The language barrier usually doesn’t create too much of a challenge in tourist areas of the country, but there are a few good phrases to know before traveling in Thailand. A handful of useful words will help you get around — and show off a bit — like a pro.
But memorizing those short words has one 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.
Pronunciation Pro Tip: The letter r is often omitted or spoken as an L in Thailand. Also, ph is pronounced as just a p; the h is silent. For instance, Phuket — one of the most popular islands in Thailand — is pronounced “poo-ket.”
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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.”
- Khrap (“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 (“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!
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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 — and 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.
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.
Interestingly, Thailand’s default greeting of sawasdee — derived from a Sanskrit... word — didn’t become popular until the 1940s.
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As a traveler, you’ll be using khap khun [khrap/kha] 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 really pour on the 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”)
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Mai Pen Rai
If one phrase sums up the best of Thailand, it’s mai pen rai. Remember the catchy hakuna matata song and attitude from Disney’s The Lion King? Mai pen rai is the Thai equivalent. It also loosely means “no worries” or “no problem.”
Mai pen rai can be used as “you’re welcome” if someone tells you thanks.
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- No worries: mai pen rai (sounds like “my pen rye”)
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Pretty much all Asian languages have terms for Westerners; some are more derogatory than others.
Farang is what Thais use to refer to people who look of European descent. It’s usually harmless — and sometimes playful — but can be rude depending on context. The term is often more related to skin color rather than actual nationality. For instance, Asian Americans are rarely referred to as farangs.
You may have a Thai person casually tell you “many farang come here.” No harm done. But some rude variations of farang exist. 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”)
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I (Don't) Understand
Although English is widely spoken in tourist areas throughout Thailand, there may be times when you simply can’t understand someone. Saying mai khao jai with a smile won't cause any loss of face.
Hint: If someone tells you mai khao jai, repeating the same thing but louder isn't going to help them to khao jai!
- 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”)
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You’ll definitely end up shopping in Thailand, hopefully not just in the many malls. The fly-encircling, outdoor markets serve as both marketplace and gossip/people-watching hub.
Showing too much interest in an item for sale will probably have the Thai proprietor spinning a calculator in your direction. It’s there to assist with haggling prices — an integral part of local culture.
Tip: Haggling isn't just for markets. You can negotiate for better prices in many mall shops.
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 “taow rye”)
- How much is this?: ni tao rai? (sounds like “nee taow rye”)
- Expensive: paeng (sounds like “paing” but drawn out to exaggerate that something is too expensive. Feel the paaaain.)
- 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”)
- I... don’t want it: mai ao (sounds like “my ow”)
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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 (also wrapped in protective plastic) and two bags – in case one breaks.
To cut down on plastic waste, already a serious problem in Southeast Asia, tell shops mai ao thung.
Tip: Consider carrying your own chopsticks as well rather than using the disposable ones that may have been made by using industrial chemicals.
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- I don’t want a bag: mai ao thung (sounds like “my ow toong”)
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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 hear it way too often on a Khao San Road Friday night.
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 practice)
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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. It’s often toned down for tourists, and spicy condiments are on the table. But a few traditional dishes such as papaya salad (som tam) do come spicy by default.
If you prefer spicy, get ready for the culinary time of your life. Thailand can be a delicious wonderland of Scoville units for capsaicin enthusiasts.
- Spicy: phet (“pet”)
- Not spicy: mai phet (“my pet”)
- A little spicy: nit noi phet (“neet noy pet”)
- 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”)
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Other Useful Food Terms
Thailand is a place where you find yourself counting the hours between meals. The unique cuisine is loved around the world. And in Thailand, you can enjoy tasty favorites for $2-5 a meal!
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 contain either fish sauce, oyster sauce, or egg.
- 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, 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 drink two and you may end up in a 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) is 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).