Why The Wai Is The Best Greeting During The Coronavirus – Here’s How to Do It. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

The Wai is The Best Greeting During The Coronavirus – Here’s Why And How to Do It

The wai is the best greeting during the coronavirus and here’s why and here’s how to do it. The traditional Asian greeting, which originated in Buddhism and Hinduism, is a lot safer than shaking hands and more respectful and dignified than elbow bumping, ankle tapping, foot shaking, and, heaven forbid, jazz hands.

There is one habit that will be hard for us to shake when we eventually return to Australia and that’s greeting people with the closed-palm gesture that is called the sampeah in Cambodia, sembah in Indonesia, and the wai in Thailand, and is used throughout the predominantly Buddhist countries of northern Southeast Asia.

We’ve been using the gesture to greet people since we first moved to Southeast Asia in 2011 and it’s become second nature, something we don’t even think about.

We don’t use it when we meet foreign non-Buddhist friends, nor when we pop into the supermarket, say, and greet the same faces we see almost every day.  Under those circumstances a “sousdai” (hello in Khmer) is sufficient in Cambodia where we now live.

But we instinctively raise our hands and place them together, almost as if in prayer, in more formal settings and when we meet Cambodians, both friends or strangers, especially older people. And always when we meet locals in the more traditional villages and countryside.

We’re finding that we’re using the gesture more than ever since the pandemic was declared, now that there’s a need to keep a greater distance between people for safety, which is why we think the Cambodian sampeah or the Thai wai is the best greeting during the coronavirus and here’s why and here’s how to do it properly.

Published 23 March 2020.

The Wai Is The Best Greeting During The Coronavirus And Here’s Why and How to Do It

We’re nearing the end of the third month of the age of the coronavirus, if that’s what this dark period at the start of what we’d hoped would be a bright new decade will be known. As some countries in Asia – China, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong – have demonstrated, swift action, closed borders, lockdowns requiring closure of all but essential businesses, quarantining, self-isolation, and social distancing are all essential to containing the spread of COVID-19.

Just because leaders of governments in Italy, the US, Australia, and UK, where cases of the novel coronavirus have been rapidly increasing, have been slow to enforce some of the successful strategies of Asian countries, it doesn’t mean you can’t adopt the most effective tactics yourself.

Start with wearing a mask, no touching and social distancing, which we’ve already been practicing here in Cambodia for a few weeks, where cases still remain comparably low.

And, yes, I know it wasn’t all that long ago that I was encouraging you to embark on staycations to support the tourism, hospitality and F&B industries, but things have changed very quickly. I’m going to do a follow-up post to that one soon with more ideas for supporting those industries from the safety of your home, as well as ideas for stay-cationing in your own home.

So let’s talk about social distancing. Keeping in mind that stats are constantly changing, at this point in time it’s estimated that four out of five cases of the novel coronavirus are transmitted by someone who didn’t have any symptoms and didn’t know they had the virus. That means you need to stop taking risks, keep a safe distance from other people, and stop shaking hands. Definitely no kissing and hugging.

But you take pride in your manners, you don’t want people to think you’re rude, and you don’t want to insult strangers, so what do you do? You do the wai – or sampeah or namaste. This is exactly why we think the wai is the best greeting during the coronavirus. So let’s answer your who, what, why, where, and how questions about the wai.

Why The Wai Is The Best Greeting During The Coronavirus – Your Questions Answered (The Simplified Guide)

What Is The Wai Exactly?

It’s a respectful gesture that is used widely in Buddhist and Hindu countries across Southeast Asia and South Asia to greet people in all kinds of circumstances, both spiritual and day-to-day. The first time that foreign travellers are likely to encounter it is when they arrive at a hotel or resort in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, or Bhutan where they will be greeted by smiling staff with the palms of their hands pressed together at chest-level as if in prayer.

So Thailand’s Wai is the Same as India’s Namaste?

It’s similar, yes, but it’s a little more complicated. Thailand’s wai is called sampeah in Cambodia and it has different names in other Southeast Asian countries. However, in India, the gesture is called añjali mudrā and “namaste”, which means “I bow to you”, is often spoken at the same time. While the wai and sampeah are a greeting in Southeast Asia, in India it’s also used to express gratitude.

Are There Rules For Using the Wai?

You should always reciprocate a wai, so if someone does it to you, you should do it right back. But you shouldn’t wai someone younger than you. And the older the person to whom you are gesturing, the more respectful your wai should be. You will see Cambodians and Thais raise their palms higher and higher and bow their head lower and lower the older and more venerated the person is, for example, if it’s a senior monk. When it comes to greeting royalty, Cambodians and Thais will actually get right down on the ground.

Can I Mess Up My Wai?

Sure, but Thais and Cambodians are such polite people that they probably won’t say anything. They are very forgiving of foreigners who aren’t familiar with local etiquette and make cultural faux pas so don’t stress out if you do a wai to an adorable child who raises their palms to you, or if you don’t raise your palms high enough or bow your head low enough when meeting a monk or an elderly person. The fact that you’ve attempted the gesture will be appreciated, as it demonstrates an interest in and a respect for their culture.

What Do I Do If I’m Carrying Something?

I seem to always be carrying something, so in those cases I will do my best to intimate the gesture if I can’t always bring my hands together completely. Fingers of both hands touching in a triangle shape kind of works. Bow your head a little, smile, shrug, and they’ll get what you’re trying to do and most likely smile (laugh) back.

Why Are You Recommending The Wai Now?

Because you can greet people respectfully from a safe distance without offending them. Whereas refusing a handshake is a bit awkward and rude and most of the other handshake alternatives are just plain silly and still involve touching. You are also unlikely to be accused of cultural appropriation, as it’s a greeting that has gone beyond religion and is cultural and social.

But the Wai is Religious, Right?

The wai originated in Buddhism and Hinduism so, yes, its origins are spiritual, and the gesture has its role in rituals and places of worship (for instance, you would do the wai as you enter a pagoda), however, over time it has become an everyday greeting of respect. That means you can use the wai to respectfully greet someone, even though you may not be religious.

Can I Wai to a Muslim Friend?

When you meet a Muslim friend you can use another respectful gesture, instead; one that is loaded with meaning and communicates warmth, honour, hospitality, and sincerity. It’s super simple, too: put your right hand over your heart. It means that the greeting comes from the heart.

Do let us know if you have any more questions as to why the wai is the best greeting during the coronavirus and we’ll add them above and answer them. We’d also love to hear from you if you have suggestions for a better form of greeting than the wai, sampeah or namaste.


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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

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