Thailand welcomes millions of visitors each year looking for that picture perfect holiday. Featured in films and magazines for years for the white sand beaches of its islands and thick jungled mountains of the north, the country seems to offer something for everyone. That being said, Thailand also has a very low rate of foreign language speakers.
Thais regularly fall at the bottom of Southeast Asians for language ability despite the amount of tourists and foreigners who flock to the country yearly. Many would contribute this to the fact that Thailand has always retained its sovereignty unlike its neighbors. So like many of its other cultural attributes, cuisine, music, dance Thais are highly proud and protective of their unique language.
For visitors this can add to the overall experience or become a hurdle to travel. By learning a handful of phrases though you can turn that possible problem into an advantage. Since Thai is unique to the country and seems difficult to learn, by packing along a few greetings and salutations in the native language you can ensure plenty of welcomes in the land of smiles.
First and foremost
The all purpose greeting in Thai is Satwa Dee, followed by either Krap for a male, or Ka for a female. These endings make any statement polite and come at the end of all sentences as well as standing alone as affirmative responses.
The ending of that greeting dee means good and is used in many other ways. Dee mak – very good, chok dee – Good luck, dee mai – is it good ? And mai dee – it is not good.
Now take from that the word mai. Using mai before another word creates a negative, whereas using it after a word creates a question. So mee mai means do you have? Whereas mai mee means don’t have.
Mai is also the first word of what may be the second most important term in Thai, mai pen rai. I think of mai pen rai as a kind of verbal duct tape that fixes or at least mends almost any situation. It means that’s alright, or it’s not important, or don’t worry about it. You’ll hear it all the time while in Thailand and it may come in handy when you get in a bind.
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Thai is a complicated tonal language that is about as different from English as you can get. As a tourist you’re not going to learn much even if you spend the majority of your time studying instead of enjoying your holiday. That’s a given, but knowing a few words to punctuate your experiences may make a big difference in how you get along. Knowing that alroy means delicious and that alroy mak means exceptional may get you a smile at the end of a meal or even a free beer.
Having soi at hand to compliment a beautiful girl, a deserted beach, or a pagoda at a temple can win you big points with locals. Being ready with a na rak – love face, for a baby or child will win you praise for your knowledge of Thai.
Phrases you’ll hear and how to answer them.
Pai nai – literally meaning “where are you going?” but actually is a general greeting. As it doesn’t really ask a question it doesn’t really require an answer. For a tourist saying pai teeo, traveling, is a good answer. You may also hear this in English – “where you go?”, which again is not a real question except when being asked by a taxi driver.
Kin kao yang – Have you eaten? Again not actually a question about food more about how you are. This can be answered with any affirmative, kin lao – or, I have, is a great response.
Sabai dee mai – How are you? This is specific and should be answered specifically but like in English when someone asks you how you are you don’t tell them your problems you simply say I’m fine, sabai dee, repeating the phrase.
Kuhn poot pasa thai dai mai – Can you speak Thai? You can’t, so you can simply say mai dai krap/kha. If you want to push the conversation a little bit you may answer, poot nid nawy, or, I can a little bit, but get ready for a torrent of conversation you won’t understand.
So chok dee on your vacation in Thailand and remember if things get frustrating to stay jai yen yen, or cool-hearted.