Although the language barrier isn't much of a problem while traveling in Thailand, knowing a few useful phrases in Thai will really enhance your experience there. Yes, learning a little Thai is optional, but speaking a few words of the local language can lead to some fun cultural interactions!
There is one small catch: Thai is a tonal language. Words take on different meanings depending upon which of the five tones are used. Fortunately, context will usually help people understand you. Usually.
Along with five tones, the Thai language also has its own unique script. Transliterations of these popular expressions for traveling in Thailand differ, but English-equivalent pronunciations are provided below.
A Few Pronunciation Tips:
- The letter r is often omitted or spoken as an L in Thailand.
- The h in ph is silent. Ph is pronounced as just a p. For instance, Phuket — one of the most popular islands in Thailand — is pronounced “poo-ket.”
- The h in th is also silent. The word "Thai" isn't pronounced "thigh," it's Thai!
Khrap and Kha
Without question, the two words you’ll hear the most often on a trip to Thailand are khrap and kha. Depending on the gender of the speaker (men say khrap; women say kha), they are added to the end of a statement to indicate respect.
Khrap and kha are also used standalone to indicate agreement, comprehension, or acknowledgement. For instance, if you tell a Thai woman thank you, she may reply with an enthusiastic “khaaaa.” At the end of a transaction, a man may say "khrap!" indicating both thanks and that "we are done here."
- Khrap (sounds like “krap!”): Male speakers say khrap sharply with a high tone for emphasis. Yes, it inconveniently sounds like “crap!” — although, the r is often omitted in Thai, making khrap! sound more like kap!
- Kha (sounds like “khaaa”): Women say kha with a drawn-out, falling tone. It can also be a high tone for emphasis.
Don’t worry: after a week or so in Thailand, you’ll find yourself reflexively saying khrap or kha without even realizing!
The default way to say hello in Thai is with a friendly sawasdee khrap (if you are male) or sawasdee kha (if you are female).
- Hello: sawasdee [krap / kha] (sounds like “sah-wah-dee krap / kah”)
- How are you?: sabai dee mai (sounds like “sah-bye-dee my?”)
Unlike when saying hello in Malaysia and Indonesia, the time of day does not matter when greeting people in Thai. Honorifics don't affect the greeting, either. You can use sawasdee for people both older and younger than yourself. Sawasdee can even for “goodbye” if you choose.
Saying hello in Thai is often accompanied with a wai — the famous, prayer-like gesture with palms together and head slightly bowed. Unless you’re a monk or the King of Thailand, not returning someone’s respectful wai is impolite. Even if you aren't sure of the exact technique, simply put your palms together (fingers pointing toward your chin) in front of the chest to show acknowledgement.
You can follow up your greeting with sabai dee mai? To see how someone is doing. The best answer is sabai dee which can mean fine, relaxed, well, happy, or comfortable. If someone answers with mai sabai (they rarely will), that means they aren't well.
Interestingly, Thailand’s ubiquitous, default greeting of sawasdee is derived from a Sanskrit word and didn’t become popular until the 1940s.
Saying Thank You in Thai
As a traveler, you’ll be using khap khun [khrap (male) / kha (female)] a lot!
Unlike when traveling in India, gratitude is expressed frequently in Thailand. Say a polite thank you every time someone does something for you (e.g., brings your food, gives change, shows you the way, etc).
You can add extra-sincere gratitude by offering a deep wai (head dipped forward with eyes closed) when saying kawp khun [khrap / kha].
- Thank you: kawp khun [khrap / kha] (sounds like “kop koon krap / kah”)
Mai Pen Rai
If one phrase sums up the essence of Thailand, it’s mai pen rai. Remember the catchy hakuna matata song and attitude from Disney’s The Lion King movie? Well, mai pen rai is the Thai equivalent. Just as the Swahili phrase, it also loosely means “no worries” or “no problem.”
Mai pen rai can be used as “you’re welcome” if someone tells you thanks.
Rather than lamenting bad luck or having a meltdown / tantrum in public — a big no-no in Thailand — say mai pen rai for respect points. When your taxi is stuck in Bangkok’s nightmarish traffic, simply smile and say mai pen rai.
- No worries: mai pen rai (sounds like “my pen rye”)
Pretty much all Asian languages have terms for Westerners; some are more derogatory than others, but most are harmless.
Farang is what Thai people use to refer to non-Thai people who look of European descent. It’s usually harmless — and sometimes playful — but can be rude depending on tone and context.
The term farang is often more related to skin color rather than actual nationality. For instance, Asian Americans are rarely referred to as farangs. If you are a non-Asian traveler in Thailand, you'll most likely hear the word farang spoken in your presence quite often.
You may have a Thai person casually tell you “many farang come here.” No harm done. The same applies to "I have many farang friends."
But some rude variations of farang exist. For instance, farang ki nok (“fah-rong kee knock”) literally means “bird sh*t farang” — and you guessed it — usually isn’t a compliment!
- Foreigner / someone who doesn't look Thai: farang (sounds like “fah-rong” or “fah-long”)
I (Don't) Understand
Although English is widely spoken in tourist areas throughout Thailand, there will be times when you simply can’t understand someone — particularly if they're speaking Thai to you! Saying mai khao jai (I don't understand) with a smile won't cause any loss of face.
Important Tip: If someone tells you mai khao jai, repeating the same thing but louder isn't going to help them to khao jai (understand)! Them speaking Thai to you with more volume isn't going to help you understand Thai.
- I understand: khao jai (sounds like “cow jai”)
- I don’t understand: mai khao jai (sounds like “my cow jai”)
- Do you understand?: khao jai mai? (sounds like “cow jai my”)
You’ll definitely end up shopping in Thailand, and hopefully not just in the many malls. The fly-encircling, outdoor markets serve as both marketplace and gossip/people-watching hub. They can be busy, intimidating, and intensely enjoyable!
Showing too much interest in an item for sale will probably have the Thai proprietor spinning a calculator in your direction. The device is there to assist with haggling prices and ensure there isn't a miscommunication on the price. Good-natured negotiating is an integral part of local culture; you should do it.
Tip: Haggling isn't just for markets and small shops. You can negotiate for better prices in the big malls, too!
Knowing a few words, particularly the numbers in Thai, will almost always help to land better prices. Plus, it adds to the fun!
- How much?: tao rai? (sounds like “dow rye”)
- How much is this?: ni tao rai? (sounds like “nee dow rye”)
- Expensive: paeng (sounds like “paing” but drawn out to exaggerate that something is too expensive. Feel the paaaain because an item is paaaaaeng.)
- Very Expensive: paeng mak mak (sounds like "paing mock mock")
- Cheap: tuk (sounds more like “took” than "tuck") — the same as tuk-tuk, which ironically, really aren't so tuk!
- I want it / I’ll take it: ao (sounds like “ow” as when you hurt yourself)
- I don’t want it: mai ao (sounds like “my ow”)
No matter how small the purchase, minimarts and local shops will usually offer you a plastic bag. Buy a bottle of water, and you’ll often be given a straw or two (also wrapped in protective plastic) and two bags — in case one breaks.
To cut down on the ludicrous amount of plastic waste, a serious problem in Southeast Asia, tell shops mai ao thung (I don't want a bag.)
Tip: Consider carrying your own chopsticks as well rather than using the disposable ones that may have been bleached with industrial chemicals.
- I don’t want a bag: mai ao thung (sounds like “my ow toong”)
You can raise your glass and say chok dee to offer a toast or “cheers.” You may hear chone gaew (bump glasses) more often when having drinks with new Thai friends. You’ll probably hear it way too often on a Khao San Road Friday night as people enjoy one or all of Thailand's three most popular beer choices!
The best way to wish someone luck, especially in the context of goodbye, is by saying chok dee.
- Good luck / cheers: chok dee (sounds like “chok dee”)
- Bump glasses: chon gaew (sounds like “chone gay-ew”; the tone in gaew takes a little practice, but everyone will have fun helping you learn)
Spicy and Not Spicy
If you don’t enjoy spicy food, don’t worry: The rumor that all Thai food is a 12 on a pain scale of one to 10 just isn’t true. Creations are often toned down for tourist tongues, and spicy condiments are always on the table if you prefer to heat up the dish. But a few traditional treats such as papaya salad (som tam) do arrive very spicy by default.
If you prefer spicy, get ready for the culinary experience of your dreams! Thailand can be a delicious wonderland of Scoville units for capsaicin enthusiasts.
- Spicy: phet (“pet”)
- Not spicy: mai phet (“my pet”)
- A little: nit noi (“neet noy”)
- Chili: phrik (“prick”)
- Fish sauce: nam plaa (“nahm plah”). Watch out: it’s stinky, spicy, and addictive!
Tip: After requesting for your food to be cooked phet in some restaurants, you may be asked “farang phet or Thai phet?” In other words, “Do you what tourists consider spicy or what Thai people consider spicy?”
If in some fit of bravado you choose the latter option, you’re definitely going to need to know this word:
- Water: nam (“nahm”)
Other Useful Food Terms
Although menus will almost always have an English counterpart, these food words are useful.
- Vegetarian: mang sa wirat (“mahng sah weerat”) — this isn’t always understood. You may be better off simply asking to “eat red” as the monks do. Many vegetarian Thai dishes may still contain either fish sauce, oyster sauce, egg, or all three!
- Eat red (the closest thing to vegan): gin jay (“gen jay”) — asking for food as jay means that you don’t want meat, seafood, egg, or dairy. But it also means that you don’t want garlic, spice, strong-smelling herbs, or alcohol to drink!
The idea of vegetarianism isn’t widespread in Thailand, although lots of backpacker restaurants along the so-called Banana Pancake Trail often cater to vegetarians.
Tip: Red lettering on a yellow sign often indicate a gin jay food stall or restaurant
- I don’t want fish sauce: mai ao nam pla (“my ow nahm plah”)
- I don’t want oyster sauce: mai ao nam man hoy (“my ow nahm man hoy”)
- I don’t want egg: mai ao kai (“my ow kai”) — egg (kai) sounds close to what lays them, chicken (gai).
The fruit shakes and juices in Thailand are refreshing on scorching afternoons, but by default they contain nearly a cup of sugar syrup added to whatever natural sugar already in the fruit. Absentmindedly drinking too many may cause you to end up in a sugar coma on the island.
- I don’t want sugar: mai ao nam tan (“my ow nahm tahn”)
- Just a little sugar: nit noi nam tan (“neet noy nahm tahn”)
Many of the shakes, coffees, and teas also contain sweetened condensed milk that’s probably been stored at 90 F for a while.
- I don’t want milk: mai ao nom (“my ow nome”; nom is pronounced with a mid tone).
Inconveniently, the same word for milk (nom) can be used for breast, leading to some awkward giggles depending on the gender and demeanor of the teenager making your shake.
- Delicious: aroi (“a-roy”). Adding maak maak (very very) to the end will definitely get a smile.
- Check, please: chek bin (“check bin”)
In case you were wondering, the pad that shows up on so many menus in Thailand means “fried” (in a wok).