Learning Thai to Live in Thailand: A Guide for Expats & Digital Nomads
After almost 10 months living in Thailand over the last year, a common question I get asked is:
Do you need to speak Thai to live in Thailand?
Well, if you’re coming to live in any one of the tourist hubs (ie. Chiang Mai, Bangkok and the islands), the short answer is no.
However, if you’re planning to stay in Thailand over the long-term, then learning the local language will obviously enrich your experience.
To tell people that they don’t need to speak Thai would simply be bad advice because there is so much to be gained for both the foreigner and the locals. At the same time, it’s very true that you can come to Thailand, stay within the tourist/expat bubble and not interact with Thai people beyond a transactional basis.
I personally live in the most foreigner-friendly part of Chiang Mai known as the Nimman area and I don’t have my own transport. Therefore, you could definitely say I’m living in ‘the bubble’. Most of time, I’m interacting with other English speakers but I do have to rely on Thai when ordering food.
The following guide features my top tips for learning Thai in Thailand as well as some of the most common phrases I tend to use on a daily/weekly basis.
Tip #1: Interact with the Locals
I know — it’s rather cliche and obvious advice but especially with a language like Thai, you’ll never know if you can actually speak it until you interact with a local.
The phrases you’ll learn in this guide and the recommended resources might make you feel like you know Thai but the real test will be whether the local Thai people can understand you. This is because Thai is quite a tonal language, with sounds that you may not be able to distinguish without adequate practice.
Start with your Day-to-Day
At the basic level, you can get started interacting with locals on a transactional basis. By ‘transactional’, I mean situations where you need to talk to locals to buy something.
Next time you go down to your local restaurant or 711, you can try ordering in Thai and if you’re comfortable with that, add in a ‘Sabai dee mai’ (basically, ‘How are you’ in English) to get a small conversation going.
While it’s unlikely you get into a full-blown conversation on a transactional basis, you’ll have much more luck connecting with locals in a purely social setting.
As an expat, Thai people will generally find your foreign-ness (not a real word, I know) interesting and be open to talking with you.
In general, Thai people are known to be quite friendly and welcoming anyway. Just keep an eye on their body language and sense your time to leave if there’re not interested in you sticking around (ie. basic social acuity).
Tinder & Other Dating Apps
From a single guy’s perspective, using dating apps like Tinder offer an amazing opportunity to meet women and have a local experience.
Obviously, if you meet someone on Tinder, they are much more open to forming a relationship as opposed to any random person off the street.
I myself have never used the app in Thailand (as I am in a relationship already) but I’ve heard from numerous sources (inc. fellow content creators like Jubril Agoro and David Bond) that finding matches as a foreign male (especially) in Thailand is many times easier than in the west.
For women on the other hand, I haven’t heard of any female nomads making connections on Tinder but I’m sure it does happen.
Once you match and meet up with a local girl or guy, you’ll have the opportunity to have a much more local experience. Not to mention, you’ll be able to practice your Thai and seek instant clarification for how to say any phrase that comes into your mind.
I have two friends here (one — a male digital nomad , the second — a female Thai) that met on Tinder and not only are they in a great relationship, it’s opened us up to discovering more local Thai experiences like eating at a traditional Thai BBQ and visiting the northern Thai village of Mae Taeng.
2. Learn the Basics
Despite living in a ‘bubble’ here in Nimman, I try to practice Thai as much as possible, especially in situations where I’m interacting with locals. Over last 10 months in Thailand, these are the basic survival phrases and words I’ve used in everyday life.
Thai Word/Phrase Meaning in English Notes sà-wàt-dee kráp (if you’re a man)
sà-wàt-dee kâ (if you’re a woman) Hello / Goodbye The most common phrase I’ll say. I use this to greet Thai people wherever I go kòp kun kráp (if you’re a man)
kòp kun kâ (if you’re a woman) Thank you My second most-used phrase kŏr tôht (if you’re a man)
kŏr tôht kâ (if you’re a woman) Sorry / Excuse me I use this phrase whenever I make a mistake and need to apologise but also when attempting to get a staff member’s attention in a restaurant pad thai (moo | gai) kráp (if you’re a man)
pad thai (moo | gai) kâ (if you’re a woman)
Khao Soi Gai kráp (if you’re a man)
Khao Soi Gai kâ (if you’re a woman)
Pad Thai (Pork | Chicken ) please
Khao Soi Chicken Please
Two of my favourite dishes: Khao Soi and Pad Thai.
In this instance you put the type of meat after the name of the dish (gai = chicken, moo = pork). If you want it without meat, you can replace with ‘jai’
nit noi A little bit If you want a little bit of anything, you can use this word. Often restaurant owners will ask if you want your food spicy. Here you can reply ‘nit noi’ mai pen rai It’s all good ‘mai pen rai’ can be loosely translated to ‘It’s all good’ in English. It could also be translated as ‘never mind’ in any negative situation.
I don’t often have to use this but my girlfriend, Denise likes to say this phrase to calm down any situation with a Thai person that’s perhaps getting tense.
raa-kaa tâo rài? How much is this? (Price) I usually drop the ‘raa-kaa’ (meaning price). In context, it should still make sense. Xạn nī̂ (pronounced ‘ann ni’) This one What I use when I order food with a menu. In this instance, I usually point to a photo or line and say ‘ann ni kráp’ pang mak Too expensive I’ve never had to use this one but the phrase has become an inside joke amongst our friends group. As things are quite inexpensive here in Thailand, it can be funny to call things too expensive — I guess that’s where the joke comes from lol nèung, sŏng, săam, sèe, hâa, hòk, jèt, bpàet, gâo, sìp Numbers 1–10 Practice these in sequence and you’ll find them easier to remember.
To say numbers in multiples of ten (more useful), just say the number followed by ‘sìp’ (except for 20 which is yêe sìp).
When you master this, move on to memorising the numbers in between as well as those 100 and above.
Also, when ordering multiple of something, say the number after the name of the item itself instead of before (like you would in English)
3. Build your Knowledge
While points 1 and 2 are great places to get started, you should really study some Thai if you really want to grow your ability.
If you’re not familiar with Pimsleur, it’s a language training program delivered by audio. Each lesson is 30mins and starts with a conversation between two people speaking the language after which the narrator will break the conversation down and repeat it to you until you’re able to understand everything.
I’m currently using Pimsleur to build on top of my limited knowledge of the Thai language. Here are a few examples of phrases I’ve learned so far:
Thai Word/Phrase Meaning in English Notes pom may cow jai pasa thai kráp (for men)
dishan may cow jai pasa thai kâ? (for women)
I don’t understand Thai In context, I assume this means more like ‘I don’t speak Thai’. khun cow jai pasa angkrit mai kráp? Do you understand English? In context, I assume this means more like ‘Do you speak English?’
What sets Pimsleur apart from the other systems out there is that they start you off from the beginning of a common conversation. From there, you build on the introduction and basic questions to have a more in-depth conversation.
While I have no first-hand experience with Brett’s course, I wanted to give it a shout-out as I’ve heard a few great things about it.
For example, my former boss here in Chiang Mai was very dedicated to learning Thai and picked up Brett’s course, using it as a more in-depth compliment to Pimsleur. From what I’ve heard, he’s been enjoying it so far.
Take a Local Class
As a digital nomad, I’m very much for learning through digital resources but there’s always the option to take advantage of your location to learn Thai direct from actual Thai people. This could be in the form of a private one-on-one/group class or a formal class at the local university.
When I was first looking into learning Thai in Chiang Mai, I checked out The Centre for Thai Studies at CMU. They have a 15-day intensive beginner course that costs around 6,000 baht ($170 USD) or a 1-Year Thai Language Program including an Education Visa for only 35,000 baht (aprox $1,000 USD).
Otherwise, finding private tutors in the bigger cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok should be pretty easy. Living in Chiang Mai, I notice posts on Facebook and flyers around the place all the time for tutors advertising their services. You’d have to check them out but basically all Thai people are Thai language experts, right?
Why You Should Learn Thai
With the resources mentioned above, you should be able to get started learning Thai and begin to enrich your time in Thailand with a more authentic local experience but maybe you need a bit more convincing?
Here are a 3 big reasons to start learning Thai today:
- You’ll be able to go where the locals go, find new experiences you won’t find on tourist maps and eat at great local restaurants you won’t find on Tripadvisor
- You’ll save money by not paying tourist prices and be able to eat exactly like a local
- You’ll be better able to connect with Thai people, make friends and have more fun
Regardless of the initial reason you’re coming to live in Thailand, you’ll definitely benefit from learning a little — or a whole lot — of the local language.
Until next time,