Thailand - Mai Bpen Rai
Translating Thai to English, or English to Thai, is rarely straightforward because the structure of the languages is very different.
ไม่เป็นไร (mai pen rai)
The word mai means not, no, none, nothing, don't, etc. For example, the Thai word for 'want' is 'ao', but 'don't want' would be 'mai ao.
'Pen is one of the Thai verbs 'to be'. 'Rai' means how, what or when, or possibly the 'rai' in this expression is a contraction of 'arai' which means what, something, anything.
'Pen arai' can be a question meaning, "What is it? What's the problem?" A Thai doctor will ask you this if you are ill. As a statement, not a question, the meaning is that the subject (whatever it is) is something.
When you negate this with 'mai' it turns into, "It's nothing," and this is the literal meaning of 'mai pen rai'.
As someone who can read Thai quite well and English fluently, I have two things to say about transliteration.
- Transliteration, both English to Thai and vice-versa, is a disaster
- There are no right ways to transliterate, only wrong ways
Phonetically incorrect transliteration of Thai words using the English alphabet was one of the biggest frustrations I had when I started learning Thai and it was one of the main reasons why I decided to learn to read Thai very shortly after arriving in Thailand. Once you can read Thai you can dump the utterly useless transliteration systems.
Written English is not good and must be very difficult for foreigners to learn. The reason is that lots of different vowel and consonant sounds use the same vowels and consonants. Thai is far superior in this respect.
Some consonants have aspirated and unaspirated sounds, but written English makes no distinction. Written Thai does.
If you put your hand in front of your mouth and say the word 'puff' you should feel a puff of air because the 'p' in 'puff' is aspirated. Now do the same for the word 'super'. When you say the second syllable of 'super' you shouldn't feel the puff of air because the 'p' in 'super' isn't aspirated. They are different sounds, but both words use the same English 'p' consonant in written English.
Thai has three separate aspirated 'p' consonants and an additional consonant for the unaspirated version. 'Mai pen rai' uses the unaspirated version. When I transliterate I use 'bp' for the unaspirated version in order to distinguish it from aspirated 'p' consonants.
I do this because the actual sound is somewhere in between an aspirated 'p' and a 'b'. However, most transliteration systems don't take this into account and simply use 'p' for both aspirated and unaspirated versions.
My transliteration preference for this particular aspect of Thai cultural behaviour is 'mai bpen rai' because it is more phonetically accurate, but most people just use 'mai pen rai'.
Although I disagree with the transliteration, it is probably best to use the latter version on this page because it is more common.
If you are interested in learning how to read Thai, check out my Learning To Read Thai Tutorials.
In Thailand you hear this phrase every day, several times a day. It is so common that all foreigners seem to know it, including those that have no idea whatsoever about Thai cultural behaviour.
Most of the time it is equivalent to the English, "It's nothing, don't worry," and it is a good phrase to use, but I don't like it when it is used in one particular way.
It's often said that 'mai pen rai' is a defining characteristic of the Thais, but I think that another characteristic of Thai cultural behavior defines Thais far more accurately.
If someone thanks you, you can reply 'mai pen rai' just as an English speaker would reply, "Don't mention it, it's nothing, no worries," etc. It is the same if someone apologies to you for something.
It is also used after an event in the same way that an English speaker would use the phrase, "It's no use crying over spilled milk." We can't turn the clock back and there's nothing we can do to change what has already happened. Mai pen rai.
Using this expression to say that something doesn't matter or as the equivalent of not crying over spilled milk is fine. However, I don't like it when Thais use this expression to indicate apathy or a disregard for potential danger.
For example, if I tell someone who is letting his or her children play in the street that it is dangerous because of crazy drivers and they reply, "Mai pen rai."
Thais generally do not think about the future. They don't think about what might happen in the future and therefore they don't do anything that might avoid a problem in the future. They also have a tendency to always take the path of least resistance which mean, in most cases, not doing anything.
Therefore, when someone points out a possible problem in the future that the Thai hasn't thought of and doesn't want to do anything about, the simple solution is just to discount it - mai pen rai.
This phrase is probably the most uttered phrase in the Thai language. You will hear it a lot in Thailand and it is good to know when to use it.
Basically, when it is used for anything that has happened in the past it is fine. If you fail an exam, if someone says thank you, or if someone apologises for stepping on your foot, saying, "Mai pen rai," is quite appropriate.
However, when it is used for something that hasn't yet happened it takes on a different meaning. If we genuinely know that an event in the future won't cause a problem, we can say, "Don't worry."
However, my experience in Thailand is that Thais never think about the future, never worry about the future, and never anticipate anything untoward happening in the future.
If you point out a potential problem that might occur in the future the answer, invariably, will be "Mai pen rai."
I have only ever missed a flight once in my life and that was when my Thai taxi didn't arrive as scheduled. I kept calling for the taxi and each time I was told, "Mai pen rai." The Thai attitude towards the future is always that there won't be a problem, but if your gut feeling tells you that there might follow your own heart and don't listen to the, "Mai pen rais."
Other Thai Culture Pages You May Be Interested In
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you wish to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
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