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Thai Smiles – Good, Bad, Ugly (and the 10 in between)

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Thai Smiles All Have A Different Meaning!

This is a Guest Post By Daniel Fraser, Co-Founder of Smiling Albino about Thai Smiles and what they actually mean!

Imagine you have booked a beachfront room at a hotel in Thailand online. You’ve paid in advance and communicated your arrival details, and once you arrive to check-in, you find that the hotel is full.

As compensation, the hotel agrees to book you into another similar hotel nearby. But not on the beach. Even worse, it costs twice as much!

You demand that the hotel cover the difference. After all, it’s their mistake! But the smiling hotel manager, and then the supervisor, simply say that you have to pay the additional cost yourself. You begin to lose your temper. You firmly make your case, but to no avail.

No matter what you say, or how upset you get, or how often you appeal to yet another person higher up the chain of command, the front desk staff simply smile during the entire experience.

Thailand has long been referred to as ‘The Land of Smiles’ by visitors. But many westerners have become perplexed, even infuriated, at Thais’ ability to smile through virtually every situation, however maddening, unusual or inappropriate.

Land Of Smiles

Thais Smile for more than happiness and glee. Thais, perhaps more than any other people, have an uncanny knack of smiling in instances of adversity, tension and even danger. Thais seem to smile at unusual times during conversations and business dealings.

In Thailand smiling is a form of subtle interpersonal-messaging which runs deeper and perhaps more accurately than language or syntax. In Thailand, there is actually a smile referred to as the “Yes, I know I owe you the money but I don’t have it right now.”

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I’ve learned that there are actually 13 different types of Thai Smiles where most Thais can identify a specific meaning. In fact, most Thais can perform each of these smiles upon request with flawless accuracy based solely on the commonly used name.

Thai Smiles - What They Mean. The Good, Bad And Ugly

The Thai Smiles List!

According to Working With The Thais: A Guide to Managing in Thailand, the ‘top 13’ identified Thai Smiles are:

  1. Yim thang nam taa: The “I’m so happy I’m crying” smile.
  2. Yim thak thaai: The “polite” smile for someone you barely know.
  3. Yim cheun chom: The “I admire you” smile.
  4. Fuen Yim: The stiff smile, also known as the “I should laugh at the joke though it’s not funny” Smile.
  5. Yim mee lessanai: The smile which masks something wicked in your mind.
  6. Yim yaw: The teasing, or “I told you so” smile.
  7. Yim yae-yae: The “I know things look pretty bad but there’s no point in crying over spilt milk” smile.
  8. Yim sao: The sad smile.
  9. Yim haeng: The dry smile, also known as the “I know I owe you the money but I don’t have it” smile.
  10. Yim thak thaan: The “I disagree with you” smile, also known as the “You can go ahead and propose it but your idea’s no good” smile.
  11. Yim cheua-cheuan: The “I am the winner” smile, the smile given to a losing competitor.
  12. Yim soo: “smiling in the face of an impossible struggle” smile.
  13. Yim mai awk: The “I’m trying to smile but can’t” smile.
  14. Yim som tam: The “Waiter, there’s a dead crab in my salad!” smile. (ok, this one was completely made up. But I’m sure I’ve given it myself a few times…).
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One story illustrating the influence of smiling in Thai culture runs back to the political turmoil of the 1980’s. The Thai Prime Minister at the time, Gen. Prem Tinsulanond, was confronted by a swarm of journalists demanding answers about the government’s handling of domestic issues.

Rather than answer the questions directly, Gen. Prem buffered several questions by displaying a series of smiles for the perplexed media.

 Thailand lives up to its namesake as ‘The Land of Smiles’. In the end, the culture of smiling does appear to allow for a more easy-going society, like when a Bangkok cabbie bumps into a car at a traffic light and all parties discuss the situation with cheeky grins, or a screaming child in a movie theatre elicits only smiles from nearby viewers (instead of annoyed eye-dagger glares) that we might expect in the west.

Thai Kids Smiling

So, next time you step on a Thai’s foot in a crowded mall and the victim responds gleefully, remember that a Thai Smile is often not what it seems. As Thais and longtime ex-pats will tell you, a smile may have a thousand meanings.

The smile may even be on you!

More Thai Smiles Stuff

Check out more at A Broad Abroad in Thailand; An Expat’s Misadventures in the Land of Smiles.


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9 thoughts on “Thai Smiles – Good, Bad, Ugly (and the 10 in between)”

  1. Avatar Of Dawn

    These are the things that a traveler needs to be aware of to avoid interpreting the local Thai people incorrectly. I’m sure many have responded inappropriately.

    You have to admire a culture that can smile in the face of adversity.

  2. Avatar Of Thailand

    I think a Thai smile guide book is in order, with pictures and detailed meanings about each type of Thai smile! 🙂 Great post

  3. Avatar Of Hamptin Inn

    Those smiles could bring wonder to someone else life,so it’s really cool for Thai people to practice this kind of way..Thanks for posting!

  4. Avatar Of Simon

    My wife is Thai. I asked her about this article – her response was that it’s just creative writing, but is based on partial fact. Thais do smile a lot, especially the poorer ones. The richer ones say this is because they do not worry about silly things like money and the latest iphone/etc.

    That said, it was an enjoyable read, and its heart is in the right place 🙂

  5. Avatar Of Thai Medical

    Its partially creative writing but carries alot of truth. Just like the tonal language (5 levels) visual clues also have levels. Its almost a natural reaction though and most Thais’ wouldnt be able to write out a verbose list like the author. Kudos for putting this together.

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