Thailand - Sanook
The standard transliteration of this word seems to be sanuk, but is the 'u' like the 'u' in 'put' or like the 'u' in 'but'? It's actually like the 'u' in 'put'. The main reason why transliteration is so bad is because of the many inconsistencies in written English.
I've transliterated it with 'oo', but this too is ambiguous because is it like the 'oo' in 'foot' or the 'oo' in 'food'? It's actually like the 'oo' in 'foot'.
The word sanook is an adjective used to describe activities that are enjoyable to Thais. It is negated, using mai as a prefix with a falling tone.
ไม่สนุก - mai sanook
Just like sabaay, it can be turned into a noun by prefixing kwarm.
ความสนุก (kwarm sanook)
The definition in my Thai-English dictionary simply says: 'Fun, amusing, enjoyable, happy, entertaining, to have a good time.' Normally, the word is simply translated as 'fun'. However, just like the notion of sabaay, it can't simply be translated using a single word because it is a cultural concept.
In some contexts fun would be an acceptable translation, but not in others. In their book 'Bangkok Inside Out', Daniel Ziv and Guy Sharett relate how they were asked if a funeral they had been to was sanook. It would be highly inappropriate to ask if a funeral was fun, which is why the 'fun' translation is only appropriate in certain contexts.
In my explanation that follows you will see that certain prerequisites are needed for an activity to be considered sanook in Thailand. 'Fun' may not be the most appropriate word to describe a funeral, but a funeral will almost certainly have all the elements that are needed for a sanook activity.
I wouldn't say that the Thai language or Thai cultural concepts are difficult to understand, but they are very different to their Western counterparts. To understand both, you need to see things from the perspective of Thais and this requires living in Thailand a long time.
Most foreigners want to distill everything down to the simplest definition and, in the case of language, they want to be able to use their own writing system for Thai words. This is impossible because certain Thai phonemes don't exist in other languages.
With cultural traits and concepts you can only understand these if you understand enough about the Thai way of life. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts.
When I first arrived in Thailand to live, an expat living in Hua Hin sent me quite a lot of correspondence relating to Thais and living in Thailand. When describing the way of life for Thais he used one word repeatedly. Drudgery.
The majority of Thais do indeed live lives of drudgery. Wages are extremely low and a six day working week is normal in the private sector. Doing overtime or working extra jobs is normal for many in order to supplement their meagre incomes and thus they have virtually no spare time. When they do have spare time they have to do the mundane tasks at home that we all have to do, and even if they have spare time, most have no money to do anything. Life is like this for a lot of Thais.
However, everyone needs to have an escape from the drudgery of life and this, basically, is the definition of sanook. Foreigners will recognise some sanook activities as fun, but not others. Some things that Thais find sanook may not appeal to foreigners, but if the activity gets them away from the drudgery of normal life it is sanook.
It is the same for young Thai students who haven't started working yet. The Thai education system never progressed beyond rote learning and sitting listening to a teacher without being allowed to speak. It's different to the work environment, but still very boring, thus sanook is also very important to students. Anything that doesn't require rote memorisation and listening to a teacher without being allowed to speak is sanook.
It's interesting to see how language institutes in Thailand advertise themselves and how language book publishers advertise their products. All language institutes work on the premise that their particular course is fun. I see this word in English, or the word sanook, all the time and the following is one of my five year-old daughter's text books.
Everything has to be sanook in Thailand
The top line uses the word sanook twice for learning and playing. The other magic word related to education in Thailand is ngaay, which means easy. If something isn't easy it pushes students out of their comfort zone and that isn't sabaay. Everything has to be sabaay, sanook and easy.
Easy and sanook
If you teach in Thailand you will soon realise that trying to teach in a conventional manner just sends the students to sleep. If you ask students what they want, they will invariably want games and anything you want them to do must include an element of sanook. If the activity isn't sabaay, sanook and easy they will just go to sleep. Sometimes this will be obvious, but they also have the ability to go to sleep sitting up with their eyes open.
You can probably already imagine how teaching English might be considered something of a challenge in Thailand. No matter how many times language institutes tell Thai students that learning English is fun and easy, it isn't.
The structure of the Thai language is complete different to English. Verbs don't change their format and certain English tenses simply don't exist in Thai. It's not simply a case of doing word-by-word translation, which many try to do, it's a case of looking at language structure in a completely new way.
This isn't at all easy and when you have students who will just switch off whenever the going gets tough, it becomes almost impossible to make any progress.
Teaching in Thailand
As I said above, it doesn't necessarily need to be fun in a Western sense, it just needs to be anything that allows them to escape the drudgery of being a student in a Thai education establishment.
Bpai Tiaew is Sanook
ไปเที่ยว (bpai tiaew)
This is another very important cultural concept to Thais related to sanook. Bpai means 'go' and tiaew means journey or trip, however, the actual meaning doesn't necessarily mean to go on a journey or a trip as understood by a Westerner.
Just going five minutes down the road to 7-Eleven or a local fresh market can be classed as bpai tiaew, whereas a Westerner wouldn't regard this as going on a trip.
In their lives of drudgery, Thais not only get fed up with what they do, but also with the locations in which they lead lives of drudgery. And just as a sanook activity allows them to escape a borin g task, the concept of bpai tiaew allows them to escape a familiar or boring location.
One of the contradictions with Thais (and there are many) is that although they are able to endure doing the most boring and tedious work, they actually have very low thresholds of boredom. One of their better qualities is pragmatism and they work because, with no social welfare system, they need money to survive. However, for many, life is desparately boring.
Bpai tiaew also needs another couple of ingredients if it is to be sanook. Firstly, it can't be done alone. I can have lots of fun by myself. Put me in an interesting location with a camera in hand and I am in my element. I don't need other people, in fact, being with another person is just a hindrance and annoyance. That isn't the case with Thais.
Secondly, food needs to be involved otherwise it isn't sanook. This is why I won't travel anywhere with Thais. They can go to the most interesting places, but they won't really be interested in where they go. The only purpose of the actual place they go to is to provide a background for their group photos. The most important thing for Thais when they travel is to be a in a group, preferably a large group of people they know well, and to eat a lot of food. Everything else is incidental.
Thirdly, bpai tiaew must be done in a vehicle. Any form of motorised transport is acceptable. It's the same as watching mindless TV programmes with a remote control, which is another populat THai pastime. In a vehicle the scenery changes constantly without the need to expend any effort.
Many foreigners enjoy long hikes through scenic landscapes, but to suggest this particular activity to most Thais would definietly not go down well, especially with Thai females. Most Thais hate walking and they are also terrified that being outside will turn their skin a shade darker.
Returning to the funeral reference above, you can probably now understand why for some Thais it would be regarded as sanook. A Westerner wouldn't describe a funeral as fun, but that isn't the real meaning of sanook.
Firstly, it is very accepted that people can have time of work to attend funerals. Where I used to work, Thais were also having days off to attend the funerals of neighbours, colleages, parents of friends, etc etc. For one day they don't have the drudgery of work.
Secondly, attending the funeral will probably involve travelling somewhere with a large group of people. Thirdly, there will be lots of food and - even better - it will be free.
Thus a funeral provides all the required ingredients for a sanook activity.
Positive Aspects Of Sanook
Westerners probably take life a little too seriously and one of the things they find so attractive about Thailand is the sense of 'joie de vivre' among the Thais. There are many factors why tourists enjoy Thailand so much and this is one of them.
However, what I have discovered after living in Thailand since 2003 is that most of the aspects of Thailand I love so much as a tourist drive me absolutely mad as a resident.
Negative Aspects Of Sanook
Even if you have never attempted to teach in Thailand, you can probably imagine that just the concepts of sabaay and sanook, when combined, are enough to give the teacher a big headache. Thais want always to remain in their comfort zones and for life to be like a game.
Life shouldn't be taken too seriously, but any skill worthwhile learning takes a lot of effort and I have found that with many Thais they aren't prepared to put in this effort. If you have enjoyed a vacation in Thailand and want to live in the country permanently, getting a job teaching in Thailand may sound like the dream job, but believe me, it isn't.
In my personal life I also find the Thai pursuit of sanook to be quite frustrating. If I go somewhere with Thais and actually want to explore the place we go to, I can't. All the Thais are interested in doing is being together and eating.
To go off alone and explore, which is what I want to do, would be seen as a big social faux pas because leaving the group and doing anything alone is not the done thing in Thailand.
As a foreigner living in Thailand there is always the trade-off between 'doing as Thais do' and being accepted and doing the things that you want to do. It can be done once you get your head around their way of thinking. It is also important as a teacher to know how Thais think and behave.
Sanook can't simply be translated as fun. I still see foreigners doing this and, of course. in some situations it will just seem weird. As I explained above, a funeral would never be described as fun but if you understand what sanook really is you can understand why a funeral might be sanook.
As with other aspects of Thai culture, if you live in Thailand you need to understand sanook. If you teach you need to understand it, and if you have a Thai partner you need to understand it.
A little knowledge can explain why Thais get so miserable at times and it can also offer fairly easy solutions.
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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