Thailand Survival Phrases
“Vegetarian” is not a word often heard in South-East Asia and you certainly should not think that the lady at the street food stall will be able to understand any English. It can be funny doing an half-hour improvisation mime to try and explain that you want rice with eggs and veggies, but without meat, but doing this three times a day, every day can get a bit boring. If you are now thinking that you do not have any dietary requirements and therefore will not end up in this situation, be warned that there can be other situations where you wished you could communicate a bit more clearly.
Normally, when I am in a country where I don’t speak the language, I try to learn at least a few basic phrases. Partly because I am interested in languages, partly because it is practical, but also partly to show respect towards the language and culture of the country you’re in. Its in habitants are a lot more likely to respect you too for your effort, which can result in more new friends, interesting conversations and guides to locations normally only known to locals. In Thailand it is also a huge advantage when you are shopping for souvenirs, bargaining gets a lot easier if you know the numbers in Thai!
In Thailand and Cambodia I tried my usual ritial of learning the basics of the language. Starting with “hello” and “thank you” which I think was understood by taxi drivers after repeating myself several times, the next step was ordering food. The difficulty for speakers of non-tonal languages however, is not only that we can’t read the symbols… An even more complicated problem is the five different ways in which you can pronounce each syllable. In Latin-based languages we are used to use tone only for emphasis or to show emotion. In most Asian languages however, a change in tone can completely change the meaning of a word. As a result, when I tried to order noodles with egg, I got rice with beef. Just what I wanted. Not. You can state that at least I made clear that I wanted something to eat, but I am not sure if that was because of anything I tried to say or just because I seated myself at a street food stall…. Feeling obliged to eat the food that had been prepared for me, I decided to set aside my vegetarian principles for that day. At least I tried. But after this experience, I asked a Thai hostel employee who also spoke English to write down the phrase: “I don’t eat meat” for me in Thai. This worked well, untill I starterd meeting locals who didn’t know how to read….
Another problem we encountered was trying to call a taxi and make a reservation for very early the next morning. Trying to explain at what time and which adress we wanted to be picked up appeared to be hopeless, which resulted in spending the night at Hua Lamphong station to not miss our train.
All in all, Thai is a complicated language to learn, but the advantages of knowing some phrases can be convenient. Understanding only the tones is a long process that you could best start practising at home in order to not accidentally insult your tuk-tuk driver when you are trying to thank him or ask for cheese nachos when you hoped to get directions. One way to do this is to use a book. However, the phonetical explanation in most dictionaries and phrase books is about as hard to comprehend as the Thai language itself. One start-up solution though, is this book I found. It is a PDF that comes with a youtube video that demonstrates the different tones and correct pronounciation for certain phrases that can come in handy. You get the PDF, including the link to the youtube video for $2.99 to start practising at home. I have it to be prepared for whenever I go to Thailand next. The price is only a small investment for all the respect you will get in return. The real investment is, however, not buying the book, but investing your time. Good luck!