I’ve lived here 5 years and when anyone asks me how my Thai is, I say the same thing…
That despite putting a lot into it, learning to read and write, studying films and songs… I use the same 200-300 words on a daily basis.
There is a huge chasm between speak enough to get around Thai and conversationally fluent Thai. I presume it’s the same for any language.
On the other hand, I can write a great article about the phrases and words that actually come in useful on a day-to-day basis.
Learn all of these and you’ll have a big leg-up Thai that you’ll actually use here.
NOTE: I’m going to ignore the really, really obvious stuff like sa-wa-dee-khap and khaawp-khun-khap. That’s been covered elsewhere by better websites than mine!
- “No straw, thank you.”
- “Excuse me!”
- Asking For The Check/Bill
- Asking For The Menu
- “Hold on a second!”
- Ordering A Coffee
- How To Say (Weird) Numbers
- Taxi Directions
- “Let’s go!”
“No straw, thank you.”
Thailand is a hot place, and hot places make you pine for an icy blast of AC and a chilled beverage. I am, of course, referring to the 7/11 shops that you see all over Thailand.
When you buy a drink you will be faced with a problem. Whether you go for a simple soda, a sweetened almond milk or some godawful collagen-enhanced beauty drink, you will be given 1-2 straws for each drink that you buy.
Unfortunately, Thailand is slow to catch on to the environmental effects of plastic overconsumption. You can do your bit by reciting the following phrase each time you’re presented with a straw that you don’t want.
mai ao laawt (khaap/kha)
Literally: don’t want straw (politeness particle)
Similarly, here’s how to ask for no plastic bag. (Who needs a bag for a can of cola, anyway?!)
mai ao toong (khaap/kha)
Literally: don’t want bag (politeness particle)
You get a straw with everything. A 200ml bottle of milk for your coffee? That gets a straw. A tiny bottle of red bull? That’s a straw, too. But then when you buy beer you don’t get one, which makes me wonder what the cut-off point is.
Straws are so common that most expats (and I guess Thais too) have their own straw drawer. It’s a drawer in their kitchen with the hundreds of unwanted straws they’ve inadvertently collected over the years!
Bangkok is a busy place. Lots of people, lots of cars, lots of high rise condos… It’s great because you’re never far from the action and it does give street food its opportunity. Pretty difficult to make a living from 10฿ muu ping unless you’ve got hundreds of people walking past every hour!
However, if you’re a normal-sized European who walks at a normal-sized European pace, you will find yourself having to weave in and around the ambling, slow life Thais.
So this next phrase is how to say something like ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Could I get past?’ in English. The way to do this in Thai is to just say (their word for) sorry followed by the politeness marker of khaa or khaap.
khaaw toort (khaap/kha)
Literally: sorry (politeness particle)
This handy phrase can also be used to get the attention of a waiter or waitress. It’s also safer than other ways to get their attention, which often depend on whether you think you are older or younger than they are. A risky business!
Asking For The Check/Bill
If you’re not asking for the bill on a regular basis in Thailand, you’re doing something wrong. Cheap and tasty Thai food available damn near everywhere. And sharing a few beers with sticky rice and Isaan food is basically my number one joy in life.
You might already know how to ask for the bill (or check). This is the way most people say it.
chek bin (khaap/kha)
Literally: check (politeness particle)
Chek is the Thai loanword for ‘check’ and bin which is the Thai loanword for ‘bill’. So this word is made by joining the USA and UK words for asking to pay. Note that in Thai the letter l becomes an n when placed at the end of a word.
This is fine and you will be understood, but chek bin is more for high-end restaurants. At cheaper places like street food stalls or shophouses, you will sound more natural by saying the following.
gep dtang duay (khaap/kha)
Literally: get money (softening particle) (politeness particle)
The duay adds no meaning to the sentence but acts as a softener to the intent. It’s put in because you’re telling them to do something. Again, not needed but makes you sound more natural
You’ll be understood using both phrases but it’s a nice touch to make an effort. Thais are very, very appreciative towards any attempt to use the language past the basics.
Asking For The Menu
A peculiar quirk of going out in Thailand is that the menu is not automatically brought to you. It’s true that Thai restaurants and Thai-style bars offer similar fare but personally I like to look at the damn menu!
So it’s nice to be able to ask for the menu and see what’s available. The Thai word for ‘menu’ is another loanword from English. Don’t just say it in English though. The pronunciation is a little warped and many Thais will struggle to understand a native speaker saying it.
khaaw meh noo naawy (khaap/kha)
Literally: may-we-have menu (softening particle) (politeness particle)
The khaaw means something like ‘may I have’ or ‘may we have’ and is a useful word when asking for something. The naawy is another softening particle that is used when asking for something, it adds no meaning but including it makes you sound more natural.
No need to ask for a drinks menu or a food menu. All Thai places have them together on one menu. Anywhere that keeps them separate will be ‘hi-so’ to the point where the waiter is already speaking to you in perfect English.
“Hold on a second!”
Whether it’s picking out the 25 sa-dtang coin in your wallet at 7/11, finding exactly where this damn yaek 17 is on Google Maps, or deciding if tonight’s Isaan will be served with steamed rice or sticky… Sometimes you need a couple of extra seconds.
The phrase you want to use in polite company (such as the previous examples) is as follows.
sak kruu na (khaap/kha)
Literally: one moment (softener particle) (politeness particle)
The sak kruu gives the sentence its meaning and the na and khaap (or kha if you’re a lady) are modifying particles. Just saying sak kruu here would come across as terse and almost rude, although you get some leeway if you’re a foreigner.
Another phrase you might have heard with the same meaning is bpaep neung (แป๊บนึง). It’s very common to hear Thai people say this but it’s mainly used in casual settings. Stick with sak kruu until you know better.
Ordering A Coffee
Coffee is widely available in Thailand. It’s cheap, of varying quality and ordering one is trickier than you’re probably used to.
The word for coffee is gaa faae but you don’t use this to order. Coffee shops in Thailand sell espresso coffee and are expecting you to order with the right name. Here’s a list. Luckily, anyone who works in a coffee shop will understand no matter how badly you butcher the pronunciation or even if you just say it in your standard English accent.
Espresso – et pet sooh (เอสเพรสโซ)
Americano – a meh li ga no (อเมริกาโน่)
Latte – laa dteeh (ลาเต้)
Cappuccino – kaa bpuu chi nooh (คาปูชิโน่)
In Thailand, you always to specify whether you want your coffee iced or hot. Both are common here, with iced probably edging it thanks to the scorching temperatures. The word is added to the end of the coffee name in your order.
Hot – laawn (ร้อน)
Iced – yen (เย็น)
If you want something removed from the coffee, you use mai which means “don’t” or “no”. Here’s how to ask for no sugar or syrup in an Americano.
No sweet – mai waan (ไม่หวาน)
If you want something extra put in like some milk, use sai which means “to put”. By the way, if you do ask for extra milk, prepare to be asked whether you want hot or cold milk. I’ve never understood the point of that question…
Put Milk – sai nom (ใส่นม)
Let’s put that together and order a few drinks. You’ll see that the name of the drink comes first and the extra parts of the order are added to the end. You don’t need anything like an “I would like…” or a “Could I get…”. These are implied and it’s not considered rude to leave them out.
laa dteh laawn khaap
kha bpuu chi nooh yen khaap
Hot Americano With Milk
a meh li ga nooh laawn sai nom khaap
Iced Espresso No Sugar
et pet sooh yen mai waan khaap
How To Say (Weird) Numbers
The numbers come early when learning a new language. They’re extremely common to hear and important to know. I won’t be covering the 1s, 2s and 3s here, I’d like to go over a couple of eccentricities that you might not know about.
Firstly the number 20, which is pronounced as follows.
In everyday speech and colloquial contexts, this is abbreviated to yeep. It’s like the middle of the sound has been removed to leave just the start and end and is especially prominent when saying a 2X number. So now you know what’s going on when your taxi driver drones on about the traffic on the way to sukhumvit eep saawng.
The next number I’d like to discuss is 100. This little guy defeated me so many times when I was starting to learn Thai. Websites and books will introduce you to the correct pronunciation which is as follows.
The thing is that all spoken Thai you will hear pronounces this as laawy! This contrast between spoken Thai and what textbooks teach you is frustrating at first but it will come more easily and make sense the more you expose yourself to the language.
One last quirk, you don’t need to say the ‘one’ in one hundred. To illustrate this.
100 – raawy (ร้อย)
200 – saawng raawy (สองร้อย)
500 – haah raawy (ห้าร้อย)
800 – bpaaet raawy (แปดร้อย)
Getting a taxi to successfully and smoothly take you where you want to go is no mean feat in Thailand. So much so that I’ve written a lengthy guide on the subject. Check the link out if you want, the central idea is that a little use of the local lingo can go a long way in turning a painful journey into a painless one.
First up, give the taxi driver a booming sa wa dee khaap! as you enter the vehicle. Do this no matter how miserable your driver looks or how standoffish he’s being. This is code for… “Hi! I know that I look foreign and it’s easy to rip foreigners off. But I know the word for ‘hello’ in your language and I might know more words, let’s make things easy by putting the meter on, ok?”
It sounds ridiculous but it works. My problems with taxi drivers who choose to not use the meter and offer fixed fares instead stopped the day I start saying a big hello.
It also helps to be able to correctly pronounce the area or road that you’re going too. For example, the road Sukhumvit should be pronounced as suk um wit – there is no ‘v’ in Thai! Another example, the airport Suvarnabhumi is pronounced su wa na poom.
To finish, here’s a cute phrase that you will start to hear all the time once you know it. It’s the Thai expression for ‘Let’s go!’
Literally: let’s go
Bpa is easy to learn, easy to pronounce and fun to say. Slipping it in is like an English speaker saying “Let’s hit the road!” or a similar idiom, it comes across as impressive to native speakers.
(And of course, impressing people is the only reason why we’re learning other languages… right?)