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Do I Need to Speak Thai in Thailand?

Speaking Thai will get you lots of smiles and better deals while on your holiday in the Land of Smiles. But, you can get by knowing just a few words. The traditional greeting in Thailand is Sawasdee (pronounced Sa-wat-dee) and a polite article is added to the end. For women, ka is added. For men, kharp is added. This is not required but is used 99% of the time.

So the typical greeting would be Sawasdee khrap (or ka) to say Hello. This is usually accompanied by the other traditional Thai greeting – the wai. This is done with palms together, fingers pointing upward. There are different levels of wai from lower class to higher, from worker to boss, from average person to royalty. There are also times when someone wai's to you and you are not required to return the wai.

For example, if a small child wai's you, you are not required to return it – just acknowledge it with a smile. Typically after saying hello, or sawasdee, you will be asked one of two things. Sabai dee mai, or geen kow mai. It is normal to be asked if you are fine or if you have eaten. You may also be asked where you have been or where you are going – bpai nai mah or bpai nai. The Thai language is not that difficult to learn and there are many resources online. There are also paid programs like Pimseleur or Berlitz. Many sites also have downloadable mini-dictionaries in English, Thai and phonetics. This way you can try to speak the word or phrase and as a last resort, just point. You can also download files so that you can hear how words are pronounced.

I have had both bad and good experiences speaking Thai. Some people like the fact that I can speak enough to get by and can understand more. Some tell me that "I know too much" and I take this as a compliment since that means that they can’t rip me off. Knowing the language isn’t essential but sure helps when giving a taxi directions, ordering a meal, or asking where the bathroom is. My problem is that I lose a lot of the language skills between vacations. Not being able to speak the language at home causes me to lose a lot of my vocabulary. I try to keep current online chatting with people from Thailand, but chatting using phonetics is not the same as actually speaking Thai. The best thing to do is try to pick up a few words with some of the free sites online. Print out a dictionary or phrase book and bring it with you. Try and speak and ask for help.

Everyone will help if they see you are willing to learn. Give it a try – speak some Thai and have some fun with it. If you make a mistake, learn from it. You will find that you make a lot more friends speaking the local language. Chok Dee Khrap (Good luck).


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