December 2: Our Travel Advent Calendar continues today in Thailand, the “Land of Smiles”.
In any part of the world, savvy travelers know that attempting to speak the local language is key to a good experience. Not only is it polite to know your please and thank yous, most locals will not expect it and will be delighted by any attempt. It’s ok to make mistakes, it’s the effort that counts.
My friend Skyla Sorenson spent three months studying in Thailand, living with local families. She lived in rural Thai style, sleeping on mats and using “rustic” toilets. Aaaah, to be young and flexible! I bumped into her in Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, and we got together for massages. She learned to speak the language and shared a few tips on getting by in Thai.
Thailand: the land of smiles, good food, and a seemingly impenetrable language barrier for Western travelers. Standard Thai is a tonal language, making it about as far away from the romance languages as you can get.
This means that one word can mean as many as five different things depending on how you say it. The word “ma” for example, can mean “dog,” when said in a rising tone, and “come,” when said in a flat tone.
Adding to this, Thai has an unrecognizable alphabet with a completely different set of vowels, consonants, and tones. But do not despair! Memorizing a handful of key phrases is very doable and will thrill any Thai person you come across.
*The following phrases are ones I learned over the course of three months living in Thailand. Because the Anglo alphabet doesn’t reflect the Thai alphabet very well, I’ve written the words as you would pronounce them.*
Here’s an easy first step—Your gender determines how to end sentences. If you identify as female, add “kaah” after everything you say. If you identify as male, end sentences with “krup.” The female ending is softer and more drawn out, while the male ending is said abruptly.
Pronunciation: The easiest way to make yourself understood without a full grasp of which tone goes where is to mimic people around you and pronounce things very clearly. Speak slowly, emphasizing every symbol. If someone doesn’t understand you at first, try saying the sentence again with different inflections. Think of each word and phrase like a roller coaster. To ask a question, like “sabai dii mai?” start on the flat part of the roller coaster and get higher at the end.
Greetings: Be overly polite and forward! Thailand didn’t earn the “Land of Smiles” label by being shy. When you walk into a restaurant, shop, hotel, or even when you’re walking down the street, greet people by saying “sawat di-kah” or “sawat di-krup.” This greeting is almost always accompanied by a gesture nicknamed the ‘Y.’ Put your palms together at your chest as if you’re praying and bow slightly while saying hello.
Thank yous: To say thank you, say “kop kun kah/krup.” If you’re really thankful, say “kop kun mah kah/krup.” For good measure, add a ‘Y’ as you’re saying it.
Pleasantries: An easy phrase to add another level to your Thai vocabulary is “sa baai dii mai kah/krup.” This means, ‘how are you doing?’ Mai turns a sentence in a question. It’s also the closest word to “no.” Like English, the Thai language has an inflection on the end of questions, so you would pronounce it as you would in English. The response to this is, “sa baai,” if you are feeling fine, and “mai sa baai,” if you’re not doing well. Remember to add the proper endings. Use this phrase generously, it’s the equivalent of “what’s up?” in English.
Addressing people: The Thai language rarely uses I, you, and we. Instead, you refer to everyone by their age and name. Someone who is around your age but younger is “noong,” meaning younger sibling. Someone who could be your older sibling is “pii.” Someone who is old enough to be your aunt is “baa,” and someone old enough to be your uncle is “luung.” If you know a person’s name, put it after their age. For example, to anyone older than me, I would be “noong Skyla.” Don’t worry about getting an age wrong, no one will be offended. It’s fun to figure out how old someone is by asking, “ayu tao rai kah/krup?” and figuring out a way to count. If you’re worried about mixing up ages, “pii” is an easy default to use.
Introductions: To learn someone’s name, you ask them, “chuu a rai kah/krup?” The response is “chuu Skyla.” The name a person gives you will depend on how comfortable they are talking to you. If they give you a long response, that is their formal given name. A short response, like “pii Nit,” is their age and nickname. All Thai people are given a nickname early on in their life, based on what they resemble as a child. I’ve met people named bird, royal lady, spider, and even cucumber.
Food: Thai people love food. Spicy food. The most common thing you’ll hear at a restaurant or in someone’s home is, “gin pet dai mai?” which roughly translates to “eat spicy okay no?” If you want them to load it on, say “gin pet”(eat spicy), if you only want a little say “pet nit-noy”(spicy little bit), and if you want nothing to do with it say “mai gin pet” (no eat spicy). The next thing you’ll hear will be, “arroi mai?” Is it delicious? The answer to this is always, “arroi kah/krup,” or “arroi mak mak” if the food is very, very good. Most things on the menu won’t be recognizable. A surefire way to get a delicious meal is to ask the server or chef, “ari arroi ti sut?” This means, “what is the most delicious?” Trust me, you can’t go wrong.
Directions: If you’re in a situation where you need help with anything, say “choo-ay doo-ay kah/krup?” Conversely, if someone thinks you need help they may ask, “choo-ay doo-ay dai mai?” which means, “can I help?” To ask where the bathroom is, you say “hong-nam you-ti-nai kah/krup?” Hong-nam means bathroom, and you-ti-nai is asking where something is. You can put anything you’re looking for in the place of hong-nam.
Learning Thai: The best way to learn a language is through immersion. While you’re in Thailand, take in as much as possible by asking the locals around you how to say things. “Ahni-arai” is the catch-all phrase for this. If you say it and point at something, people will be happy to tell you its name in Thai.
If you use your new language skills in Thailand, people will most likely ask you if you speak Thai. “Phou passa Thai?” Now you can respond, “phou passa Thai nit-noy,” because you speak a little of their language.