Thai, also known as Siamese or Ayutthaya, is the official language of Thailand, and is spoken by over 20 million people. It is the official language of Thailand, a very tourist friendly country that is often known as the land of smiles.
As I’ve mentioned in my Chiang Mai and Bangkok posts, it could take some time for an English-speaker to pick up Thai due to significant linguistic differences. The English language is about as different from Thai as it is from many Asian languages, with pronunciation and rules that can be challenging (but rewarding) to learn.
This should not stop you from learning some basic phrases to prepare you for your trip to Thailand, however. In this post I’ll cover basic Thai for travelers, giving the key phrases you need to navigate the country. With these basic Thai phrases, you will be able to break the language barrier with your taxi driver, vendors in the night markets, or at various street food stalls. You will also be able to navigate public transportation easily as well.
Language Overview | Thai
Thai is a member of the Tai Language family, and has significant vocabulary derived from Pali, Sanskrit, Mon, and Old Khmer. Like many Southeast Asian languages, it is a tonal language. This means that the pitch of a word can change its significance entirely. There are five tones, denoted as mid, rising, high, falling low. Different tones are used in different dialects of the language, and these dialects are characterized by both this and some differences in consonant sounds. Given that both were once part of the Khmer civilization, both Thai and Laotian are mutually intelligible, in fact northeastern dialects of Thai are nearly the same as Laotian.
I should also note that Thai is not the only Tai language – it is the official language and therefore most widely spoken there. Most Thai people speak at least two languages, Thai, and another one. I had difficulty finding the official number of Tai languages, but it has been estimated that there are over 70 of them spoken in the country. Although some are currently on the decline.
The language has gender rules too, and these are in support of making sentences more polite. As an example, you would add ka/kap if you are female or khrup/krap if you are male at the end of sentences. While in Thailand, we did find that many people speak English to some degree, but we got bigger smiles when we greeted the locals in Thai. As with any language, it goes a long way if you can demonstrate that you care enough to learn a little bit about the local culture while visiting.
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The Thai Script
Thai has its own script, consisting of 44(consonants and 15 vowels. The Thai script is one of my favorites (at least to look at). It is curly / written in cursive and just looks like art when written. See below for a table of the Thai Script symbols, and the official standard for romanization of their script, which is known as the Royal Thai General System of Transcription.
|ฑ||th or d||ศ||s|
In review of the chart above, you’ll note that many of the symbols have the same Latin Alphabet assigned to them. This is because our alphabet does not take tones into account, so some of the pronunciation is literally “lost in translation”.
*This symbol is a special case used at the beginning of certain words as a silent initial.
Brief Overview of the Various Thai Phrases
When visiting Thailand, I recommend that you learn phrases that help you greet people, learn some basic phrases to get around and perhaps some more complex yet essential phrases to really set yourself apart from the average visitor. Note, these are written the the English alphabet so you can pronounce them – at least approximately.
Saying hi and goodbye.
- Hello / Hi – Sawadee ka / khrup
- How are you? – Sabai dee mai ka / khrup
- Doing well – Sabai dee
- Not doing well – Mai sabai
- Relaxed / chill – Sabai sabai
- Good Bye – La gorn ka / khrup
Local Thai’s are very respectful and polite, and always greet others using the “wai”. This Thai greeting is demonstrated by bringing both hands together and bowing the head. This is an essential part of Thai culture. As a foreigner, it is not expected that you do this, as there are nuances to the greeting that may escape you. Simple smile and nod your head in return – that will suffice!
Essential Thai Phrases
Those useful phrases you may use every day: first words
- Yes – Chai ka / khrup
- No – Mai chai ka / khrup
- Cannot – Mai dai
- Thank you – Khop khun ka / khrup
- You’re welcome – Yindee ka / khrup
- Sorry / excuse me – Khor tot ka / khrup
- I don’t understand – Mai Khao Jai
- I understand – Khao Jai
- Do you understand? – Khao jai mai?
- Please – Pord ka / khrup
- Where is the bathroom? – Hong nam yoo tee nai khrup/ka?
- How much does it cost? –Ra ka tao rai khrup/ka?
- Delicious – Aroy
- I need a doctor- Phom dong gaan hai mor maa raak sa khrup/ka
- Never mind / It’s nothing – Mai pen rai / Mai bpen rai
Common Thai Phrases
These common words and phrases will be useful as you travel around the city, likely in a Tuk-Tuk and as you navigate day-to-day situations.
- Turn Left – Leo sai
- Turn Right – Leo kwaa
- Yut – Stop
- Bai – Go
- Slow down – Slow down
- Are you having fun? – Sanuk mai
- Where is the restroom? – Hong naam yoo tee nai?
- Do you speak English? – Khun put pasah anggrit dai mai?
- Foreigner, typically of European decent – Farang
- Good luck / cheers – Chok dee
Thai Phrases when Eating Out
Thailand is known for its spicy foods, particularly in the North. You can certainly ask for the heat to be turned up (or down) based on your tastes. Below are a few different ways that you can say this to your waiter:
- Spicy – Phet
- A litte – Mai phet
- Chili – Phrik
- Fish sauce – Nam plaa
- Not spicy – Mai phet
- Water – Nam
Additional phrases you might use at a restaurant include:
- I’m thirsty – Pom/ deechan hiw nahm
- I’m hungry – Pom / deechan hiw
- Do you have an English menu? – Rahy ahahn phasah angkrit mee mai?
- Can I have the check please? – Chek bin?
Essential Thai Expressions for Shopping
- How much is this? – Ni tao rai?
- Expensive – Paeng
- Very expensive – Paeng mak mak
- Cheap – Tuk
- I will take it / I want it – Ao
- I don’t want it – Mai ao
Resources to Learn Thai
If you would like to practice Thai before visiting the country (as you should, here are a few resources that I recommend you consider:
iTalki: As I mentioned in my post on Spanish phrases, practicing is really key to feeling comfortable using a new language. You can practice with a real person by using my favorite language resource, iTalki. On this site you can practice with a tutor, formal teacher, or others just seeking to do a language exchange (for free!). The paid lessons have very cheap options, with some as low as $5 an hour. Check it out!
Youtube: I love using this platform to learn almost everything. Relevant to learning Thai, YouTube is great for finding videos that allow you to hear the accurate pronunciation of words. See the video linked below as an example. Here is a video that you can go ahead and check out now below:
Textbook-based learning: There are plenty of textbook resources that you can purchase on sights like Amazon to get more structured practice. If you go this route, you should certainly aim to learn the Thai alphabet first. Check out this Reading and Writing Thai book.
- Rattanakhemakorn, Jintana (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
Fluent in 3 Months: Although the name is somewhat gimmick, this site does a great job of rounding up the best language learning resources. If you are more of an advanced Thai learner, and want to increase your vocabulary, check out this site!
Before you know it, you’ll be able to practice the Thai vocabulary you’ve picked up while visiting places like Phuket!
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Basic Thai Phrases PDF
If you are looking to have a PDF of the phrases above that you can take on the road with you, look no further, see below for tips on how to access your Basic Thai Phrases PDF. This PDF includes a list of common words most used in Thai that can easily studied and pulled over to resources like Anki flashcard decks. If studied on a daily basis, this tool can certainly be an effective way to build your basic vocabulary before traveling to Thailand.
Basic Thai for Travelers | Final Thoughts
This concludes this post on basic Thai for Travellers. As I mentioned above, you can download a copy of these key phrases above so that you have them in your back pocket as you travel throughout Thailand. Are there any other words or phrases that you recommend travelers know? Tell me in the comments below!
Related Posts on Thailand:
Additional Language Learning Guides
- Language and Travel | Why They Go Hand in Hand
- Spanish for Travel
- Japanese for Travel
- Italian for Travel
- Greek for Travel
- Portuguese for Travel
Last update on 2023-09-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API