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Thailand | Culture
Sabaay Sabaay

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Sabaay in the park

Sabaay in the park

 

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Thailand - Sabaay Sabaay

Transliteration

สบาย (sabaay)

The standard transliteration of this word is sabai, but the standard transliteration system does not differentiate between long and short vowels. The differentiation between long and short vowels (along with tones) is very important in Thai. Another misleading transliteration I came across used 'sabaii' (like Hawaii, which has three syllables). Sabai-ee, perhaps?

A company in Bangkok that plans and organises weddings calls itself Sabuy Wedding (using the English words). I can't even find a Thai transliteration on their website, but I assume 'sabuy' is their English tranliteration of สบาย. Again, I would take issue because 'buy' is a short syllable, but the truth about transliteration is that there are no right ways to do it, only wrong ways. Nonetheless, some versions are more phonetically accurate than others.

It seems that most people who write sabai can't read Thai and just use the word they have seen elsewhere. I use my own system of transliteration (because the official one is so bad), but I don't simply make up transliterated spellings as I hear them. I first read the Thai version and then follow the Thai spelling, adding 'a' or 'o' for implied vowels (those vowels in Thai that are spoken, but not written).

This system gives me sabaay and you can see that the second syllable has a long vowel, which is correct. A quick Internet search shows me that this version is used by a few people, but not many.

This method works quite well and provides transliterated versions of Thai words that are far more accurate phonetically than the standard transliterations. The only problem is now that sabai has become the standard spelling in English, it means that people won't find this page on the Internet when they search because I have used a different version.

 

Bath and sex establishment, Pattaya, Thailand

Bath and sex establishment, Pattaya, Thailand

 

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Word Usage

The word sabaay is an adjective or adverb in Thai. There is no difference in the Thai language between adjectives and adverbs. If you say that a pen is 'beautiful' or that someone writes 'beautifully', the same word is used in Thai whereas there is a difference in form between English adjectives and adverbs.

Observant readers will have noticed that the title of this page is wrong. When someone writes about some 'thing' the thing in question is described using a noun, but sabaay is an adjective or adverb.

In Thai, one of the prefixes garn or kwarm is used before a verb or adjective to form the noun. By the way, the long 'aa' vowel in Thai can be written 'aa', 'ar' or 'ah'. It's the same sound you make when you see your doctor with a bad throat.

The standard transliteration system just uses 'a' and thus the Thai word for 'house' becames 'ban', which is completely wrong. Interestingly, the Thais get it right with 'Baht'. They wouldn't want any mistakes made with anything that concerns money.

This page, therefore, should be titled 'kwarm sabaay'. However, I have already confused everyone by using a non-standard transliteration and I didn't want to add any more confusion, even though to do so would be technically correct.

ความสบาย (kwarm sabaay)

Another point is that you will often hear the word repeated - 'sabaay sabaay'. Repeating words twice is simply a technique in the Thai language to give emphasis. 'Jing' means 'truly, really', but you will often hear the word repeated to give emphasis ' 'jing jing'. There are many examples.

There is a special symbol in Thai to indicate that a word is repeated. Thus, it isn't necessary to write the word twice. Just write the word once with the special symbol. For a real-world example, see the house advert below.

สบายๆ (sabaay sabaay)

The opposite of sabaay is mai sabaay and being mai sabaay means being ill.

ไม่สบาย (mai sabaay)

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Basic Definition

The definition in my Thai-English dictionary simply says: 'Well, happy, comfortable, to feel good.' Simple, eh? And here endeth my lesson for today. Well, except that it isn't that simple. At all.

I have often seen this word translated as 'comfortable' and even when people have attempted to describe it in more detail they leave a lot out, especially the negative connotations.

As with all aspects of Thai cultural behaviour there are positive points, but there are also some very negative ones. I am not claiming to have a deeper understanding of sabaay than anyone else, but I will at least try to cover it in a bit more depth here and take a look at both the positive and negative points.

The cultural concept of sabaay runs so deep within the Thai psyche that it actually defines an attitude, and a person's attitude will define the way in which they think and behave. This, and other aspects of Thai cultural behaviour, define how Thais think and behave.

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Sabaay Examples

As I mentioned above, sabaay is an adjective or adverb and, as such, it can be applied to an action, a part of the body or a person. I will give some examples below. This cultural concept cannot be translated using one word and, depending on the context it is used in, the meaning will differ.

The same thing applies to many Thai words. When Thais attempt to speak English you will often hear them using inappropriate English words. This is because in Thai there is just one word, although the word will actually have several different meanings. When speaking in Thai, Thais will understand the context of the conversation and will know the correct meaning of the word being used.

However, when they attempt to speak English and translate the Thai word into the same English word every time it is not always appropriate. One example would be the Thai word 'su-paap'. One meaning is 'polite', but every time Thais translate 'su-paap' they use the English word 'polite'.

The problem is that it has other meanings in different contexts. If visiting temples, for example, your Thai guide will tell you to wear 'polite' clothes, instead of dressing conservatively or respectably. There are many such examples.

Some examples will help to explain the different meanings of sabaay.

As a polite greeting, Thais don't ask, "How are you?" They ask whether you are sabaay (sabaay dee mai/reu?). In this context, being in a sabaay state means being in a state of both physical and mental contentment. The translation 'comfortable' is not good because it is an adjective that only applies to the physical condition.

If you are sabaay (in which case, the answer to the question would be, "sabaay dee krup/ka") you are physically well and mentally content and satisfied, with nothing troubling your body or mind. This is the state in which Thais feel most comfortable and being sabaay is extremely important.

 

Sleeping in Gim Yong market, Hat Yai, Thailand

Sleeping in Gim Yong market, Hat Yai, Thailand

 

Thais love to sleep and they have the ability to be able to sleep (just like the old Martini advert) any time, any place, anywhere. It will be said of someone sleeping soundly, 'lup sabaay'. You can see here that I used the adverb 'soundly', but in the Thai language single words have several different meanings depending on context.

A more common greeting in Thailand is, "Have you eaten rice yet?" (gin kaaw reu yung?) This is related to sabaay in that you can't be sabaay if you have an empty stomach and hunger pangs. The staple in Thailand is rice, most meals are rice-based, and therefore the question specifically states rice as opposed to simply, "Have you eaten yet?"

You may hear the term 'sabaay tong', which means that someone's stomach is sabaay. As I said above, the term can be applied to parts of the body, as well as to the whole person.

 

This brand of laundry detergent is sabaay for your hands

This brand of laundry detergent is sabaay for your hands

 

If someone has just eaten and has a full stomach they may use this term. I have also heard it used after a bout of constipation ('tong mai sabaay') when the person finally manages to open their bowels. This is a big relief and they pronounce that their stomach is now sabaay.

For emotions and feelings Thais use hundreds of 'jai' expressions, where 'jai' means heart/mind. The phrase 'sabaay jai' indicates mental peace and contentedness. It is also used in the negative sense - 'mai sabaay jai' when you aren't really emotionally comfortable with a certain situation. For example, if my kids were being taken care of by someone who I didn't really trust I would be 'mai sabaay jai'.

On the physical side it can be translated to 'comfortable'. A chair, sofa or bed could be described with the adjective sabaay.

 

Nuat (massage) sabaay - Preuksa Spa, Hat Yai, Thailand

Nuat (massage) sabaay - Preuksa Spa, Hat Yai, Thailand

 

There are thousands of massage shops in Thailand and your masseuse will want to know if you are enjoying the massage. She (or he, if you prefer) may enquire, "Sabaay mai?" To answer a question like this in Thai you can just repeat the adjective - sabaay With some really good massages I just about manage to purr the word before falling back into a state of unadulterated bliss.

The weather in Thailand, where I live anyway, is normally too hot or too wet. On those rare occasions five days a year when it is neither too hot or too wet the weather may be described as sabaay - 'aa-gaat sabaay'.

It is difficult to understand Thai cultural traits to any great extent if you don't speak or read Thai. Once you start to tune into the spoken language and read the written language lots of things are suddenly revealed that you weren't aware of previously.

ผ่อน (pon)

The Thai word pon means to 'pay in installments' and I have mentioned many times about how the majority of Thais are up to their ears in debt. When they need or want to buy more things they have to take out yet more loans and increase their debt. Retailers and finance companies are fully aware of this and some big adverts I have seen offering credit state 'pon sabaay'. Similar adverts in English would probably say 'low' or 'easy' repayments, but in Thai the word sabaay is used yet again with yet another meaning.

 

If you buy this house the price is sabaay

If you buy this house the price is sabaay

 

By now, I hope you will be getting a feel for the meaning of sabaay in real terms, and you should be able to understand why the simple translations you see are not appropriate or sufficient. It isn't simply a single word that can be translated into another single word; it is a cultural concept and thus it is much more complicated.

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Sabaay Jai

Sabaay relates to physical well being. When Thais want to refer to an emotion or feeling they use the word jai, which means 'heart' or 'mind' in Thai. There are hundreds of jai expressions in Thai and I hear and use them every day.

สบายใจ (sabaay jai)

Sabaay jai is another common expression and refers to the feeling of inner contentment, assurance or satisfaction. It doesn't refer to physical comfort.

Of course, there is an opposite expression and, following the usual convention, mai is used as a prefix to negate the meaning.

ไม่สบายใจ (mai sabaay jai)

I would use this if I didn't feel entirely comfortable with a certain situation in a non-physical way. Perhaps it would involve one of my children being in a situation in which I thought they weren't being taken care of properly or were potentially in danger. In such a situation I would want to seek reassurance that were being taken care of properly.

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Positive Aspects Of Sabaay

I have written an awful lot about how good the healthcare system is in Thailand. I have also written an awful lot about the carnage on Thai roads and how appalling are the driving standards in Thailand. Corruption is rife, the education system leaves a lot to be desired, the wealth gap is huge, and crime and violence are endemic. In a developing country where there are so many serious social issues, how is it that the Thais have developed a world-class health system that many other countries would be proud of?

I can only think that it must be because of the importance that Thais place on sabaay. When someone is ill ('mai sabaay'), other Thais exhibit a genuine concern most unlike I have observed elsewhere.

When I was in England I received virtually no sympathy or care at times when I was ill. This was normal. On those occasions when I was admitted to hospital I might have had a few visitors during the designated visiting times, but I didn't expect any.

When a Thai is admitted to hospital their relatives camp out at the hospital 24 hours a day so that they are never alone. If the person has a private room, their relatives will sleep in the room. If they are in a ward, their relatives will sleep in corridors or wherever they can find a sleeping place.

Inevitably, during my first year in Thailand I contracted food poisoning and spent a night in hospital. I went to the hospital with my then girlfriend and was expecting her to go home but, to my amazement, she made herself comfortable on the sofa in my private room and stayed the night. This is perfectly normal behaviour for Thais.

She was not impressed later on when she was admitted to hospital and I didn't do the same thing. Just as Thais do this themselves, they expect other people to do the same for them.

The point is that being ill ('mai sabaay') in Thailand is a major concern for Thais and that, I believe, is why the country has built such an excellent healthcare system.

In addition to having a world-class health system, Thailand also has a tourist industry that is the envy of many other countries. Thailand has been blessed with a climate and natural resources that attract tourists, but the hospitality and kindness shown to tourists is another big attraction. This has a lot to do with sabaay and with Thais who work in the hospitality industry wanting their guests to feel as sabaay as possible.

It is highly undesirable for Thais themselves not to be sabaay and there is genuine concern if someone else isn't sabaay. They will go out of their way to make sure you are sabaay and what more could a visiting tourist want?

There are lots of problems in Thailand, which most tourists are unaware of, but there is also an extremely high feel-good factor in Thailand, which tourists pick up on very quickly. For many foreign tourists, Thailand becomes highly addictive and some even go to live there permanently.

The Thai cultural concept of sabaay plays a major part in their decision.

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Negative Aspects Of Sabaay

"Nothing In Life Worth Having Comes Easy"

When I taught English in Thailand, as I did for about eight years, my students always wanted to play games. Playing games is both sabaay and 'sanook' for Thai students, whereas trying to figure out when and how to use the present perfect tense in English doesn't fall into either category.

I didn't want to play meaningless games, and sometimes played Hangman using an English proverb. Once the game had finished I would try to explain the proverb and hope that they would gain a little insight into life. The proverb above is very appropriate for Thai students.

We all have a comfort zone and we all like to stay within that comfort zone as much as possible, but most of us realise that if we want to achieve something useful or learn a new skill we have to push ourselves out of the comfort zone.

This applies to everyone. Quite a few people look at the first page I wrote about learning to read Thai, but then they don't go any further. They see a strange writing system that they aren't familiar with, it looks difficult, they get anxious about leaving their comfort zone, and then return to watching Youtube videos of Go-Go dancers in Pattaya.

Thais are particularly reluctant to exit their comfort zones because they are so focused on sabaay. Maintaining a state of sabaay means that you definitely don't do anything that makes you physically uncomfortable or mentally distressed.

In my experience with teaching young Thais, they certainly aren't stupid, but many are lazy, apathetic and simply unmotivated. Despite the emphasis on education in the country, many students end up as massive underachievers because they never want to leave their comfort zones.

This also applies to many who aren't students. Another term I use to describe Thai behaviour is always taking the path of least resistance. Tradesmen, in particularly, with a job to do or a problem to fix will inevitably take the easiest option that gives them the least work. I have seen this approach taken several times with tradesmen who have done work in my house.

The job is often completed in an unsatisfactory manner because they wanted to do the least amount of working. To remain is a state of sabaay means limiting any task so that it requires the minimum degree of physical and mental effort.

Another problem in Thailand is a noticeable lack of responsibility and accountability. Being responsible and accountable for your actions adds a degree of anxiety to life, but this runs counter to feeling sabaay. Many Thais, therefore, go about their business with no sense of responsibility or accountability for their actions and this often results in a problem.

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Conclusion

Thai cultural behaviour overall, and this aspect of Thai cultural behaviour in particular, is neither good nor bad. I have tried to be balanced in my appaisal by giving both the positive and negative aspects. As you can see, there are good points and bad.

 

If you pay more for a ticket with Nok Air, you can fly 'sabaay'

If you pay more for a ticket with Nok Air, you can fly 'sabaay'

 

I normally find that aspects of Thai cultural behaviour go too far. The mai bpen rai (never mind) attitude can be a good thing, but often it goes too far. Greng jai isn't inherently bad, but heightened feelings of greng jai can make life in Thailand very difficult.

One thing that can't be disputed is that the various aspects of Thai cultural behaviour are extremely powerful in Thailand. If you live in Thailand, or even if you visit Thailand frequently, life is going to be a lot more frustrating and difficult to deal with if you don't understand why Thais think and act the way they do.

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Other Thai Culture Pages You May Be Interested In

 

Visit Thailand

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.

Images of Thailand

Images of Thailand