Thai Language Thai Culture: Asking for Directions in Thailand

Thai Language

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Asking for Directions in Thailand…

After my last post, Do Thais Want Me to Speak Thai?, I received an interesting link to a posting on, Speaking Thai in Thailand is Useless.

The poster says that he speaks “pretty good Thai including tones etc. phood chart”. I believe he means พูดชัด /pûut chát/ (speaks clearly). But even though he speaks Thai so well:

“It hasn’t (sic) really helped at all as when I am in a restaurant or venue and order in what I think is perfect Thai they just look at me with the look of a Phnom Phenn Motorcycle Taxi driver, then look at the Thai I am with for confirmation. She/he says exactly the same thing as I just said then everything is ok.”

If you have read my last post then you already probably know my take on this: Your Thai friend speaks “perfect Thai”, you, on the other hand, maybe not so “perfect”. BTW, I was once in Phnom Penn and met a taxi driver who did speak perfect Thai – but I digress.

It’s the comments on the forum post that I was interested in. They contain some of the generalizations that are so prevalent in the Farang community in Thailand. You know, they always start out with “Thais …”. In this case the generalizations have to do with asking for directions in Thailand.


Here are a few of the top generalizations:

  • Most of us know that back home if you need directions or some local knowledge you just as (sic) a local, not here.
  • Thais are reluctant to ask for directions.
  • Thais are not so good with directions.
  • It is not uncommon that Thais ask another Thai for directions to somewhere and then are confused by the answer.
  • Normally if you follow their directions they are wrong.
  • Face, some think by asking for directions it makes them lose face by appearing to be ignorant.
  • Never ask them for directions.

I never cease to be amazed at the depth at which visitors to Thailand understand the workings of the Thai culture and Thai psyche. But since it appears that so many people are having trouble asking for directions (a problem everyone, especially men I have to admit, have everywhere in the world – see below) I thought that maybe a short primer on Thai direction words and phrases might help you get where you’re going.

For our purposes let’s say we are looking for วัดดอยคำ /wát doi kam/, Wat Doi Kham, “the temple on the golden hill”.

Asking for directions…

Note: They are often used with the Thai “be” word อยู่ /yùu/

Where: ที่ไหน /tîi-nǎi/

wát doi kam yùu tîi-nǎi
Where is the Doi Kham Temple?

Which way (direction): ตรงไหน /dtrong nǎi/

wát doi kam yùu dtrong nǎi
Which way to Doi Kham Temple?

Far: ไกล /glai/

wát doi kam yùu glai mái
Is the Doi Kham Temple far (from here)?

Close: ใกล้ glâi

wát doi kam yùu glâi mái
Is the Doi Kham Temple close (to here)?

How far: ไกลเท่าไหร่ /glai tâo-rài/

wát doi kam yùu glai tâo-rài
How far is Doi Kham Temple (from here)?

How many: กี่ /gèe/ (kilos – กิโล /gì-loh/); (meters – เมตร méet)

wát doi kam yùu gèe gì-loh (jàak têe-nêe)
How many kilos is Doi Kham Temple (from here)?

How long (will it take to get there from here): เท่าไร /tâo-rai/

jà chái naan tâo-rai
How long will it take (to get there)?

Giving directions…

dtrong bpai (kâang nâa)
Straight (ahead).

líeow sáai
Turn left.

líeow kwăa
Turn right.

อยู่ 10 กิโลเมตรจากที่นี่
yòo 10 gì-loh méet jàak têe nêe
It’s (10 kilos) from here.

yòo glâi
It is close.

yòo glai
It is far.

yòo kâang-kâang
Next to.

yòo kâang lăng

yòo dâan nâa
In front of.

And when nothing else works I have often been the grateful recipient of a local person’s kind assistance.

pǒm jà paa kun bpai
I will take you there.

This just happened…

I was out trimming my Bougainvillea hedges when a car pulled up and a woman asked me for directions (so much for Thais not willing to ask for directions). She said

bâan sàp-bpà-rèr yùu tîi-nǎi
Where is the “sup-er-er’s” house?

Now I knew I had heard the word สัปเหร่อ /sàp-bpà-rèr/ before and I remembered it had something to do with death. Since there was a crematorium just up the road I figured that was what she wanted so I smiled and being the helpful soul that I am I pointed out the crematorium and said

yùu tîi nîi eeng
It’s right here.

kâe rói méet
Only about 100 meters.

yùu kâang-kwǎa
On the right.

But as it turned out I was giving her completely wrong directions.

You see the common Thai word for “crematorium”, which is what was down the road, is สุสาน /sù-sǎan/ or ป่าช้า /bpàa-cháa/ which are words that originally meant cemetery but modern usage includes a place to cremate bodies. The sign in front of the one down our road uses the word สุสาน /sù-sǎan/.

crematorium: สุสาน /sù-sǎan/ or ป่าช้า /bpàa-cháa/

But the woman had asked directions for บ้านสัปเหร่อ or the “undertaker’s house”. The word สัปเหร่อ /sàp-bpà-rèr/ means “undertaker’. Not the same thing.

undertaker’s house: บ้านสัปเหร่อ

Right after she drove on I remembered all this. I was in the ballpark, I got the “death” thing right, but no cigar. As I saw her drive into the cemetery, and not the undertaker’s house where she really wanted to go, I slowly closed my gate and slunk back home so she wouldn’t see me. I know there is usually only one reason to look for บ้านสัปเหร่อ and I felt sorry for her. I hope she eventually found what she was looking for.

Here’s the audio files for the ‘Asking for Directions in Thailand’ post: download

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in Thailand

7 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Asking for Directions in Thailand”

  1. Gauging our own ability in a foreign language can be difficult.

    When I was in Vietnam, I spoke fair Vietnamese, as did another farang in the office. Yet we couldn’t understand each other’s speech. Weird. We obviously made different types of mistakes, which were minor enough for locals to grasp, but not enough for us two to bridge our gap.

    There was a saying in the foreign community there that Vietnamese language ability was an irregular verb:

    I speak pretty good Vietnamese
    You mangle the tones
    He knows a few bar-talk words.

  2. David,

    Here is a mnemonic to help you with ไกล and ใกล้.

    ใกล้ /glâi/ has a falling tone. Because of it the word seems a lot shorter than ไกล /glai/ with its mid tone.

    The short, abrupt sounding one ใกล้ means “close” – a shorter distance. The long drawn out one ไกล means “far” – a longer distance.

    Help any?

  3. Well, at least you gave them some very precise directions to the wrong place!

    And I guess the words ไกล and ใกล้ sum up the พูดชัด challenge. If these two opposing friends still cause confusion after many years on the learning Thai trip, then it might be time for a u-turn.

  4. I thought สุสาน was cemetery? Or, as I think cremation might be more usual in Thailand than in the U.S., are the words interchangeable?

    I have enough trouble with this word as it is, เช่น สุสาน vs. สื่อสาร. Not to mention I have friend named Suzanne who happens to work in Communications. 🙂


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