After breakfast we set off for Khao Yai in good spirits. It was a pleasant drive with the surprisingly good quality road snaking around reservoirs, over hills and through picturesque villages. At one point the road split two ways in the middle of a small village with no signs in English indicating which was the road to Khao Yai. Pim had fallen asleep, so I stopped the car and walked over to the signs trying to read them. None of the letters seemed to spell out Khao Yai, so I decided to ask a villager. The first person I saw was a young girl of about 15. It was one of those “I don’t speak farang” moments, with a conversation that went like this:
“Khaw toht, khrap.” (Excuse me, please)
“Mai ruu! Mai ruu!” (I don’t know! I don’t know!)
I wasn’t giving up that easy and letting her off the hook, so I continued undaunted.
“Thanon nai pai Khao Yai, khrap?” (Which road goes to Khao Yai, please?)
“Thanon nii” (This road)
You see. You CAN speak to scary foreigners. I’ve had similar experiences in 7/11s when buying cigarettes:
“Khaw Mabolloh Light, Khrap.” (Can I have a pack of Marlboro Lights, please?)
At this point the first assistant turns to the second assistant and says, “Farang nii yaak dai arai?” (What does this farang want?). The second assistant with an air of superior confidence gained from years of experience dealing with foreigners trying to speak Thai then replies, “Khao yaak dai Mabolloh Light.” (He wants a pack of Marlboro Lights).
I know that my pronunciation is still far from perfect, but sometimes Thais see a farang face and just clam up in fear, recalling those dreaded rote learning techniques from English classes at school.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you, and you?”
“What is your name?”
“I’m fine thank you, and you?”
Thai is a purely tonal language, difficult for many farangs, myself included, to master. If you learn the word table in English, it doesn’t matter how you pronounce it. It’s still a table. Thai, on the other hand, has five tones, so every word you learn has potentially five different meanings, depending how you pronounce it. Therefore, learning a word in Thai is only half the battle, but difficult enough. Personally, I rely on word association until I remember new words. For example, the word for cauliflower is dok alam. I had to picture a dog sneaking into a field to steal a cauliflower and setting off an alarm (dog alarm) for a month until I remembered that one. I’ll spare you the visualizations I employed to remember khao phat (fried rice) or fak (practice).
Now that you’ve learned the word, you have to pronounce it correctly. You may think that you are saying, “Excuse me. Does this bus go to Chiang Mai?” but what really comes out is, “Excuse me. Your left leg is on fire.”
Only after you are 200% certain that you have the tones right, should you attempt to say, “I like horse riding” (phom chawp khii maa). Try it and see if you don’t believe me. You may get some strange looks.
You would hope that meaning from context would come into play, but you would be wrong. The word for busy is yung, and the word for mosquito is yung. Once, when I was teaching English, a student, whom I knew to be very busy at work, arrived late for class. I asked him, “Maa sai thammai? Yung mai?” (Why did you come late? Are you a) busy b) a mosquito?). He looked at me through squinted eyes with his face screwed up in disbelief at why the crazy farang teacher was asking him if he was late because he was a mosquito.
If you are ever planning to walk somewhere, and you are not sure how far it is, two very important words to learn are glaai (near) and glaai (far).
All this being said, most Thai are delighted if you make the effort to speak Thai, no matter how badly. I know several farangs who have lived in Thailand for over ten years but still expect everyone to use English with them and get annoyed when they can’t make themselves understood. The important things are to not take yourself too seriously or be worried about making mistakes. When you do get it right, it’s very rewarding.
Taxi driver: “Uh hoh. Phuut Thai geng.” (Oh my gosh. You speak Thai very well)
Even if you only know how to say sawaat dii khrap (hello) or khop khun khrap (thank you), you will be told that you speak Thai very well.
So, cunning linguist that I am, I found the road to Khao Yai. At the checkpoint, the guard asked me if I worked in Thailand, and I said that I did. At least, I think that’s what I said. I may have actually said that I have a red pencil, but it worked, anyway, and I was only charged Thai price rather than farang price. Most National Parks, museums, temples and other tourist attractions employ a dual pricing policy for Thais and farangs. Judging by the letters to the Bangkok Post, this seems to rile many farangs, but I just can’t get excited by this. In fact, often if you speak Thai and tell them that you work here, you’ll be charged Thai prices anyway.