Learn to speak Thai. Don’t be discouraged by people who tell you that Thai is an impossible language to learn or that you don’t need to speak Thai to live in Thailand. You certainly don’t need to be fluent, and you can survive here without much Thai at all if you happen to live in a part of the country where there are lots of foreigners or have a spouse or partner who’s Thai; plenty of expats have been here for years and can only say a few words.

But if you are going to be in Thailand for anything longer than a vacation, you’ll find that learning a little bit of the language will help you tremendously in every aspect of your everyday life. You will have a much easier time meeting people and making friends in your community, and if you are working here, you will earn the respect of your Thai colleagues.

Thai people are usually very forgiving of your mistakes and very encouraging of foreigners’ efforts to learn their language.The Thai language isn’t as difficult as some people believe. It is a tonal language, which is a challenge for most native English speakers, since English doesn’t use tones to convey meaning, and initially English speakers often can’t even hear the difference between a rising tone, a falling tone, a high tone, and a low tone. But training yourself to hear the tones and being able to mimic them actually happens quickly when you learn them in a structured environment.

A display of Thai newspapers.

Learning the Thai language is much more important if you live in a rural area. Photo © nist6dh, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

The other challenge is the writing system. Not only is Thai written in an entirely foreign script, it has 44 consonants and 15 vowels, which only sounds off-putting until you realize that many of those consonants make the same sounds. One of the reasons there are different ways to write a “d” sound is that each different written form, when combined with vowels and tone marks, indicates a different tone.

The good news is that you don’t have to worry about conjugating verbs or using articles. And Thai people are usually very forgiving of your mistakes and very encouraging of foreigners’ efforts to learn their language.

How much Thai do you need to speak? If you are living in Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya, or another area that has a lot of international visitors, you’ll find that you don’t need much Thai to get by on a daily basis. Once you have mastered a few hundred words of vocabulary, you’ll find that you are able to have basic conversations. You won’t understand everything being said to you, but at least you’ll be able to chat and make small talk.

If you’re moving out into more rural areas of Thailand, or smaller cities where foreigners don’t typically travel, you’ll really need to speak Thai with a level of fluency that will ensure not only that you can chat with your neighbors and colleagues, but that you can obtain the things you need and are able to communicate in an emergency. Almost every major city has Thai language courses available, and a couple of months of part-time study will go a long way.

15 Essential Thai Words and Phrases for Travelers

  • sawadee ka/kap—hello, goodbye
  • kap kun ka/kap—thank you
  • saibai dee mai?—How are you?
  • mai pen rai—no problem; no worries
  • saibai—good; fine; happy; relaxed; comfortable
  • mai put passa Thai—I don’t speak Thai.
  • mai khao jai—I don’t understand.
  • pai…—(I want to) go to…
  • tao rai?—How much? How many?
  • mai ow—I don’t want that (thing).
  • mai dai—I can’t/won’t do that (action).
  • mai chai—no
  • gin khao—to eat (very informal but very widely used in colloquial conversation)
  • arroy—delicious
  • soi—side street

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad Thailand.