Getting to Know the Thai People

By Sean Ogle •  Updated: 04/19/10 •  5 min read

I’ve had a few requests over the last week from people who are curious about my interactions with Thai people while living over here.  I haven’t written about this as much as I would’ve liked for a few reasons.  Partially for the trivial reason of I have no idea how to spell half of the things I’d like to write about, but also because my interactions have been *fairly* limited.

This isn’t necessarily by choice.  With the language barrier being as difficult as it is, especially as a non-Latin language, you really have three choices for how to proceed.

  • The first is to try to avoid the interactions altogether.  I’ve met a surprising amount of people who’ve been living here for months, if not years, and have no desire to even begin to learn the language.  I’ve even heard such typical American statements such as “I don’t want to learn Thai, because I don’t care or want to know what they are saying about me.”  I can’t comprehend statements like this.  Why on Earth would you live some place like Thailand if you have no desire to experience, or even respect the culture. To be fair, I think most expats from time to time will have feelings of being overwhelmed with their lack of ability to communicate, but thats very different than shunning the culture all together.

    If I ever found myself in Thai jail, May would be the first person I would call...

    If I ever found myself in Thai jail, May would be the first person I would call…

  • The second option is to make an attempt at learning the language while creating interactions with local people as much as possible.  I have a few friends here who have done an excellent job with this.  They’ve made bi-lingual Thai friends and they get lessons on a regular basis.  It’s always fun to hang out with them because you are opened up to a world of interactions that didn’t previously exist.  Not to mention a world of delicious food that I would have no idea how to order on my own.
  • The third option and the one that I have found myself falling into is kind of a middle zone.  Where you have a desire to interact and learn, yet you haven’t made the language a priority.  I’m excited to learn new words, and open up new ways to communicate, but with everything going on I’ve yet to make a large scale effort.  I have however, learned basic pleasantries, the number system and how to order some of my favorite foods, but outside of that I struggle.

A good example of this was the other night when I was out with Cody Mckibben the other night and we were trying to find a restaurant where some friends where at.  We were told to go to Soi Ruamrudee, however apparently we (I)  pronounced it wrong and went to Soi Ruambutri. Small mistake, big problem, as the two streets are on total opposite sides of town.  Once again, need to learn to enunciate when talking to the man in charge of where I get dropped off!

That aside, the best way I’ve found to meet local Thais is through food.  We all have to eat, and every single day I go to a local food stall or restaurant and get to interact with the people there.  There are two places in particular where within a week of when I started going on a regular basis, they knew exactly what I wanted, and upon sitting down I would practically already have a plate at my table.  Then I actually started trying to talk to one of the guys there.  Simply by learning the phrase “Khuṇn chụ̄ux xarịi” (once again, as mentioned, I have no idea how to spell many of these phrases), or “what is your name” I was able to open up a dialogue and start getting to know him and the people he works with.  Now when I go there instead of having the plate ready, he makes me order it myself, and will frequently teach me new dishes, along with other useful phrases.

Many people never even go that far.  I’m the first to admit that I could make more of an effort, but even by doing the littlest things you can enrich your experience immeasurably.  Just the other day, I asked the girl at my local fried chicken stall the same question.  Turns out she actually spoke fluent English and studied finance in Boston for three years.  I never would have known had I not asked the question, and now I have one more friend who can help me with the language, and is someone I can turn to should I ever find myself in trouble in this city!

Best chef in Bangkok? Umm, I think so.

Best chef in Bangkok? Umm, I think so. (Photo Courtesy of Legal Nomads)

If there is one thing I can say about the Thai people it is that generally speaking, if you make the effort to talk to them, they are more than happy to talk back and help you with whatever you need.  People here will actually smile back if you look at them on the street.  This appears to be in stark contrast to some of the other Asian countries, where I’ve heard that people can be much less friendly towards people they don’t know.

I now have a Thai language learning tool and hope to continue to make progress learning some basic phrases and get to the point where I can have and understand basic conversation.  For all of the great expats and travelers I’ve met here, I know the final piece that is missing from a truly fulfilling experience is more relationships with the Thai people.

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Sean Ogle

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
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13 comments on "Getting to Know the Thai People"

  1. andi says:

    I’m so glad you’re making such an effort! I never got those people who want all the ‘joy’ of traveling without any of the locals all in their face. To each his own, I guess!

    1. Sean says:

      @Andi I don’t think there is much joy in traveling if you can’t experience the different cultures as you go!

      @Chris Thanks for the correction…I purposely didn’t include anything else because I knew I would butcher it haha

  2. Chris says:

    “Khun Chuur At-lye”

    Or in Lao/Isaan: “jawl suur e-jung” 🙂

  3. Wilson Usman says:

    Good stuff man I am proud of you for wanting to even learn the language it show respect for others. I think about how we get mad at people in the U.S for not learning English. They probably feel the same way. God I can’t remember what book or who told me that when you try to speak to somebody in their language, even if you don’t know much, they automatically respect you and like you more. Plus I think it will make them want to help you, since they see that you are trying to get on their same level.

  4. Matt says:

    Well said Sean. When I spent 2 months in Indonesia I made every effort to use only the local language. It was very challenging and provided for some humorous mistakes (I ordered ikan pepes but pronounced it “peepees”) but the cool thing is that the locals really respect and enjoy when you try and speak to them in their native language. I never had a situation where someone wasn’t willing to help correct or find the right words when I made the effort. I once talked with an Indonesian SWAT captain on a train ride across Java. He in broken English and me in very broken Indonesian. It’s something I will never forget.

    The other thing I ran across was the people who spoke English or were learning English. When they knew I was a native English speaker they only wanted to talk in English so that they could practice. They kept asking “How is my English?”

    The trap I tried to avoid was relying too heavily on English. It’s easy to find people who speak English and use them as a crutch because that is the most comfortable way to communicate. I fell into that trap my first time in Indonesia and made sure my next trip there I put more of an effort into speaking only Indonesian. A little effort goes a long way to building new relationships.

  5. “If there is one thing I can say about the Thai people it is that generally speaking, if you make the effort to talk to them, they are more than happy to talk back and help you with whatever you need.”

    So true, so true! All it takes is a minimal amount of effort and the dividends go a very long way. I experienced this both in Thailand and in Japan. This is perhaps the most important thing to tell people traveling abroad; just make a very small amount of effort to show the natives that you are trying and they will love you.

    At my wedding in Thailand I had to get up on stage in front of 1,200 people – all Thai – to introduce myself and thank them for coming to the reception… in Thai, of course! I botched it up like nobody’s business, and yet they all still cheered and clapped just because I made the effort. Scared the hell out of me getting up there, but they appreciated it and it was kind of fun in retrospect.

    Thai language is not that hard once you know to listen for – and speak – the tones. I mean, it’s not the simplest thing ever, but it’s not impossible. One great thing about the Thai language is that it’s very loose; grammatical structures can be played with and still retain the intent of the speaker. And the chicks think it’s cute when you try to speak to them in Thai, so what could be bad about that?

    Sean, what language-learning tool are you using?

  6. Yah Sean, I have full 100% backing you that food is the best way to meet locals! And by the way, though there are 1000’s of outstanding chefs in Bangkok, he is the supreme of all elites!

  7. Ross says:

    Nice entry. I’m glad to know there are more people who fall into that middle ground category. Learning an Asian language as an English native is daunting, although I believe it’s more difficult the other way around. It’s amazing what you can pick up with minimal effort and a positive attitude.

    It’s interesting how cultural interaction plays out for different people. In a metropolis like Bangkok or Seoul you can almost roll yourself up in a community and space that’s not far from the feel of home. I was also surprised to meet those expats that’s been around for years, but still were entrenched in their language and culture.

    There’s much to be said for what globalization’s done to level the playing field. Things like pop media, international business, and the English appear to create bridges between seemingly incompatible cultures. Yes, there are serious downsides to this, but its nice to find understanding where there may have been xenophobia. It’s a strange world.

  8. Tony says:

    Hey Sean, it was nice meeting you the other night. I totally agree with what you’ve written about learning the language. One thing to keep in mind is that the concept of face is very important to the Thai people and so many who are shy about their English abilities will not try to strike up a conversation with a farang for fear of loss of face.

    With this in mind I always compliment a Thai speaker on their exceptional English no matter what their level is. Giving them a bit of “face” will go a long way in your interactions with the people here.

  9. Vinay says:

    cool post. I have been to thailand a couple of times and found most people very friendly and helpful (except for the few that try and rip you). Thailand in general is a great place and the experience of getting the locals can be greatly rewarding.

  10. Lois says:

    I totally agree that to be able to know Thai people, you have to initiate the conversation. And it helps to know a few Thai phrases beforehand. It’s great that you really make an effort. I did as well and reaped rewards. I dislike it when foreigners go to another country and get upset that the locals speak little or no English. They should consider that they are the ones visiting and not the other way around.

    great post all throughout!

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