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.

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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.

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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.

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