I find that place names in Thai are quite difficult to remember. Well, I should say that I find names of any kind difficult to remember and it isn’t just because of the language or my advancing age. You can tell me your name and 2 minutes later I will have forgotten. I have always had that problem.
I believe that the gene for remembering names was not passed on to me. But no problem, I have found a way, a sort of mnemonic, to remember Thai place names.
It turns out that most place names have a meaning. Here is the trick I have been using lately. When I hear a name I try to translate it in my head as someone is telling it to me (or later when I get back to my dictionary). If I can figure out what it means then I can usually remember it later when I have to.
Geographical place names
As is true with many western names, Thai place names often mean something. In the U.S. place names are frequently named directly for individual people.
New York is named after the Duke of York; San Francisco after Saint Francis. But there are many other names with less familiar etymology. Chicago is named after the Chicago Indian tribe. Florida has the Spanish root word “flor” meanng “flowers”. Los Angeles is Spanish for “The Angels”, the same meaning as Krunthep. Philadelphia is the city of “philo”, Greek for “loving”. And my favorite American city, Seattle, was named after a local Indian Chief.
Likewise, there are lots of Thai place names with quite esoteric or ancient meanings, but the ones easiest to figure out are names using the following affixes:
บุรี /bù-ree/ (…buri)
เชียง /chiang/ (Chiang …)
นคร /ná-kon/ (Nakhon …)
กรุง /grung/ (Krung…)
บาง /baang/ (Bang…)
These all mean basically the same thing, “city” or “town”. They act similarly to the English suffixes “bury” as in Roxbury and borough as in Brattleborough. The endings “bury” and บุรี /bù-ree/ sound similar but are of different origins
The following are some familiar Thai names which use the “city” words. They are usually combined with a description word which carries the meaning.
Chonburi: ชลบุรี ชล /chon/ (water)
Rajburi: ราชบุรี ราช /râat/ (royal)
Singburi: สิงห์บุรี สิงห์ /sĭng/ (lion)
Thonburi: ธนบุรี ธน /ton/ (treasure)
Petchaburi: เพชรบุรี เพชร /pét/ (diamond)
Chiang Mai: เชียงใหม่ ใหม่ /mài/ (new)
Chiang Dao: เชียงดาว ดาว /daao/ (star)
Chiang Saen: เชียงแสน แสน /săen/ (extreme, a lot)
Chiang Khong: เชียงของ ของ /kŏng/ (from Mekong River)
Nakhon Pratom: นครปฐม ปฐม /bpà-tŏm/ (first, original)
Nakhon Panom: นครพนม พนม /pá-nom/ (mountain, hill)
Nakhon Sawan: นครสวรรค์ รสวรรค์ /sà-wăn/ (heavenly)
Nakhon Ratchasima: นครราชสีมา ราชสีมา /râat-chá-sĕe-maa/ (royal boundary, aka Korat)
Bangkok: บางกอก /กอก gòk/ (olive)
Bangplee: บางพลี พลี /plee/ (religious offering)
Bangkapi: บางกะปิ กะปิ /gà-bpì/ (shrimp paste)
Bangrak: บางรัก รัก /rák/ (love)
Bangsan: บางแสน แสน /săen/ (extreme, a lot)
Krungthep: กรุงเทพฯ เทพ /grung tâyp/ (angel)
Quite often the longer version of Bangkok’s name, กรุงเทพมหานคร /grung tâyp má-hăa ná-kon/, is used. You might see road signs saying “Krungthep Mahanakhon”. The “Maha” means great and “Nakhon” and “Krung” we know mean city. So Bangkok’s longer name is translated as “The Great City of Angels”. But of course that is only part of the name. Its real name is listed in the Guinness Book of Word Records as the longest place name in the world. Translating that would be fun. I usually just stick with “Bangkok”.
Mountains and rivers
Many place names start with “Doi” ดอย /doi/. This means hill or mountain in the northern dialect. And even more start with “Mae” แม่ /mâe/. This means “mother” but is really a shortened form of แม่น้ำ /mâe náam/, meaning mother of waters, or river. The words Mekong River literally mean “River Kong River”.
These are also quite impossible for me to remember. This, finding the meaning mnemonic trick, helps me with street names too. Here are some well-known street names from Chiang Mai where I live. The names are a lot easier to remember once you realize what they mean. Your town will have similar names with similar meanings. See if you can break them down.
Rajdamnern: ราชดำเนิน /râat-chá-dam-nern/ (royal + walk)
Rajdamree: ราชดำริ /râat-chá-dam-rì/ (royal + think, consider)
Chang Puek: ช้างเผือก /cháang-pèuak/ (elephant + albino/white)
Chang Klan: ช้างคลาน /cháang-klaan/ (elephant + crawl)
Chang Moi: ช้างม่อย /cháang-môi/ (elephant + doze, nap)
Cholaprathan: ชลประทาน /chon bprà-taan/ (irrigation)
Thapae: ท่าแพ /tâa pae/ (landing + raft)
Suthep: สุเทพ /sù-tâyp/ (angel)
Huey kaew: ห้วยแก้ว /hûay gâew/ (stream + glass)
Here are a few Bangkok street names
Silom: สีลม /sĕe lom/ (windmill)
Sukhumvit: สุขุมวิท /sù-kùm-wít/ (prudent; profound; wise)
Wittayu (Wireless:) วิทยุ /wít-tá-yú/ (radio, or wireless)
Khao San: ข้าวสาร /kâao săan/ (rice)
Chitlom: ชิดลม /chít-lom/ (near the breeze)
Ploenchit: เพลินจิต /plern jìt/ (happy heart or mind)
Not only can knowing the meaning of a word help you remember it, it can also help with learning how to pronounce it properly. The worst culprit in the Thai language, that is infamous in transliterating its words so that they are rendered unpronounceable, is probably the name of Bangkok’s international airport, Suvarnabhumi สุวรรณภูมิ. How in the world is the uninitiated person supposed to pronounce that? Su-Varn-A-Boo-Mi, right? Not exactly.
The word is made up of two parts สุวรรณ /sù-wan/ (one of Thai’s many words meaning gold) and ภูมิ /poom/ (meaning land or country). So the true pronunciation of Suvarnabhumi (adding an “a” in the middle to connect the two parts and with a final silent “i”) is /sù-wan-ná poom/ (Golden Land).
Another mispronounced Thai name, made famous because it is in the title of an Oscar winning film, is the river “Kwai”, from “Bridge on the River Kwai”. Good movie, bad pronunciation. Everyone in the world pronounces it “Kwai”. Many new Thai language learners think River Kwai means “Water Buffalo River” because that is the way the name of the river is usually mispronounced. ควาย /kwaai/ is Thai for water buffalo.
But the real name of the river is แม่น้ำแคว /mâe náam kwae/. แม่น้ำ /mâe náam/ is Thai for river and แคว /kwae/ means tributary. So it is not the Water Buffalo River, it is the Tributary River, and it is not kwai it is kwae.
Some place name definitions just make them sound so much more romantic or exotic. Chiang Mai, or “New City” in translation, is a pretty ordinary name. But when it is referred to by its more ancient name, “Lanna” or “Lanna Thai” it becomes a little more interesting. In fact, there was a former kingdom in the north known as Lanna Thai before it was annexed by the Thais from the south. The word “Lanna” ล้านนา /láan naa/ is made of two Thai words, ล้าน /láan/ (million), and นา /naa/ (rice field). So the translation for Lanna is “Land of a Million Rice Fields”.
Similarly, Laos, the country just to the north of Chiang Mai, uses a language closely related to the Lanna or Chiang Mai dialect. It used to be called the Kingdom of ล้านช้าง /láan cháang/. That in translation means, “Land of a Million Elephants”.