There are few things in life as challenging and eventful as successfully navigating your way around a foreign country. While in Thailand, you can expect to find plenty of people who speak English fluently. However, this certainly isn’t the norm.
How do you get around Thailand without knowing the language? The best way to get around Thailand without knowing the language involves using the tools your phone offers. Many Thai citizens interact with tourists on a daily to weekly basis so a rudimentary understanding of the English language is usually present.
If you master the principles and tools we cover in this article, you’ll have no problem successfully navigating Thailand. There are keywords tourists can learn that will make their experience relatively seamless. You just need to put in a little effort.
Knowledge of English
As English is often taught in Thai schools, you shouldn’t have a problem getting your basic questions answered. This is impressive as it implies that citizens remember their schooling from many years prior. If you were asked to demonstrate your French or Spanish skills from high school, it might be a different story.
Foreign language classes in Thailand operate a little bit differently than their American counterparts. Public schools in Thailand lightly cover English lessons. Most Thais who are fluent in English also enrolled in after-school English programs. As these after-school programs aren’t compulsory, the staff are incentivized to keep the kids (read: the parents) happy.
In many programs, Thai students cannot receive failing grades in English class so many are offered no punishment if they don’t learn the language. The school just wants to keep the parents happy and it’s easier for everybody if the kids come home with good grades. If your child receives a failing grade, you might be inclined to move to a new program.
While this sort of system seems counterintuitive, it’s important to remember that after-school language programs hardly exist elsewhere in the world. Asia is unique in that many of the children are multi-lingual. While their English may not be flawless – it’s certainly better than your ability to speak Thai!
With this in mind, it’s important to understand how you structure your sentences. Don’t preface your questions with large words. If you can reword your sentences or cut unnecessary words out of your sentences to make them simpler, you will have a greater chance of success.
There is no need to speak obnoxiously slowly and loudly (It comes across as racist). However, speaking as fast as a California valley girl certainly won’t help you either. Leave out the fillers, slang, and complicated words. If somebody can’t answer your question, it’s almost guaranteed that a citizen within 20 feet of you will be able to.
Thai knowledge of the English language is further complicated by an economic dilemma. As a tourist, you’ll interact with some people in the tourism and hospitality sectors of the economy. These people certainly know a solid amount of their second (or third) language.
However, a taxi driver whose family couldn’t afford after-school English lessons will undoubtedly know less English than your hotel receptionist. The waiter who couldn’t pay for a college degree might need you to point at a picture instead of ordering in your native tongue. The people you most often interact with haven’t been blessed to be in a financial situation where their English skills are phenomenally honed.
In these situations, you will be in the top 10% of tourists if you can successfully use online tools that help guide your conversation. Alternatively, if you know a tiny amount of Thai, you will make the locals light up with smiles and laughs. They might be laughing at you, but at least they’ll be laughing!
We live in an increasingly digital age that offers numerous tools to help guide your experience abroad. Google translate is one of the most helpful inventions of the last 50 years.
Language translation doesn’t always work out (for example, sometimes an incorrect pronunciation can land you in hot water). Google has applied machine learning and artificial intelligence to bypass the original rules-based system they originally used to model Google Translate. After this change, they successfully opened the doors for millions of conversations that previously would never have been possible.
If you opt for a SIM card and data plan while in Thailand, you can visit the Google Translate app any time you please. If not, you can always download an offline version of the ‘English to Thai’ Google Translate selection. You won’t need any data with this option and the ease of interlingual communication is always at the touch of your fingertips.
You also have the option of downloading an offline version of Google Maps. Whether you have a SIM card/data plan or not, this is definitely the right move. You’ll frequently need to use your map and there are a few places in the country where data plans aren’t reliable.
One of the downsides of Google Maps is that the directions and street names are only offered in one language at a time. You can pull up your boutique hotel’s location to show your taxi driver, but if the street names are in English… he’ll probably be more lost than you are. He can only read Thai writing.
Don’t be frightened if your driver needs to examine your Google Maps for a long time. He may even need to hold your phone in the front seat. While this may seem shady, it’s a more sensible option than you attempting to give directions in Thai.
Learn basic words in Thai
Thai is an incredibly challenging language for Westerns to truly learn. It’s difficulties lie in the fact that Thai is a tonal language. Like Cantonese, each syllable needs to be pronounced with a distinct tone – middle, low, falling, high, or rising. Thankfully, Thai only uses these 5 tonalities whereas Cantonese uses 9.
To make matters increasingly more complicated, the Thai language uses different words for women and men. If a man wants to say ‘hello’, he says ‘sawatdee krap’. If a woman wants to say ‘hello’, she says ‘sawatdee ka’.
It’s not a big concern if you don’t adjust for gender. Many Thai people use the phrases interchangeably and it’s not a big deal.
We will cover some of the most important words to memorize before your big trip!
Thank You = Kapoon krap (men) or Kapoon kaa (women)
Bathroom = Hongnaam
No = Mai Chai Krap (men) or Mai chai kaa (women)
Yes = Krap (men) or Kaa (women)
1 = Nung
2 = Soang
3 = Saam
4 = Se
5 = Ha
10 = Sip
20 = Yii sip
50 = Haa sip
100 = Nung rooi
500 = Haa rooi
1,000 = Nung pan
Mai ow = I do not want it.
Can you make it less expensive? = Lod noi dai mai
How are you? = Sabaaidii mai?
Sorry = Khot hort
Do you use the meter? = Chai meter mai
Go right = Leo kwaa
Go left = Leo saai
Skytrain = Rodfai faa
Subway = Rodfai dtaaidin
Never mind/C’iest la vie = Mai pen rai
May I have the menu = Aow meenuu noi
Vegetarian = Mawng sa vee rat
Water = Naam
Beer = Beer (easy, right?)
Chicken = Gai
Rice = Kaao
Cold = Yen
Hot = Rone
I like spicy = Chan/Pom chawp pet
Not spicy = Mai pet
Delicious = A-roi
If you can master 10-15 of these words, you will be the smartest tourist in your hotel. Not to mention, you’ll likely receive cheaper prices and better service for your efforts. In addition to this lingual understanding, it’s helpful to have a strong understanding of the digital tools at your disposal. If all else fails, you can bank on a local knowing English.
Things to know before going to Thailand (a couple of quick tips?)
It’s helpful if you know a few keywords like ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’. Recognize that it’s culturally acceptable to haggle while shopping, however, you should avoid offending the seller by offering an extremely low price. We recommend eating the Pad Thai, Massaman Curry, Yen Ta Fo, Wontons, Tom Yum Soup, and Green Papaya Salad.
What is Thailand like?
Thailand is a country of significant natural beauty. Often referred to as ‘the land of smiles’, you can expect the locals to be friendly. Many tourists come to Thailand to party. While drinking is accepted, other hedonistic activities are frowned upon. A significant portion of the country believes that democracy no longer exists after the military coup.