On The Importance of Learning How To Speak Thai

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Laura Dal Farra

I realize some of you MMT nak muays come to Thailand to do more than just train and a number of you, if not most, are on limited time.  If you’re here for under a month, I suspect a general phrase book will suffice.  If you situate yourself in the heavily Farang populated areas and/or gyms that are accustomed to a heavy flow of Foreigners, you may not even need one.  I don’t know.

China Town

However, for those of you who plan on spending what I consider an extended time out here (ie. a few months +), particularly those of you who want to train at a Thai style and/or non tourist gym, I can’t stress heavily enough how much you will benefit from learning to speak the language, however limited your capabilities are.

It amazes me when I meet people who have been here for longer than I have and can’t speak the language.  I’m not being judgmental, I’m just confused how they get by…and then after getting to know them better, I realize a number of things – ie. how badly they’re getting ripped off on a daily basis, how much rent they pay, how dependent they are on other Foreigners who are unknowingly in similar predicaments, how different their Thailand is from mine.  I’m not saying mine is any better, but it’s different and I wouldn’t trade it for theirs.  My brain freezes at anything cookie cutter – which is part of the reason I’m out here – I’m constantly learning…so, for those of you who are looking for something different, again, I suggest you learn to speak the language.

Thai Dictthai_begin

Let me count the ways it may improve your experience:

Neung)  You will actually be able to speak to your trainer. Granted there are some that speak English, but it doesn’t mean you’ll be training with one that does. Or one that is competent. Or one that cares to really explain everything to you in detail in a language they’re struggling with.  Also, from what I’ve experienced, it’s the trainers that can speak English with whom the gym entrusts the task of aiding the Foreigners outside of their training…translation, if you’re lucky, you’ll be dealing with a decent human being, if you’re not, you’ll be blindly dependent on a potential scumbag who knows he is your only resource.  A lot of people I meet can’t tell the difference.

Sorng)  You will be less of an outsider at the gym. If the nak muays and the trainers can speak to you, chances are you’ll have people to hang out with and interesting things to do.  This may not be an issue at gyms that have a number of Farang, but my experience has been, if you’re at a Thai style gym, you never know who will be there and for how long. You may be the only one.  Also, if you want to learn about the culture, I mean, really learn about the culture, this is a good avenue to do so.

Sahm)  You will know when people are talking smack about you. Inside the gym and outside. Do you know how many times I’ve heard individuals say heinous things about someone while smiling directly at them in conversation?

See)  It will save you money.  The average Farang rip-off rate for a tuk tuk ride in Bangkok seems to be 100 baht.  Small money if you’re here for a short time, but if you’re here for awhile, it adds up.  Perhaps it’s my language skills (which are far from extensive), but I’ve noticed that when I get the standard 100 baht rate, laugh and tell the tuk tuk driver “No way” in Thai, I generally end up with a fair price (ie. usually about a 50% reduction).  Note, fair doesn’t necessarily mean equivalent to Thai.  Tuk tuk drivers aren’t the only ones…knowing the language will allow you to negotiate training fees, apartment rental pricing, or something as simple as realizing the street vendor just quoted you a price double than the kid beside you.

Hah)  It will increase your safety.  I’ll illustrate with something that recently occurred.  A number of us from different gyms went out to eat. All nak muays – myself being the only non-Thai and female.  A bottle, maybe two bottles of whiskey were purchased.  I didn’t drink but a few of the guys did (I’ve learned to be on point with the drinking – generally I don’t, unless I go out with specific people I know really well and on those nights, I still keep it to a minimum).

This is normal.

I’ll stress this again as I can already sense a percentage of you eager to write the usual one sided, judgmental, ask-no-questions-but-know-everything statements such as….What?  You’re a girl.  You went out drinking and didn’t expect something bad to happen?  You’re in a foreign country….. as though I should isolate myself and not have a social life outside of training for the next few years (yeah, that’s safe)……Again, this is normal.  Eat. Sleep. Train.  Fight. Watch fights. When there’s extra money, sometimes dance, sometimes sing, sometimes eat with friends at restaurants and enjoy a few drinks. Sometimes all of this combined.  These aren’t kids that offer, hey let’s go to the mall, let’s go to a movie, let’s buy a Wii…I have no idea what else, because I’m not like that either…… but for the amount two people can go to a movie in Bangkok, a nak muay can treat a handful of his friends to a bottle of whiskey that will last a night.  More often than not, these guys are broke.  You do the math.  And no, from my experience, this isn’t isolated to the gym I’m currently at (I’m waiting for the ‘Well, change gyms then’ statement).  I’m waiting for a few more, but I’ll pass for now…

A huge part of me didn’t want to write the above, because I feel it’s ridiculous that I seem to be expected to validate some of what I do to you MMT readers (or, just sit back and let condescending statements made out of complete ignorance roll) – but, I feel that if I ignored this notion, perhaps the who, what, where and when of this story will completely distract people from the message I’m trying to convey.  In time, hopefully you guys will realize that I’m writing from experience, and whether you agree with the parameters of what I do, I really don’t care, however, I do care about trying to help people out.  I’ve seen enough Farang come to Thailand and go through the same thing over and over and ask me the same questions consistently…so a lot of what I write, whether it be of use to you or not, is written with the intention to aid, and I believe in illustrating with examples. Real examples, not fictitious scenarios that sound cool and side step possible judgment.

Back to my story…

When it was time to leave, we all went to jump into different taxis.  I was on the phone and by the time I tried to get into one, it was full. One of the nak muays who had been drinking quite a bit, told everyone he’d drop me off in a taxi on his way home.  I didn’t think much of it as other nak muays have previously offered the same thing. I’ve been warned over and over again in this city, that it’s not safe for a woman to ride alone in a taxi at night.  Accepting his offer seemed like a wise choice.  I’ve known him for months and the guys I was with trusted him.  I also live directly across from the gym.

So, the two of us are in the taxi, Isaan music on the radio, I’m tired, in the backseat, the nak muay is in the front speaking to the driver about things I didn’t care to know about…when luckily I catch him instructing the driver to drop us off at a hotel.  (Note, this entire conversation is in Thai).  I question him, he retorts, “Yes, you’re coming with me to a hotel”.  I tell him, “No, I’m not” and tell the driver where I’d like to be dropped off.  He asks the nak muay, who plays it like I don’t know what I’m talking about and states “No, we’re going to the hotel”, I continue the dispute until we’re situated in front of a hotel I’ve never seen.  I didn’t even know what neighbourhood we were in.  The nak muay pays the fair and proceeds to get out of the taxi.  I lock my door.  He demands I get out and into the hotel as he continually yanks on the handle.  I inform the driver, “This man isn’t my boyfriend/lover/husband, take me to…..”.  He was completely confused, perhaps scared?  Useless?  I have no idea but he just silently watched the drama unfold.

My adversary gets heavier on me.  Do I need to express how angry I was?  Finally he gives up and climbs back into the taxi and I explode – I chastise him, getting into specifics until he finally, in a defeated tone tells me to stop speaking.

He was completely embarrassed.  And yes, I believe this was my defense.  My head and my arsenal of words.

Should it have become something physical, I suspect my chances were slim.  My hand was already on a pen I keep with me, but this kid is a past champion and insanely strong.  So, instead of freaking out, I used what limited knowledge I have of Thai culture coupled with my vocab.  My intention was to make this kid ‘inadvertently’ lose face and indirectly dial the taxi driver into the fact this wasn’t a lovers’ quarrel.  I believe if I had forthright punked him out, the potential for the situation to become ugly would have tripled.  Further to this, in a quest for added protection, I also threatened the kid that if he told anyone that I went to a hotel with him or that if he ever tried to touch me again, I’d speak to the owner of his gym (who can’t speak English) and tell him exactly what happened.  The guy hasn’t bothered me since…..

This is just one example of how knowing how to speak Thai can protect you.  And guys, this isn’t only for the ladies. I’m someone who thoroughly believes that you’ll never know what life will throw at you or when, so be prepared, not scared, prepared.  Learning to speak Thai will help you should you ever end up in a situation you weren’t counting on with locals, in a hospital, or dealing with police.  It can help you with something simple like getting lost…The potential for it to happen is there, no matter how straight you try to live.  There are a lot of things that go on out here that I suspect travel guides can’t, or choose not to write about, soo…..

I’ve tallied an arsenal of books, media, etc. that have helped me.  The following list is compiled in regards to speaking the language, not reading it. I can’t read Thai, but plan to. I hope it aids those of you who are interested in learning to speak Thai, whatever your reasons may be:

Neung) Phrase Books – Lonely Planet is by far my favourite.  When I’ve had more than one phrase book on me, I’ve noticed more often than not, the Thais I’ve been trying to speak to prefer this one as well.

Sorng)  Books/Language Software – Rosetta Stone, anything by Benjamin Poomsan Becker, anything picked up at the A.U.A. Language Centers located in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.  I haven’t seen the Rosetta Stone software here in Thailand, but your average Farang friendly bookstore will have a section completely devoted to learning how to speak Thai. My preference is anything published by the A.U.A., only available at their offices, which also offers language courses if you have the time.

Sahm) Tutors – If you can find one. I think the average price is about 300 baht an hour.

Note:  Thailand doesn’t have a definitive transliteration system – as a result a lot of books/language software tend to use their own.  The AUA, I believe uses the phonetic alphabet, or mirrors it closely as does anything I have published by Benjamin Poomsan Becker.  Also, please be aware, if you buy a phrase book published in the UK but live in the US, there may be an issue with understanding the pronunciation guides.

Lastly, have any of you trained in Isaan?  I haven’t and am wondering if learning the Northeastern dialect would be more beneficial for those that plan to stick to that area…..

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About Author

I’m a Canadian who decided to quit my job, sell most of what I own, pack a suitcase, and skip continents to pursue a martial art. A minimalist. A modern nomad. A kid who just likes having a good time. My attraction to muay thai is that it’s an art with no wasted motion. I spent four years in Thailand training muay thai fulltime. I still live a nomadic life and muay thai continues to be the constant among the variables. I document much of it all on my site Milk.Blitz.Street.Bomb. Be prepared for updates, rambling, video content and anything I’ve learned that I think may of use to you. This hasn’t been easy, but so far, its been a pretty sick ride.

34 Comments

  1. good post ldf, leaning thai definately makes for a more enjoyable experience.

    I spent 2 months at an Isaan camp in Mahasarakham, the home town of Saenchai and Sagetdao. I can 100% say that learning the North Eastern dialect would not be beneficial.

    They (Isaaners?) all understand farang spoken Thai and find isaan speaking farangs well…. quite strange. I learnt some Isaan sentences however when I used them I only got laughter back (I still don’t know if the those damn kids gave me the right translation lol).

    However, the benefit of learning Isaan is that you can cross the borders to Laos and every one there will understand you which is prety cool.

  2. Great Post!! I agree with you 100%. I was there for a total of almost 1 year and even my limited amount of Thai was great help. I started learning as soon as I got there, in my room at night before bed I’d practice a couple of phrases and test them out the following morning. That helped me the most because a lot of the Thais would correct me or tweak something.

    Laura, your posts are awesome!

  3. Wow LDF pretty sobering story. I’m glad you got out of it okay. And yeah the importance of being able to speak Thai could not be more clearly illustrated.

    Thanks for another great article again. Your posts are getting to be my favorite part of MMT. I always look forward to your adventures and the practical advice you have to pass along.

  4. good points, and learning some phrases also earns gratitude points as well…one’d be surprised how much thais appreciate attempts at their language…one thing i’ve found though: don’t be surprised if your attempts are met with giggles/smiles, it’s usually just a face-saving (towards you) gesture….

  5. for what it’s worth, some of the camps websites (lanna and tiger come to mind) also include thai phrases as well, both fight and daily living related…..

  6. I think it’s safe to say that making an effort to speak the language anywhere you go conveys a certain amount of respect.

    As always LDF is bringing it… great post.

    Stay safe girl.

  7. you’re right. I think it’s critical for me to learn as much thai as i can before i go back. Not only is it beneficial but it shows respect. Thais look at you & treat you differently the more you know about their culture. I think it’s great advice.

  8. ldf….

    these posts are enlightening to some but you seem like a ticking time bomb….like after all you posted about situations YOU PUT YOURSELF IN sooner or later somethings gonna happen to [the vulnerable foreign ‘white chick’]you. and you still seem naive. anyhow i hope you can manage to stay out of trouble.

  9. a ticking time bomb? naive? vulnerable? have we met? thanks for the concern but i don’t know what to say SE – yeah, i suppose i could go to a gym with all foreigners and have a mc thai experience like about 90% of the people who come out here, i suppose that’s safer, because the foreigners that come out here would never do something like the above right? they’re all wonderful men who are very respectful to women………..and yeah, going out for dinner – damn, that is naive…what was i thinking? forming friendships? yeah that is crazy, it’s much safer to isolate myself, so no one really knows me at the gym, doesn’t know my character, so they can just assume i’m like every other white chick on spring break they see on tv or hear about in the islands….good call…because should anything ever happen to me, im sure they’ll take the word of the white woman they don’t know over a thai guy….yeah, you’re right..that makes much more sense….but then again, it could just be me being naive again…..and i suppose, it is my fault the guy got drunk and tried to intimidate me into having sex with him. what was i thinking…i should have been able to control the situation somehow to ensure that didn’t happen, see right into the future…do you think it was because i was showing my shoulders? too much skin? or maybe i shouldn’t have looked too pretty….yeah…..guess im just a vulnerable, navie white chick, best to hide and listen to the advice of people like yourself. how long did you live out here for SE?

  10. look im not here to argue with you. but you just said you’re the only female, not to mention foreigner, there. thats bad, if not the worst possible situation you could be in. and if you really are pretty that is worse. you also mentioned you doing things like staying in another dudes room…….than after telling the story you made it sound like they were the weird ones to think bad things. that is an example of naive stupid shit. it honestly does sound like it s only a matter of time before something happens. the things you think are normal, training fighting, hanging out, dancing, is not normal IN THIS SITUATION cus youre the only fucking chick yet alone foreigner. unless you get someone who proves trustworthy to go with your safety will always be compromised. maybe you wont even comprehend what im saying cus you’re so cultured now and know whats up cus you have canadian street smarts and learned some thai. lmfao….

  11. staying in another dude’s room?…are you refering to the piece i wrote about nak muays being the underclass in their own country? if you are, you’re confused, i had mentioned a guy being in my room – at around 1 pm, for something like under an hour, but there is no point in arguing about some possible confusion…

    however, you’re assuming a lot here – how do you know i don’t have people who’ve prven trustworthy? that they weren’t out with me that night? do you know anything of the friendships i have at the gym? the nature? the depth? i’ve always lived in canada? you know my history? my past? you know where i’m from? what are you basing your opinions on? i know what you’re going to write before i read it…..

    SE, if you can back up you’re opinions, then i’ll respect them, even if i don’t agree with what you’re saying, but all i hear is someone with a lot of opinion. concern is appreciated, but you’re condescending and self righteous. all you keep going back to is the fact i’m a girl……? what are you assuming i’m doing out here? what are you assuming is happening? your last post was almost funny. thank you.

  12. i also love how you side step everything that may make you accountable for your opinions. if you’re under 15, i get it..i’m new to this internet tough guy ramble.

  13. Great post there LDF, I very much agree that knowing the language and social etiquette of whichever country you may be in will significantly contribute to both the way you are treated by the people as well as your ability to get yourself out of tricky and potentially threatening situations. Not to mention it does wonders for your socializing ;)

    Also, some of the reactions on here are a good example of your previous post about jai rorn behaviour vs. jai yen behaviour and how it makes someone come across. Even though I’m not Thai myself, I agree with this view on attitudes and how they are controlled. In my humble opinion, how someone handles their own attitude says a lot about maturity and the amount of respect one has for others… and ultimately oneself.

    Great to read about your experiences and thanks for sharing. I wish you exciting (and safe!) travels.

  14. that’s a gr8 post ldf. Just saw it now. Infact i was planning to start learning thai and was planning to get the above mentioned books when i came across the post. Soon planning for my second trip to thailand and b4 that planning to learn sme serious thai. Yep like u said if we are in a farang populated gym then no need to worry abt thai language, but still knowing thai really helps and i appreciate ur presence of mind and thai language skill as well to escape frm the situation.
    Khap un krab to u.

  15. how i ‘side step’ everything? using fighting terminology in everyday conversation. cute.

    listen ms thang,

    i can only draw conclusions based on what youve written in the past. you seem a little quick to pat yourself on the back for a neat article and disregard certain realities. like if you had not been in those situations you mentioned and used more common sense it really wouldnt even matter if you spoke thai or not. i know girls that absolutely wont go out with dudes unless they are with another gf. this is in their own country too. not in a foreign one with no other females or non thais….

    get mad now,

    peace

  16. I think LDF’s message is that speaking Thai in general is good for not only easing communication within your camp but can be useful to negotiating your way through potentially sticky and dangerous situations. It applies to everyone. In her scenario she’s a female foreigner travelling but everything is still applicable. Don’t hate SE – appreciate. Its sound advice and its bolstered by an experience she chose to use to illustrate her point.

    We put ourselves in dangerous situations every day by walking down the street or by may be chance encountering the wrong person on the wrong day. You noted this yourself SE. As you say sometimes stuff just happens unbidden. I wouldn’t lay any of the blame at LDF’s feet for trying to build camaraderie between her and her gym mates. I would probably do the same except for I am a total lightweight drinker.

    Under no circumstance is being damn near abducted excusable or LDF’s fault. All things considered she handled it peacefully and safely with no harm to anyone.

    I can tell you in 100% honesty had it been me I would have made the situation even more dangerous and made the outcome much, much worse. In my opinion LDF really should be praised for showing remarkable restraint and keeping her cool and her wits about her. Keep the articles coming LDF. I like them and I always look forward to your insight.

  17. “i know girls that absolutely wont go out with dudes unless they are with another gf”

    yeah probably because they hang out with guys like you, that think if a girl hangs out in their room for awhile they want to have sex.

    I’m just wondering, have you had actual sex before? or have you just raped a bunch of chicks?

  18. whoa… Look everyone here is entitled to their opinion. I don’t often agree with them, but that’s all part of it.

    But we’re going to do this with some civility. This isn’t sherdog.. shit actually I don’t even think they would tolerate this on sherdog… anyway.

    Keep the personal attacks and insults off MMT.

  19. This is getting way out of hand and turning into one of those “other” fight blogs that I have chosen to avoid
    #1. Iam IN THAILAND NOW..and what the lady says is all TRUE. Hey..u don`t need it if you just another farang who wants to spend $ and get training. But if you want the MOST out of it…camraderie and aceptance from trainers..have them go the extra mile to teach you..accept you as friend and have a nickname for you..then her advice is sound.
    #2 I got LOST in BKK at fery late hours cuz cabbies dont know where anything is..and I wish I knew the language…so listen to the lady. Nothing to show u how powerless u are by not being able to communicate
    #3 Speaking even a tiny bit of Thai shows you are not just another stupid tourist. YOu will get things alot cheaper and get the local vibe on stuff no one else knows. I got my room cheap in a very swank joint in phuket because of this…so listen to the lady
    #4 I have been learnign since I got here..and they love that I try and keep correcting me and teaching me.
    #5 There will always be people who push and challenger ou cultural/social barriers, and those who resist those changes. Both cannot exist without the each other, both do not often exist harmoniously, but one must never nullify the other. True enlightenment comes from the ability to balance both..and thats what we need in MMT in order to have constructive debates. How do Thais pass on such a violent art form yet practice such humility and respect.
    #6 I do feel personally that the more we get into arguing they more we remove our forum from what it was intended…we are dividing not becoming closer

  20. btw ldf, if u want to train in Isaan, I can ask my trainer. He trains with 1-2 Isaan guys and I am sure info can be gleaned..let me know..only in Thailand for another week, can give u my cell here if u like

  21. Arguing is okay. It’s expected and healthy. Intelligent arguing is how your mind grows. It’s like LDF said if you have logical points and can defend them intelligently why not? Just don’t let it turn into personal attacks and all should be well.

  22. I have Thai for Beginners, and feel that I should point out that the author’s name is Benjawan, not Benjamin. She’s a woman. It might be embarrassing to me if Benjamin was a feminine name in Thai…

    http://www.learningthai.com is also a good resource, with easily used audio aids to help those of us who were not raised speaking a tonal language.

    I’m headed to Bangkok tomorrow morning, I will try to learn as much Thai as i can! The hard part is that infernally complicated written language..

  23. ldf my cell here is 0818417650…my trainer and I just got done with our AM session (he fights on Tues in Bangla stadium here) I will as pick his brain over breakfast..give me a jingle

  24. Hello Laura,
    im a friend of Ang’s and i have fought out of Siam No.1.
    have you been fighting /are you training for a fight at the moment?
    i live in isaan with my wife, you can just pick up a few words as you go.
    your advice is wholesome. i think your experience would be helpfull for travelers on other forums… after what happened last week on koh tao.

    H

  25. Hi Laura,

    Thank you for sharing all your knowledge with us. I am looking to travel internationally for the majority of next year. I would like to spend about 2 months in Thailand training Muay Thai and was advised to check out Por Pramuk Gym. From your review it sounds pretty amazing. I do not speak Thai and I am looking to also get involved in learning the language while I am there. Are there any locations/gyms you would suggest looking into training at that are close to language schools or have a high volume of tutors near by? Also one’s that are cool with training women of course.

    This last year I have been working so hard and so much to save money for this trip and am so excited about (only bummer is that I had to pretty much give up training for most the year in order to save).
    Thanks again!

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