How to Say Hello in Southeast Asia

Thai children performing the local greeting known as the "wai"
Holger Leue/Getty Images

Even if you don't speak the language, knowing how to say a polite "hello" is essential for a good experience in Southeast Asia. Not only is greeting people in their own language polite, it shows that you are interested in the local culture rather than only a cheap vacation experience.

Different countries have unique customs for greeting people; use this guide to avoid any potential cultural faux pas.

Never forget the most important part of greeting someone in Southeast Asia: a smile.

About the Wai

Unless doing so to appease a Westerner, people in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia rarely shake hands. Instead, they place their hands together in a prayer-like gesture known as the wai.

To offer a wai, place your hands together close to your chest and face; dip your head at the same time in a slight bow.

Not all wais are equal. Raise your hands higher for older people and those of higher social status. The higher the wai given, the more respect shown.

  • Monks receive the highest wai (with hands blocking more of your face) in passing.
  • Not returning someone's wai is considered rude; only kings and monks are not required to return a wai.
  • Avoid giving a wai with something in your hands — dip your head slightly instead or put the object down.
  • Although seemingly rude, avoid giving a wai to beggars or children. Offering a wai to people of lower social standing can be embarrassing to them. Locals generally do not offer a wai to people whom they are paying for a service (e.g., taxi drivers and waiters).

Saying Hello in Thailand

The standard greeting used any time of day in Thailand is "sa-was-dee" offered with a wai gesture. Men end the hello by saying "khrap," which sounds more like "kap" with a sharp, rising tone. Women end their greeting with a drawn out "khaaa" dropping in tone.

Saying Hello in Laos

Laotians also use the wai - the same rules apply. Although "sa-was-dee" is understood in Laos, the usual greeting is a friendly "sa-bai-dee" (How are you doing?) followed by "khrap" or "kha" depending on your gender.

Saying Hello In Cambodia

The wai is known as the som pas in Cambodia, but the rules are generally the same. Cambodians say "Chum reap suor" (pronounced "chume reab suor") as the default greeting.

Saying Hello in Vietnam

The Vietnamese do not use the wai, however, they do show respect for elders with a slight bow. The Vietnamese acknowledge each other formally with "chao" followed by a complex system of endings depending on age, gender and how well they know the person.

The simple way for visitors to say hello in Vietnam is "xin chao" (sounds like "zen chow").

Saying Hello in Malaysia and Indonesia

Malaysians and Indonesians do not use the wai; they typically opt to shake hands, although it may not be the firm handshake that we expect in the West. The greeting offered depends on the time of day; gender and social standing do not affect the greeting.

Typical Greetings include:

  • Good Morning: Selamat pagi (sounds like "pag-ee")
  • Good Day: Selamat sore (sounds like "sore-ee")
  • Good Afternoon: Selamat siang (sounds like "see-ahng")
  • Good Evening/Night: Selamat malam (sounds like "mah-lahm")
  • Good Night to Someone Going to Sleep: Selamat tidur (sounds like "tee-dure")

Indonesians prefer to say "selamat siang" as a greeting in the afternoon, while Malaysians often use "selamat tengah hari." Mispronouncing the "i" in siang may yield funny looks from your taxi driver; sayang — the word for "sweetheart" or "darling" sounds close.

Greeting People of Chinese Descent

Malaysian Chinese make up around 26% of the total population of Malaysia. While they will most likely understand the greetings above, offering a polite "ni hao" (hello in Mandarin Chinese; sounds like "nee haow") will often yield a smile.

Saying Hello in Myanmar

In Myanmar, the easygoing Burmese will certainly appreciate a friendly greeting in the local language. To say hello, say "Mingalabar" (MI-nga-LA-bah). To show your gratitude, say  "Chesube" (Tseh-SOO-beh), which translates to "thank you". 

Saying Hello in the Philippines

In most casual contexts, it's easy to say hello to Filipinos - you can do so in English, as most Filipinos are quite adept at the language. But you can score points by greeting them in the Filipino language. "Kamusta?" (how are you?) is a good way to say hello, for starters.

If you want to refer to the time of the day, you can say:

  • "Magandang araw" - "good day"
  • "Magandang umaga" - "good morning"
  • "Magandang hapon" - "good afternoon"
  • "Magandang gabi" - "good evening"

When saying goodbye, a nice (but rather formal) way to take your leave is to say "Paalam" (goodbye). Informally, you can simply say, "sige" (all right then), or "ingat" (take care). 

The article "po" signifies respect to the person you're addressing, and it may be a good idea to add this at the end of any sentences you're addressing to an older Filipino. So "magandang gabi", which is friendly enough, can be changed to "magandang gabi po", which is friendly and respectful.

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