays on your way, just walk around them.
Naturally, there might be a time when you accidentally step on somebody’s foot on a crowded Skytrain or bus, but do what a Thai person would do; smile and apologise. There are also some occasions when waving your feet about is unavoidable, for instance in the swimming pool, but so long as you don’t deliberately point at somebody with the feet it’s not a problem. It also doesn’t mean that you need to apologize every five minutes to the lady giving you a foot massage or that the person giving you a traditional Thai massage has to say sorry for walking on your back! However, the person giving the massage will normally perform a symbolic wai before they commence to acknowledge the touching of feet that will occur.