Thailand / The Country and its People




Thailand / National flag and anthem

Before 1917 the Thai flag was red with a white elephant, an emblem of the absolute monarchy. It was changed by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) in 1917 when Siam entered World War I on the side of the Allies.

Today's flag consists of five horizontal bands of red, white and blue. The three colors represent the three pillars of the Thai nation. The outer red bands stand for the country, white for Buddhism and blue for the monarchy.

National Anthem

English version

Thailand embraces in its bosom
All people of Thai blood.
Every inch of Thailand
belongs to the Thais.
It has long maintained its sovereignty
because the Thais have always been united.
The Thai people are peace-loving
But the are no cowards at war.
They shall allow no-one
To rob them of their independence.
Nor shall they suffer tyranny.
All Thais are ready to give up
Every drop of blood for the nation's
Safety, freedom and progress.

The King's Anthem (Thai Version)

Kha wora Phutta Chao
Ao mano lae sira kran
Nop Phra-pumi ban boonya direk
Ek barroma Chakarin
Phra Sayamin
Phra Yodsa ying yong
Yen sira pruo Phra bariban
Pon Phra kunta raksa
Praung pracha pen sooksarn
Khor bandarn
Ta prasong dai
Jong sarit
Dang, wang, wora hareutai
Dutja tawai chai chaiyo.

The King's Anthem (English version)

I, slave of the Lord Buddha
Prostrate my heart and head
To pay homage and give great blessings
To the protector of the land,
One of the Great Chakri Dynasty
Head of the Thai people
Supreme in rank
I know comfort from your protection.
Because of your gracious care
All the people are happy and peaceful.
We pray that whatever you wish for
Fate will grant you
According to your heart's desire
To bring you prosperity.
We salute you.


Thailand / Conduct

Thailand is justly celebrated for its tolerance and hospitality, and the average tourist will have no difficulty in adjusting to the local customs.

All the same, as when coming into any unfamiliar society, a visitor may find it helpful to be aware of certain do's and don't's and thus avoid giving accidental offense. Basically, most of these do's and don't's are simply a matter of common sense and good manners - not really all that different from the norms of behavior in one's own country - but a few behavioral rules are special enough to be pointed out.

Monarchy, Religion

Thais have a deep, traditional reverence for their Royal Family, and a visitor should also be careful to show respect for the King, the Queen, and the Royal Children. In a movie or other public event, for example, a portrait of the King is shown during the playing of the national anthem, and the audience is expected to stand. When attending some public event at which a member of the Royal Family is present, the best guide as to how to behave is probably to watch the crowd and do what it does.

What are seen as affronts against the monarchy are probably the least excusable faux pas a foreigner can commit in the country, and they are among the few that will make every Thai angry. As banknotes carry the portrait of the King, defacing or tearing them apart is a criminal offence. Even to crumple them up is at least in bad taste.

Thais are more attentive on treating portraits of a the King respectfully than foreigners often can be, even if they intend not to display any offending behavior. This author has observed postal clerks removing stamps from letters brought by foreigners - not in order to keep the stamps but to re-attach them, showing the portrait of the King in an upright position (the stamps had been affixed horizontally by the foreigners).

Also treated with utmost respect are all Buddha images, all of which are considered sacred, regardless of whether they are old or new, large or small, or in one piece or broken - regardless also of their artistic value or purchase price. For information why this is the case, as well as for rules of conduct when visiting temples, please see the chapter Religion.

Social Customs

The limits of what is acceptable in Thai social behavior are less clearly defined than those concerning the monarchy or religion - especially in a city like Bangkok where Western customs are better known and more widely accepted than in the rest of the country. However, what is acceptable in Bangkok may be much less so upcountry where the old ways are still strong. Here, then, are a few things to keep in mind:

Thais don't shake hands when they greet one another, but instead press the palms together in a prayer-like gesture called Wai. Generally, a younger person wais an older, who returns it. One watches how the Thais do it, and does likewise.

It's considered rude to point one's foot at a person, so an effort must be made to avoid doing so when sitting opposite anyone; following the conception that the foot is a lowly limb, nothing is pointed at with the foot as an indicator.

Thais regard the head as the highest part of the body both literally and figuratively. As a result they don't approve of patting anyone there, even in a friendly gesture.

Similarly, if one watches Thais at a social gathering, it can be noticed that young people go to considerable lengths to keep their heads lower than those of older ones, to avoid giving the impression of "looking down" on them. This isn't always possible, of course, but it's the effort that counts.

Public displays of affection between men and women are frowned on. One may see some very Westernized young Thai couples holding hands, but that's as far as it goes in polite society.

Losing one's temper, especially in public, will not get anyone anywhere. To Thais angry displays simply denote poor manners. Demands and even protests are best presented with a smile, as if a disagreement on anything, including prices, was just a misunderstanding.

One must not be surprised by being addressed by one's first name as, for instance, as Mr. Bob or Miss Mary - instead of by one's surname. This is because Thais refer to one another in this manner, usually with the title "Khun" (Mr., Mrs., or Miss) in front. Family names are a rather recent invention in Thailand, and often they are awkwardly long. The representative of the Thai Board of Investment in Sydney is Mr. Boonkul Changsirivathanathamrong, to give just one example. But names like Yeltsin or even Kohl sound easier only to Westerners.


Thailand / Religion

Buddhism of the Theravada confession is the principal religion of the country. 94% of the country's population adheres to it.

Buddha Gallery at the Marble Temple

Schools teach Buddhist tenets and morals as part of the curriculum except in Muslim areas in the South.

All Buddhist religious ceremonies center at the Wat, a combination of monastery and temple. There are about 32,000 Wats in the country. It is socially expected that every Thai male will become a monk at least once in his life for a period of about 3 months in order to study Buddhism and live the Buddhist way in the monastery. The present King Bhumiphol Adulyadej became a monk in 1956 and took residence at Wat Bovornivet. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the only son of the King was ordained a monk in 1978.

Buddhism is probably the most tolerant religion of the world, and it can coexist with any other religion (though most other religions aim to be exclusive and cannot accommodate Buddhism at the same time). Accordingly, Thailand has a long history of religious tolerance. Though traditionally he has to be a Buddhist, the King besides being the head of state is the upholder of all religions professed by his people.

As obtaining anything through power or force is completely against the logics of Buddha's teachings, Buddhism is not only considerably more tolerant than most religions but also less institutionalized. There is nothing like a Buddhist Vatican. Therefore, much of the more earthly matters, from land ownership to the preservation of Buddhist architectural monuments, is handled by the Thai government through the Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Education.

It's also rather the Thai government that defines religious offenses and prosecutes offenders as Buddhism itself is too gentle to concern itself with such matters. The voluminous "Traveller's Guide to Thailand", published by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, explains:

"Thai law has a number of special sections concerning religious offenses, and these cover not only Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the people, but also any other faiths represented in the Kingdom. It is, for instance unlawful to commit any act, by any means whatever, to an object of a place of religious worship of any community in a manner likely to insult the religion. Similarly, 'whoever causes any disturbance at an assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship or religious ceremonies' is subject to punishment, as well as 'whoever dresses or uses a symbol showing that he is a priest or novice, holyman or clergyman of any religion unlawfully in order to make another person believe he is such person.' In less legal language, here are a few tips on what to do and what not to do on a visit to a religious place:

- Dress neatly. Don't go shirtless, or in shorts, hot pants, or other unsuitable attire. If you look at the Thais around you, you'll see the way they would prefer you to be dressed - which, in fact, is probably not very different from the way you'd dress in a similar place back home.

- It's all right to wear shoes while walking around the compound of a Buddhist temple, but not inside the chapel where the principal Buddha image is kept. Don't worry about dirt when you have to take them off; the floors of such places are usually very clean.

- Buddhist priests are forbidden to touch or to be touched by a woman or to accept anything from the hand of one. If a woman has to give anything to a monk or novice, she first hands it to a man, who then presents it. Or in case of a woman who wants to present it with her hand, the monk or novice will spread out a piece of saffron robe or handkerchief in front of him, and the woman will lay down the material on the robe which is being held at one end by the monk or novice.

- All Buddha images, large or small, ruined or not, are regarded as sacred objects. Hence, don't climb up on one to take a photograph or, generally speaking, do anything that might show a lack of respect."

It's beyond the scope of this text to evaluate Buddhism as a religion or a philosophy. As it deserves it, numerous thick tomes have been written on the topic. Short reviews of the religion and its history naturally tend to be simplistic, and when they appear in guide books written by Westerners, they are often lacking in respect as well. However, as most visitors to Thailand will not find the time to read thick volumes on the country's religion there certainly is a need for some abbreviated information on Buddhism. Therefore we quote here verbatim an explanation on Buddhism given in the above cited "Traveller's Guide to Thailand", published by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

While some of the sentences may not sound particularly elegant, they nevertheless transport more than just the factual information on the Kingdom's religion. As the quoted part was obviously written by a devout Buddhist, it also gives a glimpse on how Thais believe and shows the respect they have for anything related to their religion. The quoted text is not neutral in its language. The language used makes clear that the author is convinced that Theravada Buddhism is the one correct religion, and many statements that would be regarded as a matter of religious opinion in Western culture are made in a matter of fact voice. The Western reader may qualify them according to his or her religious inclinations.

The quoted text not only presumes that the Buddhist teachings are correct beyond doubt but also that, furthermore, Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism is the orthodox and correct denomination, as distinguished from Mahayana Buddhism. This additionally gives the quoted text a degree of authenticity that could not be achieved by any summary written by a Western, non-Buddhist author (highlighting added by the author of this text, otherwise no changes made):

"Buddhism is a natural religion, for it does not violate either mind or body. Its ethics closely approximates the Natural Law. Buddhism is also classified as an atheistic religion, for it does not consist in God and Soul theories which can neither be proved by self-experiment nor by intuition. It concerns only self-evident facts of suffering and can be experienced by every man in himself and the surrounding world.

Buddhism is a teaching of the Buddha who was born a prince of Kapilavathu, at the part of the Himalaya mountains near the border of Nepal in 623 B.C. He married and had a son. Although surrounded by all the Court's glamour and luxuries, the sight of a decrepit old man, sick man, dead man and mendicant monk, these "four signs" left such a deep impression upon His mind that, at the age of 29, He decided to leave His palace and enter "the homeless life" of a monk to seek the truth and find a way to salvation for all sentient beings. In His search for salvation among the teachers, He surpassed them and found that their doctrines were insufficient, not leading to Awakening, to Extinction and to Enlightenment and Insight. He departed those teachers and turned to practice self-mortification for six years with great zeal and effort. He met five ascetics or Panca Vaggiya who offered their services to Him. Finally, the Buddha realized that the ascetic exercises were not the right way to attain salvation. He had practiced self-mortification to the limit of His endurance and felt very weakened without achieving anything. So, He partook of food, regained strength and began to practice meditation which finally led to His enlightenment under the Holy Bodhi tree near the town of Uruvela, the present Buddha-Gaya when he was only 35 years old.

Through His deep contemplation upon His ownself, the Buddha became cognigant of how men are born and die according to their good and evil will actions, according to their self-created Karma (or the consequence of meritorious and demeritorious deeds.) By the same intuition, He became cognigant of the "Five Aggregates of Existence" or the Panca Khandha that are Rupa (Body), Vedana (Feeling), Sanna (Cognition), Sankhara (Impression) and Vinnana (Consciousness), that man is only an embodiment of these five aggregates, or in other words man is made up of Khandha, none of which belongs to anyone, and the clinging to each or to the whole, will only result in the conception of the new life and the round of existence (Samsara.) This creates the "Delusion of Self", and He discovered the "Four Noble Truths" which lead to the cessation of all sufferings and of rebirth.

Finally, the Lord Buddha out of compassion to all beings, was determined to reveal His Teachings. He proclaimed for the first time the Dhamma in a discourse to the five ascetics. This discourse is universally known as the "Four Noble Truths" and contains the essence of the Buddha's Doctrines. The Lord Buddha taught His Doctrines for nearly 45 years, walking up and down from town to town and from village to village, in Northern India. At the age of 80, He fell ill and died in Kusinara in the country of the Malas on the Visaka, on the full moon day of the sixth lunar month in the year 543 B.C.

There are lots of historical proof of the Buddha's real existence, such as the Asoka-Pillar erected in Lumbini park at Kapilavatthu (near Nepal) in remembrance of the Birth of the Lord, by King Asoka (262 - 222 B.C.) and discovered in 1890, contemporary Indian literature, the Pali-Canon Tripitaka, that is the collection of Discipline (Vinaya), of Discourses (Suttanta) and of Philosophical (Abhidhamma), the Sanskrit Canon, the records of two Chinese travellers to India, Fahian (394 - 441 A.D.) and Yuan Thsang (630 - 644 A.D.) and lastly the Buddha's Doctrine itself, which is based on true facts of actuality, the truth of which can be experienced by Insight by anyone himself with sufficient intelligence and patience.

The Teaching of the Buddha was not written down by Himself. Immediately after his death, the first Council of his disciples took place in 477 B.C. and all his Discourses were fixed and the ground plan was laid for the Pall-Canon. There was a second Council and third Council (377 and 343 B.C.) and the discourses were sorted into different collections called Pitakas, namely the Sutta Pitaka which contains the discourses of the Buddha, the Vinaya Pitaka which contains the rules and regulations of the Holy Brotherhood, and many centuries later the Abhidhamma Pitaka was added which contains expositions of a scholastic nature of the two first Pitakas.


Photo: Thai Buddhist monks

From the "Asoka Pillars" we learn that King Asoka of India sent forth his missionaries to all provinces of the Empire and then to the neighboring Kingdom of Ceylon, Kashmir and Tibet in the North, to Persia, Antioch and Egypt and Greece in the West. King Asoka called a council which was the Third Council, and the Pali-Canon was revised and confined. After his death, Buddhism split into two different schools, namely Hinayana or the Lesser Vehicles and the Mahayana or the Greater Vehicles. Hinayana is the orthodox, based upon the Pali scripture. This school tries to preserve the original doctrines, and nowadays is practiced in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. While, Mahayana is an enlargement and further development of the original doctrine and based on the Sanskrit scripture translated from the Pali Text and modifies some doctrinal principles in order to adapt its teaching to local environment and to interpret Buddhism by laying a stress on some philosophical points of view. This is believed in Tibet, Korea, Japan, Sikhim, Bhutan, Mongolia, and Vietnam.

Buddhism was first introduced into Thailand as Hinayana Buddhism in about 329 B.C. , later in about 700 A.D., Mahayana Buddhism came. However, in 1000 A.D. Hinnayana was again re-introduced from Burma. In 1253 A.D., Thai Buddhist Monks went to Ceylon and brought back with them the Pali scripts. They also invited the Ceylonese Monks to Thailand. Ever since then all Kings of Thailand embraced Hinayana Buddhism which then became the National Religion.

Lord Buddha formulated his Doctrine of Misery and Salvation from it in four theses, called the Four Noble Truths. They are:

1) The Noble Truth of Suffering: Rebirth, old age, disease, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, association with objects we dislike, separation from objects we love, not to obtain what one desires cause suffering. There are also many happy hours and pleasure in a man's life-time, but according to the law of nature, they are impermanent and these last only for a short time and vanish into nothing. Only sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are left by them behind.

2) The Noble Truth of The Arising of Suffering: The Threefold Cravings lead every being from birth to birth and is accompanied by joy and lust, seeking its gratification here and there, namely: Sensual Craving, Craving for Existence and Craving for Wealth and Power. There is also a sixfold craving, namely, the eye craves for forms, the ear craves for sounds, the nose craves for odors, the tongue craves for taste, the body craves for objects, and the mind craves for nouns, dreams or illusions. These Cravings and ignorance of the law of nature are the condition of origin of individual sufferings.

3) The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Sufferings: The condition of cessation of suffering is the complete fading away and extinction of this three fold craving, forsaking it and giving it up, the liberation and detachment from it. The condition of mind of a person who has been giving up this threefold cravings or this sixfold craving together with ignorance can realize Nibbana (or the Extinction of the Cravings.)

4) The Noble Truth of The Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering: It is the Noble Eightfold Path (or the Middle Path because it avoids the two extremes of sensual pleasure and self-mortification), that leads to the Cessation of Sufferings.

To weed out cravings and ignorance, these two chief evil-doers of individual existence and to overcome rebirth, old age, disease, death, sorrows, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, to make an end of this whole mass of misery and thus to attain Nibbana, Liberation and Salvation one should practice the Noble Eightfold Path (or the Middle Path)

The Noble Eightfold Paths are: 1) Right Knowledge, which means an intellectual grasp of the Teaching of the Dhamma, the Four Noble Truths and the Law of Karma;

2) Right Intention, which involves the elimination of all ambitions, revenge, hatred, greed lust and violence;

3) Right Speech, which means stamping out all lies, controlling speech, being courteous, considerate, scrupulously true, no evil words escape from lips, compassionate and full of sympathy, with a heart full of loving-kindness and free from secret malice;

4) Right Action, which means the avoidance of destruction of any living being, of taking what has not been given, indulging in sensuality, slander and intoxicating liquor or drugs;

5) Right Livelihood, which means pursuing a trade or occupation compatible with the above;

6) Right Effort, means to prevent new evil entering one's mind, to remove all evil already there, to develop such good in one's mind and to maintain a good and meritorious state of mind that has already arisen;

7) Right Attentiveness, which means the continual recollection of all phenomena about bodily structure, all parts of the human body, all states of health, all impurity and purity of mind, contemplation of various states of mind and all kinds of temperaments;

8) Right Concentration, which is the threshold of Nibbana, consists of the Four Great Efforts, namely, the effort to avoid and to overcome evil states of mind, and the effort to develop and to maintain good states of mind. It is also a composed state of mind which is accompanied by Right Knowledge, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort and Right Attentiveness. The purpose of attaining Right Concentration is to develop the eye of wisdom.

However, the most simple teaching which the Buddha taught, was to do good, to avoid evil and purify the heart. According to the Buddha, the hearts of ordinary men are not pure. They are filled with greed, ill will and delusion. Greed and hatred are impurities caused by desires which ignorance is the cause of delusion, especially delusion of self. Ignorance, in fact, is the cause of desire itself and thus the primary cause of all suffering and of rebirth. The Lord taught, purifying the heart: 1. by practicing self-control, and self restraint; 2. by meditating upon one's ownself; and 3. by following the Holy Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of all sufferings.

Some Practice and Rules:

The Five Rules Morality (Pancha Sila) for laity, namely, abstention from: 1) Killing any living being, 2) Stealing, 3) Adultery, 4) Lying, and 5) Drinking Intoxicating Drinks.

The Eight Rules of Morality on Buddhist Holy Day, especially for older people, namely, abstention from: 1) Killing any living being, 2) Stealing, 3) Adultery, 4) Lying, 5) Drinking Intoxicating Drinks, 6) Eating after midday, 7) Dancing, Singing, Music, Stage-plays, Garlands, Perfume, Cosmetics, ornament and 8) Using luxurious beds.

In addition to the above, namely, the Eight Rules for Older People, the novices practice Ten Rules for Novices and the monks practice 227 other Rules."

So far the explanation on Buddhism in the "Traveller's Guide to Thailand", published by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.


Thailand / Language

Thai is a tonal language similar to Chinese. As was pointed out by the renowned Thai linguist and writer Phaya Anuman Rajadhon in his paper The Nature and Development of the Thai Language, published 1961 by the Fine Arts Department of the Thai government, there actually are hundreds of similar words in Thai and Chinese.

Announcement in Thai

Photo: Announcement in Thai

Tones & Homonyms

Many of these words may be cultural borrowings, mostly by the Thais, after long and continual contact with the Chinese. On the other hand, there are certain classes of words which obviously were derived from common sources in ancient times. And more importantly, beyond the similarities of single words, the spoken Thai and the spoken Chinese language are structured much the same way (though when written, the two languages are completely different).

The Thai language originally is monosyllabic in its formation of words. It is a characteristic to be found also in Chinese and, more or less, in other languages of Southeast Asia. Each word is complete in itself and admits no modifications as do inflectional languages with their differences of case, gender, number, etc.

Furthermore, there is no hard and fast rule that makes Thai words belong to a particular part of speech. Any word may become a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, etc, simply through the position of the word in the sentence. Except for a number of words derived from Sanskrit each word stands distinctly and independently, and concedes no joining of sounds or assimilations between words.

Due to the limited number of combinations of sounds which the consonants admit (in original Thai there used to be only one vowel per word as original Thai was monosyllabic), there arises naturally a multitude of words with the same sound but with a difference in meaning (homonyms). To overcome this shortage, the Thai language, like Chinese, has invented various tones as a primary feature to differentiate meaning in homonymous words.

There are five tones in the standard Thai language, but in actual speech there may be six or even seven tones varying in certain dialect areas.

However, the fact that there is a large number of homonyms in the Thai language is often overly emphasized in Western publications, especially guide books. That Thai is a tonal language is not a barrier that cannot be overcome by any non-Thai with an interest in learning the language. For one thing, homonyms are not something uniquely found in Thai and other tonal languages such as Chinese. Even English has a large number of homonyms: plane, plain; to, too, two; there, their; and hundreds more.

While in the few cases given above, two words which are pronounced the same are spelled differently, there is a huge number of words spelled and spoken similar to each other. Nevertheless, the difference in pronunciation of two different words may in one locality be almost negligible if compared to different pronunciations of one and the same word in different parts of the world where English is the native language. A person from Oxford will often find it hard to understand a native of Newcastle, and the average Texas millionaire doesn't really sound like Prince Charles - even though both may rightfully claim to speak English.

Languages are living entities, not sets of mathematical formulae; primarily, they don't serve the purpose of being correct but of being understood. All languages are flexible, and Thai is no exception. Therefore, while there are pronunciation rules for similar words with different meanings, these pronunciation rules are not as strict as it is made to appear in many Western publications. Just like New Yorkers and Londoners pronounce English differently, Thais from Hat Yai and Thais from Udon Thani have very different pronunciations - and this encompasses tonal rules.

In Thai, like in English, it's often the context, in cases of doubt more than the pronunciation, that gives a clue as to how a certain word is to be understood.

In the preface to their book The Fundamentals of the Thai Language which even today is one of the best textbooks for foreigners who want to learn Thai, Stuart Campbell and Chuan Shaweevongs wrote in 1956: "In the earlier books on Thai for foreigners... the tones are dealt with from the beginning but we have departed from precedent in this respect because we feel that it is only confusing the issue to try and deal with the tones until you have acquired something of a vocabulary... We do think that a study of the tones should be secondary to the acquisition of a vocabulary... In only relatively few cases will a wrong tone cause you to be misunderstood."

Going one step further, the Siamese King Rama VI, then the absolute monarch of the country, wrote in 1912 in a letter to the Siam Society on a proposed system for the Romanization of the Thai language: "I propose that the tone value of the Siamese consonants might be ignored altogether... since the context would always make clear the meaning... For similar reasons given above I think it would be best to ignore all Siamese tone accents." (Quoted from the preface of The Fundamentals of the Thai Language by Stuart Campbell and Chuan Shaweevongs, 1957)

In a living language, there is no necessity to eradicate homonyms - and actually, any language of the world is full of cases in which words of different meaning are not only pronounced the same in spite of being spelled differently (there, their; to, two) but where words are pronounced and spelled the same but just have different meanings (a board can either be made of wood or be a board of directors; fine can either mean that something's just right, or that it's pulverized, or it's something one has to pay - and there are thousands of comparative cases in English; actually almost every word has different meanings).

As languages are understood by context, it can hardly be a surprise that even though differentiation of words by tones has been introduced into the Thai language, there is still a huge number of homonymous words, and unless the context of a phrase or a sentence shows otherwise, the meaning of the word may still be ambiguous. In such instances, some other word or words have to be introduced to clarify the meaning. As was summarized by Phaya Anuman Rajadhon in his paper The Nature and Development of the Thai Language, there are three devices for doing this.

The first option is by prefixing a meaningful word to indicate the class of objects to which the word belongs. For example: yang may mean a bird such as heron, egret or bittern; a tree such as a dipterocarpaceae, rubber tree; an oily and sticky substance such as resin, gum, latex, wood oil. If the word nok meaning bird is prefixed it becomes nok yang which means either a heron, an egret or a bittern. If the word don meaning a bole or a trunk of a tree is prefixed to the word yang in don yang it means a species of trees (Dipterocarpus alatus). The prefix words function as classifiers.

The second possibility is by juxtaposing two meaningful words of the same or allied meaning to clarify a certain word. For example: kah fan means to kill. The word kah has a number of meanings, and one of them is to kill. If kah is juxtaposed with the word fan meaning to slash with a weapon, kah cannot mean other than to kill only. The word fan serves to clarify the meaning of the word kah.

Some juxtaposed words have lost their individual independent meanings in current use and have become merely a device.

Sometimes two words of the same or allied meaning are juxtaposed to form a new meaning of an allied kind. For example: bahn muang means country or nation (bahn = village, muang = city or town). Sometimes four words are joined together to form a phrase but with a single meaning. For example: kao yak mak paeng means famine (kao = rice, yak = scarce, mak = fruit, paeng = dear).

In forming such words or phrases there is an unconscious selection of sounds. A word with a prominent or more musical sound is selected always as the second of the two words. In the joining of four words in the form of a phrase as cited above the two words between the first and last word are mostly rhymed. The juxtaposed words as described may be called synonymous compounds.

The third option to clarify in which sense an homonymous term is to be understood is by joining into a compound a simple verb to which is added the object logically inherent in it. For example: ying puen literally "fire gun" means to shoot, gin do literally "eat (on) table" means to dine at a table. Nôhn sua literally "sleep (on a) mat" means lie down to sleep. The most common of these constructions is gin kao, literally "eat rice" which is used synonymously for "to eat".

Phaya Anuman Rajadhon pointed out that one is apt to recognize such compound words as a factor that creates Pidgin English. Karlgren in his book Sound and symbols in Chinese also lists such compound words in Chinese. He calls them elucidative compounds.


Thai, like Chinese and other languages of Southeast Asia, uses enumerative words when using numbers with nouns. There is a large number of this category of words for each appropriate noun.

If in some nouns no numeral descriptive noun can be appropriately used, or one cannot remember if there is such an appropriate one, the noun is repeated after the number.

For example kon see kon means "man four men"; mah sahm mah means "horse three horses". In this instance the appropriate numeral descriptive words is dua, so the correct expression would be mah sahm dua meaning "horse three bodies", but the former phrase mah sahm mah is also tolerated.

Dissyllabic Words, Euphonic Couplets

As has been pointed out by Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, there is a tendency for Thai monosyllabic words to become dissyllabic ones similar to those of Malay, but they differ fundamentally from Malay in that the Thai dissyllabic words are mostly just euphonic (ear pleasing) couplets.

They are sometimes created by variation of the vocalic sound in a word with vowels adjoining in articulation sequence. For example nôhn meaning sleep has naen or noen as its couplet. The second word or syllable has no recognized meaning by itself; an omission of it would leave the meaning intact. There is a large number of this kind of dissyllabic words unconsciously uttered mostly in colloquial speech.

Phaya Anuman Rajadhon mentioned in his paper The Nature and Development of the Thai Language that these euphonic words or endings are sometimes found as actual words in certain dialects and also in some of the Thai languages outside Thailand. In fact some of these euphonic words remind of certain Chinese words. For example ngo means stupid in Thai and has ngau as its euphonic ending. In Cantonese a stupid or a dull fellow is ngau.

Among the Chinese dialects there is the same tendency to vowel mutation. Tooth in Cantonese is nga but becomes nge in the Swatow dialect. Nga is identical with the Thai nga meaning tusk, ivory.

Dissyllabic words are also created by varying the vowel of a word with its corresponding but not necessarily adjoining vowel sound. Such vowel sounds are au-ae, o-e, u-i. For example ngaun-ngan means infirm, unstable; tong-teng means to sway to and fro in a dangling position; chu-chi means peevish, fretful.

A word with a vowel-diphthong may also have a corresponding diphthong as its euphonic ending. For example yua-yia means swarming; mun-mai means intoxicated.

A great number of this class of euphonic endings are onomatopoetic words (imitations of a sound made by or associated with its referent, like cuckoo in English). With a few exceptions, neither the first word nor the second word or ending can be divorced from its combination without losing its particular meaning.

Furthermore, dissyllabic words are formed by changing words ending in non-explosive consonants g, t and p into their corresponding nasal endings ng, n and m, respectively. For example saek-saeng means intervene, interfere. Saek alone means insert, squeeze in, while saeng alone means interpose, insert. Tot-ton means remove. Tot alone means take off as a garment, dismiss, discharge while ton alone means pull out, root out. Yap-yam means contemptuous, insult. Yap alone is crude, rough while yam alone is revile, look down on. Each word in the couplets cited above has a slight shade of meaning if used independently.

To sum it up, even as Thai is basically a monosyllabic language, there are many types of dissyllabic words. The above types are quoted as certain examples only, and there are numerous others mostly in colloquial use. Many of these words have become part of the everyday speech of the people.

As the Thai language has no method of forming new words by means of additions to a word like the inflectional languages with their affixes and case endings, the various processes described above are evidently devices by which the Thai have formed derivatives and new words.


The arrangement of words in a sentence fundamentally is subject-action-object, with qualifying words, adjectives and adverbs following each appropriate word. As stated by Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, there is no hard and fast rule relating to parts of speech in the actual sense of the word. A word may be a noun, an adjective, a verb or an adverb only in relation to other words in a phrase or a sentence.

Hence the important thing in the Thai language is the word order. Grammatical words, such as articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. which in Western languages serve as a help to clarify the nouns and verbs in a sentence, are not necessary in Thai if the context is logically clear. In Thai, to say "a father and a son sit on chairs" is simply "father child sit chair".

As many words as desired, even all of the same part of speech, may be strung together, provided each word is in its logical position or, in the case of verbs, sequence of time. For example, "a big black dog chases a small white cat and bites it" is in Thai "dog black body big run chase bite cat white body small".

Frequently two or more words are combined to express one notion distinguished from each of the meanings of the combined words; the second and subsequent one stand in adjectival relationship to the first. For example fai fa literally is "fire sky" but means electricity. Mai kheet fai literally is "stick strikes fire" but just means a match or matches.

As already stated Thai words admit no modifications of case, number and gender. For example kon mah hah kao may mean a man (or men, woman, women) comes (or come, coming, came, has come, etc.) to see him (or her, it, them). If the meaning is not immediately clear "grammatical words" or "help words", as the Chinese call them, are introduced into the sentence.

For example "kon song kon cha mah hah kao" literally means man two men will come see him. The word kon in this case is men, and the word kao is him or them.


Cornelius B. Bradley stated in Some Features of the Siamese Speech and Writing, published 1923, that Thai "words are symbols of concept per se, being wholly devoid of inflectional apparatus to express and define their relations with other words in the sentence. They are, therefore, free to function in any syntactical relation not incompatible with their essential meaning".

Indeed, the Thai language has one of the simplest grammars of all languages, and many writers have claimed there is no grammar at all. However, in the judgement of Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, Thai has in the course of its historical and cultural development suffered at the hands of Thai grammarians who have introduced exotic rules and restrictions based on English, Sanskrit or Pali grammar.


Thailand country map

Map of Thailand