Even if you are only in Thailand for a few weeks, if you can learn a few words of the Thai language it can be amazing the difference it can make to your interaction with the locals. Naturally, you have to be realistic; if you haven’t learnt Thai before it’s going to be difficult. At first you will almost certainly mispronounce words, but don’t let that stop you from trying. If nothing else, it will make people laugh and be sanuk. I found my first fumbling attempts at Thai to be a great ice-breaker
The words I’ve chosen are useful in a number of situations and can be picked up quite easily by the casual visitor. They also have the advantage that even if they are mispronounced slightly, the Thai person should be able to understand what you are saying. If you are spending a longer time in Thailand, I recommend investing in a pocket-sized Thai phrasebook. The best way to learn is to listen to a Thai person; don’t be afraid to ask a native speaker how you say something in Thai.
If you’re curious to know why I’ve listed 9 phrases instead of 5 or 10, check out this article on Thai lucky numbers for an explanation.
You may see this written as sawasdee, sawatdii or a number of different ways. It’s a greeting that can be used to say hello, good day, good morning, good afternoon and goodbye, so it’s a useful word to learn. Always say sawatdee in conjunction with the polite article, khap or ka (see number 2 below). Females say sawatdee ka and males say sawatdee khap.
2) Khap and Ka
This is a polite syllable that has no real direct translation in English. Men say khap (sometimes khrap, but in everyday speech it usually becomes khap) and women say ka. If you listen to Thai people speak you will hear it frequently at the end of sentences. Its use denotes manners and respect, so get in the habit of using it if you are learning any Thai even if it’s just for your two week holiday or vacation. There is a Thai word for please, but it isn’t used in the same context as it is in English. For example, if you are at a restaurant and you want to say ‘the bill please’ you would say ‘kep tang khap’ (if you are a man) and ‘kep tang ka’ if you are a woman.
How to say ‘thank you’ in Thai »
(Just to confuse matters slightly for women, ka has two different tones. It’s used with a falling tone unless you are using it at the end of a question when it becomes a high tone. The difference can be difficult to pick up, but listen enough to Thai women and you will spot it.)
Being polite in Thailand >>
3) Sabai Dii
Another greeting you will hear a lot is sabai dii. A person may ask you ‘Sabai dii mai?’ (‘How are you/Are you well?’). Khap or ka may be added on to this so you may hear ‘Sabai dii mai khap/ka?’ Respond by saying ‘Sabai dii khap/ka’ (‘I am well thank you/I’m fine thank you’). Of course you can always say ‘mai sabai’ (‘not well’), but then expect the follow up question, ‘thamay mai sabai?’ (‘why aren’t you well?’). If you’re confident that you can convey the fact that you’ve got the hangover from hell or you spent half the night sitting on the toilet after eating that extra spicy som tam, then go ahead. Responding with sabai dii is usually easier.
This is another polite word that precedes a persons name and can also be used when trying to get somebody’s attention. Thai people don’t tend to address people (Thai or foreign) by their surname. Instead they use the first name preceded by the title khun. So if your name is David Smith you will probably be referred to as Khun David or even Mister David. If you return the compliment you will immediately win respect. For instance, the receptionist at your hotel has a name badge which says Noy. If you want to say good morning, use a big smile and say ‘Sawatdee khap/ka khun Noy’.
Some Thai people struggle when it comes to using the correct form of address in English for addressing women. So, if you are called Mary, regardless of your marital status you may hear Khun Mary, Miss Mary, Mrs Mary and quite possibly Mister Mary, so try not to be offended!
If you are at a restaurant and want to get the attention of the waiter or waitresses you can say ‘khun khap’ or ‘khun ka’. This is very polite and will be appreciated. If you listen to Thai people calling to the waiter or waitress you will probably hear them say something entirely different. Phrases like ‘nong’, ‘pii’ or ‘nuu’ may be used depending on the age of the person whose attention they are seeking. These terms are also polite but are very Thai and they can be a minefield of embarrassment if you get them wrong. That’s why I would advise using the all encompassing ‘khun khap/ka’ as a much safer option.
Thai people love their food. They will also want you to love their food. If you can tell the restaurant owner, the cook or the waitress that the food was delicious – aroy – you are likely to receive a warm welcome the next time you go back. And even if it wasn’t delicious, smile say ‘aroy’ and don’t go back there again! Bending the truth and flattery are common in Thailand so don’t worry too much about the occasional white lie.
Try stopping at a street stall or hawker cart and point at something you like the look of. Hand over your 10 or 20 Baht and take a bite. If it’s good, smile and say ‘aroy’. Congratulations, you’ve just made a new friend in Thailand.
The more words you can learn about food the better. Thailand is a nation obsessed with food and any visitor can’t help but notice it. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that Thais like their food spicy – phet. In fact they like it really spicy – phet mak. As a foreigner you won’t be expected to eat some of the food that Thai people do. Don’t be afraid to ask for something ‘mai phet’ (‘not spicy’) or ‘phet nit nawy’ (‘a little bit spicy’).
7) Check Bin and Kep Tang
Both may be used when asking to settle your bill at a bar or restaurant. It’s more common to hear check bin in bars and kep tang in restaurants, but both should be understood. Don’t forget your khap or ka at the end of it; ‘check bin khap’ (if you are male) ‘check bin ka’ (if you are female).
I’ve written about this word before, and you may yourself being asked ‘sanuk mai?’ (‘having fun?/are you enjoying yourself?’). Respond by saying ‘sanuk’ or ‘sanuk mak’ (‘It’s a lot of fun/I’m really enjoying myself.’)
Understanding sanuk in Thailand >>
Often pronounced as nalak, this basically means cute. It’s not an obvious word for first time visitors to learn and usually pleasantly surprises Thai people when they hear a foreigner use it in the right context. Let me give you a real life example. Last year my sister was visiting and we were in Krabi on Nopparat Thara beach. A woman holding a baby walks past and there are smiles all round and I say ‘narak’ referring to the baby. After plenty of ‘khop khun ka’s from the mother and ‘thamay phut thai dai’ (why can you speak Thai?), I’m invited to join the rest of the family eating their picnic. I’m not suggesting that this happens every time, but it does illustrate two things; Thais love flattery (don’t we all) and they love their children.
Narak can also be used when talking about a woman or man you find attractive. There are other words for beautiful or handsome, but telling somebody they are narak is a nice compliment.