How to say a few words and avoid some cultural faux pas.

How to say a few words and avoid some cultural faux pas.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Your holiday on Koh Samui island will be so much more rewarding and fun (sanuk) if you can say a few words to the Thai people you meet, so how about learning a few words of their language?   Many Thais speak English, but don’t let that stop you!

There are differences in how to speak Thai if you are a man or a woman, but these words and phrases given below will be understood whether said by either, and you will not cause offence if you use the wrong gender version.

Sawadee  – Hello and Goodbye
At the same time (instead of a hand shake) place your palms together in front of your chest, fingers pointed upward, and bow your head a little.  This is called a Wai.  Usually, the younger or lower status person initiates the Wai.  It is quite usual to address Thai people by their first name, preceded by Khun (Mr / Mrs).

Phoot Thai mai dai
I can’t speak Thai

Hong lnam yoo tee nai?
Where is the rest room?

Khorb koon mark
Thank you very much

Mai pen rai
You’re welcome / never mind


No, / no it’s not / no I don’t

Khor toat
Sorry / excuse me

Tai ruup dai mai?
May I take a photo?

Sabai dee mai?
How are you?
Sabai dee
I am fine

Pom chue …
My name is …

Yoo tee nai?
Where is …?  While pointing to your map …

Gee baht?
How much?


Mai a-roi
Not delicious

Dai nit noi
A little

Gep taang
The bill, please

Bai nai?  -  where are you going?  Often shouted as a greeting by tuk tuk drivers!  So if you’d rather walk, you can reply – Mai ow khrab!

The Thais are a very conservative yet relaxed and light-hearted people: they love to please, to keep things calm, to enjoy the moment – and to have fun.   Their strong sense of how they are seen by others means that any confrontation or embarrassment, either of or by themselves or others, should be avoided.  To save face, your own or someone else’s, is paramount.   This is probably the source of that famous and beautiful Thai smile: it is surely the best way to see you through difficult situations.

The Thais may well see many visitors as over-worrying and over-pernickety: it is not in their nature to be this way.  They do not worry about having to wait or queue, and as a whole are not concerned about what life will be like in the future: they live for the day.  Things will only get better!  We could learn a little here …

Meeting Thais for the first time socially may be a bit like undergoing an inquisition!  Social rank and your status in society are very important, and you may be asked any number of questions so that your new friend can judge where you stand …  Phu Yai (the big people) and Phu Noi (the little people) are the two main ‘classifications’; e.g. teacher and student; adult and child; older sibling and younger sibling; Thai and non-Thai.  As a visitor to Thailand, you may be given the honorary Phu Yai role, based on the Thai’s assuming you have wealth because you are there, and education and status in your own country because of what he understands about your country.   What a compliment!

A few don’ts:

Do not remove any part of your swimwear for sunbathing.  Nudity is not allowed in public.

Eyes, Mouth, Hands, Feet and Shoes:
Don’t stare, and avoid long eye contact.  This is not considered polite.  Very brief eye-to-eye contact is the norm for Thais when having a conversation.
Avoid raising your voice and losing your temper – this will be considered a great loss of face on your part, and you may be ignored completely.  Show patience and acceptance of what is being done for you.

Do not point or gesticulate madly; do not drop or throw things.  All these are considered very inelegant (unless you are on the beach)!  Best to be subtle, quiet and indirect …

In many parts of Asia the feet are considered the most unclean or impure part of the body. To sit in a way that points the sole of your foot at someone is considered disrespectful and an insult.   If you accidently step on someone ‘khor toat’ is recommended.  Try to avoid stepping over anyone: wait for him or her to move out of your way.  And do not step over food!

Do not wear your shoes in someone’s house: leave them outside.  This is true also for temples and other religious buildings, and sometimes small hotels, guesthouses and even shops.   Look for the clues: a pile of removed shoes left outside.

The Thais love and respect their King and his family.  Do not insult or make jokes about them.

Sacred places and things:
Do not touch things you see in temples or other religious places, or in an individual’s personal spirit house or altar.  Lengthy rituals may need to be undertaken if you inadvertently contaminate these things.
Women must not touch Buddhist monks, or hand things to him themselves, or be alone in their presence.

All monks, whatever their age, are highly respected.

It is sacrilegious to use an image of Buddha as purely decorative, so icons used around the home other than in personal altars are frowned upon.  But a small Buddha hanging round the neck is OK: it may protect you and bring you good luck.

Seems to have a different meaning in Thailand!  Do not fret if the service in your restaurant is slow … enjoy the leisure time.  If someone is late for a meeting, ignore it.  Welcome them when they arrive … and carry on.

But mainly, do not worry!  You are here on Koh Samui to enjoy yourself and if you make a mistake, by mistake, just apologise and smile.  The Thais will forgive you.

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