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In order truly to understand the culture of another people, it is a good idea to learn their language. Oftentimes, the languages we speak influence how we think and perceive what happens around us.
In this article, we will use our experience and knowledge to explain the history of the Thai language, why it can be a good idea to learn basic Thai, some things that are tricky about learning Thai, and lastly we give you the phrases that are most useful for travelers.
Thai is the official language of the Kingdom of Thailand and is spoken by over 20 million people. Thai developed from a mixture of the ancient languages of other Southeast Asian countries such as Sanskrit from India and Khmer from Cambodia.
It is not necessary for travelers to learn Thai before going to Thailand because most Thai people, especially in the tourist areas of the country, will speak at least a little English. However, if you do, it will instantly make the locals react more warmly towards you.
Thai people strongly appreciate it when people attempt to speak their language, even if it is with mistakes or incorrect pronunciation. Learning basic Thai phrases is a great way to instantly gain respect from the locals and enrich your experience of Thailand and Thai people.
One important thing to know about Thai is that some words and expressions are said differently depending on the gender of the speaker.
Khrap and Kha are two words that you'll hear very often when traveling in Thailand. These words are often added at the end of a sentence or phrase to indicate respect, comprehension, or acknowledgment.
The tricky part is that Khrap (pronounced "Krap" or "Kap") is said by male speakers with a sharp and high tone. Kha (pronounced "Khaaaa") is said by women with an elongated falling tone.
In the phrases below when you see Khrap/Kha, it indicates that you should say the one that matches your gender.
Some aspects of pronunciation in Thai can be difficult for foreigners. Oftentimes, the letter r in Thai is sometimes silent or sounds more like an l and ph is pronounced just as a p. For example, Phuket is typically pronounced "poo-ket" and krap is sometimes pronounced "kap".
Like Mandarin and Vietnamese, Thai is a tonal language. Thai has five different tones which can be hard to hear and reproduce as an outsider, but that's okay! Most Thai people will understand what foreigners are saying even though the tones are incorrect. If you want to be really good at Thai, then it's a good idea to mimic the pronunciation of the locals.
Now that we've covered the basics of the Thai language and pronunciation, here are some important phrases in Thai that will be easy to use.
Hello - sawasdee krap/kha
Sounds like “sah-wah-dee krap/kah”
This greeting can be used for everyone around you, including people that are both older and younger. Oftentimes in Thailand, saying hello is also accompanied by a wai which is a slight bow of respect with the hands together in a prayer position.
Performing a wai can feel awkward for westerners at first, but in Thailand, it is a sign of mutual respect and not returning someone's wai is seen as impolite.
How are you ? - sabai dee mai?
Sounds like “sah-bye-dee my”
This is the perfect phrase to say after saying hello to see how someone is doing. The typical answer to this question is sabai dee which just means fine, happy, or comfortable.
Thank you - kawp khun (khrap/kha)
Sounds like “kop koon (krap/kah)”
This phrase is probably the one that travelers will use the most when they visit Thailand. Thai people say thank you very often and love hearing it in their own language from travelers.
You can also add a wai to your thank you to make it very sincere.
No worries - mai pen rai
Sounds like: “my pen rye”
This is a very common phrase in Thai and can be used as a way to say “you’re welcome”. It is also often used after someone apologizes, to mean “no problem” or “never mind”.
A great way to use this phrase is right after a cultural misunderstanding or problems with the language barrier. You can say mai pen rai immediately after with a smile and the awkwardness of the misunderstanding will disappear.
Excuse me - kor tot
Sounds like: “kor tot”
Like many countries in Asia, Thailand can be very crowded especially when using public transportation such as trains and boats. Sometimes it will be necessary to push through the crowd and saying kor tot is a great way to get where you want to go politely.
I don’t understand - mai khao jai
Sounds like: “my cow jai”
Because Thailand is a new to you, there will probably be times when someone is speaking to you but you simply can’t understand them. In these situations, all you need to do is say mai khao jai with a smile and you won’t lose any face or seem rude.
Where is the bathroom? - haawng naam yuu tee nai?
Sounds like: “hong nam you tee nye”
Depending on where you are, public bathrooms can be hard to find in Thailand. In case of emergencies, this is a good phrase to know. Sometimes when you really have to go, you won’t have time for language barriers or misunderstandings.
Delicious - aroy
Sounds like: “uh-roy”
Thai people are very proud of their food and when you find a place that you really like, you can compliment the owners and the cooks by saying aroy. Small compliments are greatly appreciated in Thailand and can go a long way. Next time you eat food at the same place, they might give you extra or even treat you more politely.
Spicy / Not spicy / A little spicy – phet / mai phet / nit noi phet
Sounds like: “pet/ my pet/ neet noy pet”
Thailand is famous for its incredibly spicy and delicious food. Depending on your taste, this can be wonderful or it can be torture. A good way to make sure that you get food that will be at a level of spice that you will enjoy, is to specify when you order.
Vegetarian - mang sa wirat
Sounds like: “mahng sah weerat”
Vegetarianism is a new concept in Thailand and many vegetarian dishes are still cooked with fish sauce, oyster sauce, or egg. If you are a strict vegetarian, you may have to say that you eat a Buddhist diet or “eat red”.
Eat Red (vegan/Buddhist diet) - gin jay
Sounds like: “gen jay”
Saying that you eat red in Thailand means that you follow a Buddhist diet. This means that you don’t eat meat, seafood, egg, or dairy. However, it also means that you don’t want garlic, many herbs, or alcohol.
How much is this? - ni tao rai?
Sounds like: “nee taow rye”
When buying items at markets in Thailand, bargaining is often expected and part of the culture. Before you start bargaining, you need to know their asking price. Keep in mind that they will always start much higher than the true price of the product, especially if you don’t look Thai.
Expensive - paeng
Sounds like: “paing”
This is a good word to use when you start bargaining to let the shop owner know that you think the price is too expensive. If you want to sound very Thai, you can say paeng in a long drawn out tone to emphasize how expensive the item is.
I want it/I’ll take it - ao
Sounds like: “ow”
When the bargaining has come to an end and you are happy with the price, you can simply say ao to inform the shop keeper that you’d like to buy the product.
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