Mai pen rai. Three little words. But what does the phrase mean and why do the Thai people use it so often? Like many things in Thailand, it isn’t as straight-forward as it first seems. Mai pen rai is often translated as ‘never mind’ or ‘it’s OK’. While it can sometimes be used in that context, mai pen rai goes beyond that.
To demonstrate some of the different ways mai pen rai can be used, here are some everyday examples using the scenario of a visit to a coffee shop with a Thai friend.
At the coffee shop you order two iced coffees. The female owner brings you the coffees and also a small plate of cookies that you hadn’t ordered. The owner explains the cookies are free with every order today. You say, ‘thank you, that’s very kind of you’ and the owner responds with ‘mai pen rai ka‘. The owner is acknowledging your politeness and also saying ‘you’re welcome’. Note the addition of ka at the end of mai pen rai to make it extra polite.
Never mind, don’t worry about it
Checking your Facebook messages on your phone you accidentally knock your glass and spill some of the coffee. You apologise and ask for a tissue to clear up the mess you’ve made, but the owner says ‘mai pen rai‘. Don’t worry about it. No problem. It’s not a big deal and easily cleaned up.
It’s OK, it’s up to you
The cookies have made you think about what to have for lunch. You ask your friend if they want to eat khao soi and they may respond with ‘mai pen rai, arai gor dai‘ (‘it’s OK, anything is fine’) or they may simply say, ‘up to you’. The Thai person may or may not have a particular food in mind, but would still prefer that you decide. In general, Thais don’t want to appear picky in these situations and would prefer to go with the flow.
No thank you
You eye up the last remaining cookie on the plate before asking your friend, ‘do you want that last cookie?’ Your friend is trying to watch her weight and doesn’t want to eat any more cookies so responds with a ‘mai pen rai ka‘ which in this case equates to a definite ‘no thank you’. They may also respond with a ‘mai ao ka‘ (‘I don’t want it thanks’), but a mai pen rai will often be used.
There are times, though, when ‘mai pen rai’ used as a ‘no thank you’ can actually mean, ‘yes please’. It’s confusing and even after years spent in Thailand the subtlety can easily be missed. You ask your friend, ‘would you like that last cookie?’ Your friend is watching her weight, but the cookies are aroy mak and she decides that the diet can wait until tomorrow. She really does want that last cookie, but doesn’t say ‘yes please’ as you’d might expect. Instead she replies with an ambiguous ‘mai pen rai‘. It’s easy to misinterpret this as a ‘no thank you’ or a ‘don’t worry about it’, but in this instance it actually means ‘yes please’. The hesitant ‘mai pen rai‘ from your friend when asked if she wanted the last cookie was a ‘yes please’ that you were supposed to pick up on. Why doesn’t she just say she wants it then, you may ask. And it’s a reasonable question, but this is Thailand and sometimes things are done differently. Your friend knows that you may want the cookie too and doesn’t want to cause any arguments or hurt feelings so gives a mai pen rai response. Although you interpreting the ‘mai pen rai’ as a ‘no thank you’ may just lead to hurt feelings on her part!
The use of mai pen rai is part of ‘Thainess’. It’s part of the very fabric of Thai society and goes beyond direct translation of the words. In Thailand, there is a tendency to not always give a straight answer to a straight question in case other people’s feelings are hurt. Similarly, many Thais don’t want to cause trouble or inconvenience to other people because of the Thai concept of kreng jai. The idea of kreng jai also helps to explain some of the reasons why mai pen rai may be given as a response.
Mai pen rai
Mai pen rai can be confusing at times so don’t worry about it too much. Despite years spent in Thailand I don’t always pick up on the ‘yes please’ mai pen rai and sometimes mistake it for a ‘no thank you’. Only when I’ve eaten the last cookie do I know I’ve got it wrong. But there have been occasions when I’ve deliberately used my ‘farangness‘ to my advantage to enjoy that last cookie. And then I’ve just smiled to myself and thought, ‘mai pen rai‘.