Though speaking any words of Thai might seem daunting when you first hear the unfamiliar tongue, a little language knowledge will go a long way. Speaking even the most basic sentences will generally be appreciated by Thais, who will recognize the effort. In tourist destinations, you’ll find that English is widely spoken, and thus many travelers don’t find it necessary to learn any Thai words. However, even in major cities you’ll gain a lot of respect by simply knowing a few basic words. Consider how you might respond if a visitor to visiting your home country couldn’t say “thank you” or “hello” in your language — it seems a bit rude, right?
For the short-term visitor, learning Thai script is probably unnecessary and not worth the effort. Recognizing a few words certainly helps when ordering food, especially at a street market, but the task can be difficult with such an unfamiliar script.
Here are a few tips and key words for you to learn in preparation for your trip to Thailand:
Probably the most important words you can learn are the two simplest. Those are “ka” and “krop” (the “r” in “krop” is barely decipherable — it’s almost as if you’re saying “kop”). Female speakers use “ka,” while male speakers use “krop.”
While not necessarily communicating anything specific, these words are highly polite and respectful in Thai. They can be used to say “yes,” or as a general affirmative, but they’re also simply a polite addition to anything you say. Both “hello” (sawadee-ka/krap) and “thank you” (kop kun ka/krap) use these at the end of the phrase, but you can use it for anything. Even though I know how to say “thank you” in Thai, I’ll often say it in English and add a “ka.” If you’re ordering something, add a “ka/krap,” ie, “one coffee, please, ka.” If you listen closely to Thais speaking, you’ll hear these words inserted constantly.
Tip: learn only a few words or phrases so that your mind doesn’t become overwhelmed. Almost nothing in Thai is similar to English, and without that frame of reference trying to memoriz a lot of random words can result in not remembering any!
Other important words and phrases:
Hello: sawadee ka/krap
Thank-you: kop kun ka/krap
Don’t want: mai ao
Tip: If someone offers you something you don’t want, simply say, “mai ao, ka/krap.” This simple phrase is more than most foreigners ever learn and usually gets a happy response from Thais.
Yes: chai (or ka/krap)
No: mai chai
Tip: Note that “mai” is often used to negate words.
Not spicy: mai pet
Tip: most food vendors are quite familiar with foreigners who don’t like their food “Thai spicy,” but this phrase will guarantee you a mild meal.
As with anything in Thailand, a smile will soften any mispronounced words. Thais are quite forgiving of foreigners who bungle the language and are grateful for the effort made to learn a bit of the country’s tongue. Have fun and play around with it — and don’t forget that smile!
Here are some free Thai language learning resources to help you get the hang of it.
[Photo credit: Akuppa, Flickr]