Step out from your aeroplane into the Land Of Smiles and you’ll soon hear the word farang – ฝรั่ง (pronounced falang) or one of its variations.
But what does farang mean in Thai?
It’s a colloquial way of saying the word foreigner. Due to the cultural and language differences, Thai people will use farang to refer to any caucasian foreigner they don’t (or sometimes do) know. The word has other uses in words such as guava or potato.
Long ago, the French were among the first to make contact and trade with the old kingdom of Rattanakosin (or Siam) in the area that is now Thailand. The word farang is believed to have originated from francais.
It’s a controversial term and hot button issue among expats. The more polite term is chaao dtaang chaat which is rarely heard. Some people consider that using the more vulgar term to refer to is casual racism.
What do I think of all that? Well, get reading and I’ll tell you!
Is The Word farang Racist/Offensive?
This is debatable but for me, the word farang is not an offensive term. I hear the word on a regular basis, used to describe myself or other foreigners by nice people who are always pleasant. I have a hard time thinking that these Thais are all racist because they use this one word.
Part of the thinking may come from the fact that farang is used for any caucasian-looking person. You can have lived in Thailand your whole life, speak the language fluently and know more about the place than most but if you’ve got white skin then you’re a ‘farang’. It’s a very us and them mentality which I can see how someone might find rude.
For example, you would never claim someone in the UK was a foreigner purely based on their appearance. Decades of immigration have meant that the UK and other countries have a mix of ethnicities. It would be considered rude and probably racist to see someone with a darker skin tone and call them foreigner.
On the other hand, the Thai language uses pronouns in a different way. If you’re talking about a doctor you’ll call him maaw and if you’re talking about a teacher you’ll call her khruu. In this way, the word farang functions as something we don’t really have in the English language.
How To Refer To Other Foreigners?
In the Thai language every man, woman and child has their own appellation. It can be their job (maaw), their family position (maae, luuk) or their relationship to the person talking (phee, meung).
For people who don’t look Thai, it is usually based on their appearance. Here are the most common ones.
farang – Used for caucasian people.
khaaek – Person of South or Southwest Indian descent.
khon dam – Black person.
khon jeen – Chinese person.
luuk keung – A person of mixed Thai and foreign descent, literally half child.
chaao dtaang chaat – Polite term for any foreigner (non-Thai).
This last one is rarely spoken or heard. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard someone say it in real life, only on tv in polite contexts.
There are expats who speak Thai better than me and Thais themselves who insist that chaao dtaang chaat is polite in a way that farang isn’t and for that reason should be used. I don’t disagree, but it’s difficult to change people’s way of speaking. I’m happy to just go with intent.
Is It farang Or falang?
I’ve used farang to describe this word in this article. The Thai reads ฝรั่ง and that letter in the middle is technically similar to the English ‘r’ sound but has a rolling sound like a Spanish ‘r’.
In colloquial use, Thai people almost always replace this ‘r’ with an ‘l’ sound. The ‘r’ sound is more proper and is used in news broadcasts, songs and other formal settings. In day to day life, Thai people use ‘l’. So wandering around your local soi you’re going to hear falang a whole lot more than farang.
The Thai language has little regional difference. This is due to the language being mostly derived from the Central Thai dialect, the area around Bangkok, being taught in schools.
You do get differences in how people speak if you leave the center, but it’s a whole other language. The people of Northeastern Isaan speak a form of Lao, and in the very North of the country they speak paa saa neuua, to give only a couple of the many examples.
If I Hear The Word farang Are They Talking About Me?
A caucasian foreigner ambling around Thailand, interacting with Thai people will be called farang on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s a quick way of pointing you out, like saying the guy with the red hat. Sometimes it might be used in a derogatory way that they think you won’t understand.
Sometimes however, it will simply be one of the many words in the Thai language that use its meaning of foreign to make compound words.
This is a guava. A tropical fruit, kind of like an apple with no flavour, that’s very popular in Thailand. Their word for it? Farang.
[pic coming soon :)]
What do Thais call a potato? Man farang. The word man is the Thai yam or tuber so it’s like calling the potato a foreign yam because the good ol’ spud is from a foreign land.
Another example is chess. The word maak ruk is used for a form of chess that comes from China. Their word for the chess we play in the West? You guessed it, maak ruk farang.
So you can see that more than just a negative term for foreigners, it’s a word phrase that is deeply embedded in the Thai language and pops up all the time. If you hear the word farang spoken around you, they might just be talking about chewing gum.
Insults Using The Word farang
While, in my opinion, the word ‘farang’ cannot be interpreted as being offensive by itself, there are a couple of insults that I’m going to leave you with. If you find yourself referred to as either of these, you can rightly be offended.
farang khee nok
Literally, bird shit foreigner, this is a very insulting term used towards any white-looking person.
farang khee niao
Literally, stingy foreigner, you might get called this if someone perceives you as being a little coy with your baht.