The Thai language is a unique language, only spoken in Thailand and not closely related to any other language with the exception of Lao. It has some unique grammar, 5 tones, and a very unique alphabet, making it a very difficult language to learn for Westerners. What gets me are the tones. You can say they same sound in 5 different tones, and they can mean 5 completely different things. And tones are subtle to us Westerners. A subtle raising of the tone to emphasize a point in English can alter the entire meaning of a sentence in Thai.
Alas, English isn’t as universal there as one may like, which makes communications somewhat interesting. One way get around Thailand without knowing Thai is with a phrasebook. These are little Thai-English and English-Thai dictionaries, but organized around subjects rather than alphabetically. For example, there may be a section on restaurants, which will not only show translations of individual words such as “waiter” or “bill” but also translations of commonly used phrases such as “Can I get the check, please” or “I’m a vegetarian”. An added bonus is that the Thai translation is in both English letters so you can try to say it, and it is in Thai script as well, so that when you butcher the Thai, and the Thai person looks at you quizically, you can show them the Thai sentence in your book.
My favorite Thai phrasebook is the one from Lonely Planet. Those of you who have read my post on Thai guidebooks know my fondness for the Lonely Planet series of travel book. The Thai phrasebook may be difficult to find locally, but you can check Barnes and Noble, as they sometimes have it, or they can order it for you quickly. Otherwise, you can order it from Amazon.com, and if you order it before Monday, you should be able to get it by this weekend.
The Lonely Planet phrasebook is organized around subjects and situations, such as travel, food, lodging, even love. Under each section are commonly used words and phrases, in both English and Thai script. In addition, there is a traditional dictionary in the back in both Thai-English and in English-Thai.
Another one that I’ve had but wasn’t thrilled about was the phrasebook from Rough Guides. I like Rough Guides line of guidebooks, as they seen to target the type of travel I do (cheap, on my own without organized guides or tours, and in less touristed areas). However, I didn’t like their phrasebook, mainly because it was strictly a dictionary, and didn’t have commonly used phrases. It was also strictly alphabetical, and not organized by subject or situation.
If you’re interested in checking out other Thai phrasebooks, I found a very comprehensive review of Thai phrasebooks at a blog called “Women Learning Thai… and some men too ” They did a lot of work reviewing just about every phrasebook out there.
So please consider getting a Thai phrasebook for the trip. It’s a lot of fun trying to learn a new language, and the natives genuinely appreciate you at least trying their language. This is especially true of the Thais. Even if you butcher it, they will smile or laugh and not take any offense.