The Thai Two Finger Salute

Wonderful Wi

If you have spent any time in Thailand then the pose in the picture above will be one you have seen plenty of times before. For many many months I had a slight obsession to try and solve what exactly the Thai two finger salute actually meant. Then one day when reading around the blogosphere I came across a comment that seemed to offer a logical explanation to the mystery that had been bugging me.

Two fingered saluteIn the United Kingdom we show the back of our hand when performing a much more aggressive version of the two finger salute, the Thai rendition is reversed, with the open palm showing, but my research shows their origin and intention were very much one but not so nowadays.

Hand signs mean different things depending on where you travel in the world and displaying your open outstretched hand towards someone in Greece with the palm facing towards them, and all five digits splayed out, is considered a very big insult. In Greek medieval times criminals were paraded through the streets on a donkey with the convict sat facing the animals rear with their hands tied behind their backs and faces smothered in cinder. The cinder was collected and applied onto the face with an open palmed splayed hand. This gestured insult is known as the moutza.

Performing the two fingered V sign or salute can be interpreted differently by which part of the hand is facing the recipient and getting it wrong can lead to an embarrassing situation. The sign when showed with an open palm is recognised throughout the world as a sign of peace or victory, but it’s important to remember to have the back of your hand facing you. In 1992 when George Bush Snr was on tour in Australia he gave an intended V peace sign to protesting farmers and you’ve guessed it, Mr Bush signalled with his hand the wrong way round. Whoops.

When Burmese forces invaded Siam (Thailand) in 1767 the Burmese army captured the Siam capital of Ayutthaya and in the same year General Taksin who later became King rallied the country’s forces together and defeated the invaders at the Battle of Pho Sam Ton Camp. Now we get to the two finger salute.

WilaiWhenever Burmese forces captured Siamese soldiers they cut off their index and middle fingers to stop them from being able to draw their bows, disabling any archers or future ones. During the battles between the two warring countries the Siamese soldiers would often raise their index and middle fingers to the Burmese in a gesture to say that they still had the capability to draw their bows and therefore the ability to kill them. I think that these days the Thai two finger salute is used as a photoghraphic posing tease as if to say ‘ I dare you, snap me like this.’

The apparent origin of the British two finger ‘salute’ dates back even further to the 15th century and the Battle of Agincourt. The French army who were confident of victory over the English had made it known that any prisoners taken would have their longbow fingers removed. After the English triumphed in the battle back in 1415 the English soldiers raised their two bow fingers in ridicule at the French. Nowadays the British two finger ‘salute’ is an extremely rude way of telling someone to go away.

Staying on the theme of the history behind the origin of the English armies use of the ‘salute’ I found an interesting entry on a Canadian forum. The person posting on the forum makes claim that the English longbows used at the time of the Battle of Agincourt were made from the Yew Tree and the drawing of the long bow was known as ‘plucking the yew’ or ‘pluck yew’. The soldiers were said at the end of their victorious battle to have raised their two fingers and taunted the defeated French with those very words. Due to its uneasiness of natural speech the first two letters were later replaced with F.

So do you agree with the theory on the Thai two finger salute that I have researched or do you think ‘pluck yew’ and have an explanation of your own. To help you make your mind up and remind you just how often those raised fingers have appeared in your own photographs here’s a few more pictures below.

Udon ThaniHua HinBangkok

© 2009 – 2012, Martyn. All rights reserved.

22 thoughts on “The Thai Two Finger Salute

  1. Martyn an interesting post.

    Funnily enough I featured Doy doing just the same on my photo blog a couple of days ago.

    This particular gesture when exhibited by folk from Asia (not just Thais) has always made me wonder on the origin.

    But why the reversed V?

    Like you I knew the history involving archers in Europe. Perhaps its just a “loan gesture” that has been imported into Thai culture like some words in the language. This might well have occurred after WWII and Churchill’s famed gesture.

    One final point, I have only ever seen young people exhibit it and in all cases this was by girls/women!
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..Thai Tourist Visa Crackdown =-.

  2. Martyn, another interesting article, thanks! And you are right, I even have a photo of my teacher shooting the finger, as well as Thai students from past years doing the same.

    I read somewhere that the thumbs up in Thailand has the same meaning as in Argentina and Nigeria, but I can’t find it anywhere online.

    But when searching around, I did find this site, which gets quite elaborate…
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Thai 101 Learners Series: Don’t Speak it, Think it =-.

  3. Hmmm…I sometimes wonder if maybe my girl is secretly telling me she’s ready to fire on me….that smile can be so misleading.

    I’ve heard the same exact reasoning behind both the Thai and English 2 finger salute many times so there must be some validity behind it.

    In America we have the 1 finger salute…apparently my forefathers were lazy and had a very light draw on their bows.
    .-= Talen´s last blog ..The Eyes of Thailand =-.

  4. Martyn ,thanks for the history lesson, and the great pictures. At first when I started taking photos in Thailand, it use to annoy me that they would do the two finger thing , because that was the peace sign for the hippies during the Nam war of the late 60’s and early 70’s , while I did’nt agree with the war I did not like the attitude of the hippies toward the soliders, and all the protest during that era and their sign was the peace sign , so that always stuck in the back my old mind . Now I just laugh when I see it in Thailand (noone does it in America anymore ) and think it’s cute and remember that in the LOS that everything not SAME,SAME. Malcolm
    .-= Malcolm´s last blog ..AS GOOD AS NEW =-.

  5. Mike I was going to mention the fact that only females seem to use the gesture but I didn’t want the post to drag on too long. Perhaps its too painful a memory for the men and what their ancestors went through. I have asked Wi many times what the gesture meant but each time she said she didn’t know and that her enquires had the same result. Mike I think the palm showing raised to the face is probably the logical way to express to your enemy ‘See I still have two fingers and I’m going to get you.’

    Catherine – Teachers doing it, everybody is doing it and have done so for many years. Were the students and teachers female, I bet the majority were. I checked out your links and I must admit the sideways thumb is a new one to me and I best watch out for it in the future. Catherine you have just expanded one of my rules to ‘No angry wasps OR hitchhikers in our rented car.’ Cheers.

  6. Talen I’m sure Pookie is signalling on her daughter’s behalf to let you know you’re taking on two beauts instead of one.

    During my research I continually came up with references to the American one finger salute which they called ‘giving the bird.’ The explanation was that the arrows feathers were made from pheasants plumage and the gesture that was aimed at the enemy meant to give them some of the bird. I don’t know what your thoughts are on that one.

    Malcolm it’s understandable that with your nationality and passion that having seen the Nam era that you would take offence at all the anti war protesters. Thankfully in Thailand it means, well I’m still not exactly sure what the modern day gesture means at all but I am glad that I uncovered its origin. I’ve never made the sign in any of my Thai photos how about you. I might give it a go on my forthcoming trip.

  7. Adullamite I’m just heading off for a few beers in Swindon and they’re playing Colchester today, that’s down your way isn’t it, I might receive a few salutes myself.

  8. Catherine that is most strange. The amount of westerners that use the thumbs up each day in Thailand must be huge. I’m surprised there’s not fights in every hotel lobby and beer bar each and every hour. Racking my brain I cannot ever recall seeing a Thai make the gesture which is worrying because at first I thought it might be an old long gone form of insult. I best keep my hands in my pockets most of the time on my coming trip either that or find everything unsatisfactory rather than okay, that would be difficult in the Land of Smiles.

  9. Hi Martyn- seeing as this post is still running how about the gesture of making a circle with the thumb and forefinger as in “very good.”

    MTF tells me not to do it here since it means something rather crude!

    Hands in pockets time……but then again!
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..All Change in Tourist Thailand? =-.

  10. Mike this is a new one on me and I can only guess what it relates to but I’d better not mention it on here. Many more comments and we’re all going to be walking around with our hands deep inside our pockets. I will check the sign out with Wi the week after next and find out what it means.

  11. personally i rather like the the Thai two finger salute there is something so innocent about it
    when i first saw it in Thailand it was a surprise and i instantly thought of citizen smith of the tooting popular front a show back in the early eighties
    a kind of power to the Thai people
    the last time i used the English version i was at a set of traffic lights

  12. OK, I spent nearly 45 mins looking for a pic illustrating another similar hand gesture. But didn’t find one so I’ll just have to describe it:

    Spread the thumb and forefinger apart, and fold the remaining three fingers against the palm — forming a figure like a gun. Bring that hand to under your chin, tilt your head in the direction of the “barrel”. I’ve seen photos of Thai teenagers doing this when photographed.

    Ack! I found one, at Thai blogs:

    Hope this link works. Anyone else seen this? Guess it’s just one of those cultural things.

    Nice subject, HooDon.

  13. John – The last time we were at traffic lights in our rented motor we got pulled over for being about one inch over the line, Wi was absolutely furious. She was driving, I paid and you’ve probably guessed it was near the end of the month.

  14. Just an addition from a Vietnamese angle to this story. As previous comments suggested, most SE Asian countries use the 2 finger salute, however, in Vietnam “two” translates as “Hai”, phonetically “Hi” which makes some sense but it still staggers me to this day how group-think catches on and in the face of a camera, they customarily give the 2 fingers…

  15. Rick the link works fine. The gesture that I know that is used this way is one called and my spelling is going to be way wrong…maanquil….and it is indeed a gestured gun and one of endearment similar to when a Thai playfully nips someone with their teeth. Mothers do the teeth nip to their children and wives and girlfriends to their other halves. They fire one imaginary shot from the gun and then pull it away, it kind of says I’ve plugged you you’re mine.That’s how I see it anyway.

  16. Phil thanks for an interesting add to the post. The Vietnamese salute makes sense but sense isn’t always the obvious reason. I am amazed in Thailand that the amount of young women who immediately take up the two finger pose as soon as you aim a camera at them. Cheers.

  17. Just showed this to my Thai wife and she agrees with your research, but, only because this post brought back memories of what her farther had told her 20 odd years ago – now we have an answer to long outstanding questions. thanks

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