Although tonal languages can be difficult to learn, knowing how to say hello in Thai is easy. By greeting people in the local language, you will land smiles, new friends, and a better overall travel experience in Thailand.
Hordes of tourists come to enjoy the islands in thailand without taking the time to learn a little of the local culture. Making an effort to speak a few words of the local language sets you apart from those who treat locals more or less as vacation servants.
Although Thai is a very tonal language -- the meanings of the words change based on the tone with which they are spoken -- don't worry about using the correct tones for saying hello, thank you, and other common expressions; locals will always understand.
- Learn more about Thailand etiquette.
The Thai Wai
Before learning how to say hello in Thai, you should know how to offer or return a Thai wai. Unless doing so to make Westerners more comfortable, Thai people rarely shake hands; instead, they offer a friendly wai -- a prayer-like gesture with the hands placed together in front of their chest.
The wai is used for saying hello in Thai, to show respect, to show gratitude, and sometimes as an apology. As with bowing in Japan, offering a correct wai follows a strict protocol based on situation and social status. Not returning a friendly wai is rude; only the king and monks are not required to return someone's wai!
To offer a proper wai, place your hands together in front of your chest with fingertips pointing up toward the chin; dip your head ever so slightly. The higher the wai in front of your body, the more respect that is shown. Raise your hands higher so that fingertips are slightly above nose level for elders, public officials, and other important people. Monks receive the highest wai, and do not have to return the gesture.
Follow these easy rules for offering a correct Thai wai:
- Give monks a high wai with your hands together more in front of your face. Learn more about temple etiquette in Thailand.
- Never give a wai with a cigarette or object in your hands; instead, place the object down or dip your head in a light bow to acknowledge someone's wai.
- You can accidentally cause embarrassment by offering a wai to someone of lower social standing; doing so can cause them to lose face. Avoid giving a wai to children, beggars, and people who you are paying for a service (e.g., servers, drivers, and bellboys).
- The wai isn't just seen in Thailand; you will encounter the gesture in neighboring Cambodia and Laos as well.
How to Say Hello in Thai
Unlike in other Southeast Asian countries, Thai people use the same greeting regardless of the time of day or night.
Although English spellings vary, the standard Thai greeting is: sawasdee -- sounds like "sah wah dee" -- with a wai gesture and a smile. Women end their greeting with a drawn-out "khaaa" which falls in tone. Men end their greeting by saying "khrap!" with a sharp, upward tone. The "r" is rarely pronounced, so the ending sounds more like "kap!".
Interestingly, sawasdee was derived from a Sanskrit word by a Thai professor, and has only been in use since the 1930s.
- Men say hello with: sah wah dee khrap!
- Women say hello with : sah wah dee khaa
Now that you know how to say hello in Thai, you can expand your greeting further by asking how someone is doing. Sawasdee is often followed up with "sabai dee mai" -- ending with either khrap or kha based on your gender. In essence, you are asking, "good and happy, no?".
The correct responses when someone asks you sabai dee mai are:
- "sabai dee" if you are doing well.
- "mai sabai" for not so good.
The Thai Smile
Thailand is known as "Land of the Smiles" for a reason: you'll see the famous Thai smile in every type of situation, even as an apology or in not-so-pleasant circumstances.
The Thai smile is tied in with the concept of saving face, which plays a large role in all daily interactions. You should smile when negotiating prices, greeting people, buying something, and in all interactions. Same as with the wai, you should always return someone's smile!