Explaining Thailand’s Customs: Sniff Kiss, Making Merit and Nicknames | campus.sg

Thai custom
Photo by Ivan Nedelchev on Unsplash

Whether you’re a regular visitor to Thailand or if you love watching Thai lakorns (dramas) or ‘Y’ series (boys love dramas), chances are you’ve come across some customs that may seem a bit strange at first. Some of Thailand’s most common customs include the sniff kiss, making merit, and the prevalence of nicknames.

Once you learn about their origins, you’ll understand better the reasons behind these customs.

What is the sniff kiss?

If you’ve been watching Thai dramas, you’ll probably notice that sometimes the lovers give each other kisses that look like they’re afraid to actually kiss. They look more like they’re sniffing each other.

This is because they’re not really “kissing” the way we’re used to. Thais have their own unique way of showing affection that’s called haawm kaem, which means “pleasant smell” – more commonly known as the “sniff kiss.” It’s when you put your nose close to the cheek, neck, or hair of a beloved and inhaling their scent.

Thailand is a country that highly prizes cleanliness – Thais tend to shower a lot – so the act of sniff kissing means they’re literally breathing in the clean scent of the person who’s loved. A sniff kiss can be given by most people – from a parent to child or between lovers.

A sniff kiss will often be given at a Thai wedding rather than the typical kiss we’re used to at weddings. In Thailand, a typical lippy kiss is something usually reserved for the bedroom and not commonly seen in public, even in open-minded Bangkok.

What’s with the nicknames?

If you’ve been watching Thai dramas, you’ll notice that characters are often referred to by their nicknames. Even the actors that play those characters are known by their nickname/given name combo rather than the usual given name/surname combo. For example, actor Noppakao Dechaphatthanakun goes by Kao Noppakao (“Kao” is his nickname).

However, when you check their credit lines, you’ll notice that they’re most often credited with their official name (ie. given name and surname) – which can be confusing, especially to many of us who don’t know their real names. It’s very normal for Thais to be known only by their nicknames because they’re way easier to remember – especially by those who don’t speak Thai.

Usually, it’s the parents who give their children their nicknames, which are often single or double syllable (as opposed to their formal and often longer given names). Some nicknames reflect aspirations, like Bank or Boss; or you get names that reflect numbers, like First, Third, or Kao/Nine. Some others seem random, like Ice, Fern, Golf or Gun, and there are also some accidentally funny names when read in English, like Poo (crab), Pee (the letter ‘P’), and Porn (blessing).

A child’s longer, official given name is usually chosen by monks or fortune tellers, since they have great significance in Thailand, so nicknames are often given prior to settling on the official name.

What’s more interesting is that Thai surnames, which are famously long, are usually supposed to be unique and not similar to anyone you’re not related to, which is why some names are super long. And the rules make it easy for people to change their surnames multiple times. In Thailand, changing surnames 3-4 times is not unheard of, and some people change their names 5-6 times! Usually they do it for auspicious reasons, and often consult a temple or astrology tables for their new names which are supposed to be based on their dates of birth.

But the one thing that doesn’t change is the nickname, which is a reason why people in Thailand prefer to use nicknames for everyday use.

Making merit at a temple

In some dramas, you may hear the mention of “making merit” – like in the BL series “YDestiny” where Thur visits a temple regularly to make merit.

Over 90% of Thai population are Buddhists, and they have a general belief in karma and reincarnation. The Thai saying “if you do good you will receive good, if you do evil you will receive evil” acknowledges that current life will have an effect on their next life. So making merit helps you ‘gain merit points’ in life as a consequence of good actions, and it’s believed that it can weaken the effect of past evils.

One of the most common ways of making merit is by donating cash to temples – and these days in the age of ecommerce, you may find donation receipts (with QR codes) instead of cash in the donation pots; some temples even have QR codes you can scan and make digital payments. Many Thai also make merit by making coffin donations at temples or offering alms to monks on their morning alms-collecting rounds.

Here’s a video explaining the temples and shrines in Thailand, and how to make merit.

There are just some of the customs you may notice whenever you’re in Thailand – or if you watch a lot of Thai dramas. Other interesting customs include the use of specific colours that correspond to the days of the week – for example, Sunday is represented by red, Wednesday is green, Monday is yellow, and so on. This custom can best be seen in the BL series “YDestiny” where each day is represented by a character, named for days of the week (ie. Sun, Thu, etc) donning its representative day colour.

What other Thai customs can you identify?