The Wai ไหว้
As in most of the western countries, we shake hands.
Not so in Thailand.
Thais greet each other by making a ‘wai’.
The palms are joined together as in a prayer, and raised at breast, chin or front level..
‘All pigs are created equal, but some are more equal than others’,
George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm. This may be true, and very much so in Thailand.
Everybody has a distinct social status in this society.
Equality is non-existent. Even identical twins are not equal –
there is an elder brother or sister, and a younger one, even if the difference is a couple of minutes!
The elder is called "Phi Chai" or "Phi Sao" (older brother or sister),
while the younger is called "Nong Chai" or "Nong Sao" (younger brother/sister).
In Europe it is of no importance who tends his hand to the other, or at what level hands are shaken. In Thailand, the lower ranking person must greet the higher ranked. He (she) is the one who starts the
greeting ceremony and makes a respectful ‘wai’ by joining the palms, bringing them to the required level and lowering the head.
The king doesn’t ‘wai’. Neither do monks. Sometimes, they give a modest nod while being greeted. Apart from them, everybody ‘wais’ everybody in Thailand, and always according to the social status of both persons.
The higher the hands are held in relation to the face and the lower the bow,
the more respect or reverence the giver of the wai is showing.
The wai is also common as a way to thank someone or apologise.
The word often spoken with the wai as a greeting or farewell is sawasdee (สวัสดี). Phonetically, the word is pronounced "sa-wat-dee".
The spelling with the "s " comes from a transforming consonant, ส. This word was coined in the mid-1930s by Phraya Upakit Silapasan of Chulalongkorn University. This word, derived from the Sanskrit svasti (meaning "well-being"), had previously been used in Thai only as a formulaic opening to inscriptions.
The strongly nationalist government of Plaek Pibulsonggram in the early 1940s promoted the use of the word sawasdee amongst the government bureaucracy as well as the wider populace as part of a wider set of cultural edicts to modernise Thailand.
Related topics: Thai Culture - A to Z