Learn To Read Thai - Tutorial 28
At this stage it will be assumed that you recognise Thai letters, that you remember the different sounds the various vowels and consonants make, and that you can remember the basic rules of the language.
This page is about putting what you have learnt into practice in a real-life situation, that of walking into a typical small Thai restaurant - the kind that you find absolutely everywhere in Thailand.
I have included transliterations, just so that you know if you are on the right track or not, but if you can't remember something then you need to go back to the relevant tutorial.
Referring to the Tutorial Index is a good starting point if you have problems. Alternatively, send me an e-mail.
I have also included photos of real signs. This is important because many signs in small Thai restaurants are either handwritten or they use fonts that you are unlikely to be familiar with.
Throughout this entire site, click on any small thumbnail image to see a larger image.
Food And Drink
There are many eating options in Thailand. In areas where there are lots of foreign tourists the menus are normally written in Thai and English. On one visit Phuket I went to a place where the menu was only in English. This meant that my Thai wife could not read a menu in her own country, but that's Phuket for you. Some Thais refer to Phuket as 'Amphoe farang'.
Thais are fully aware that foreigners are used to paying higher prices for food. Also, many establishments that target foreigners are run by foreigners living in Thailand. Thus, prices are higher.
To really experience authentic Thai food at its best it is necessary to eat at authentic Thai eateries. There are tens of thousands of these throughout the country. However, for the majority of foreign visitors there will be a problem ordering. You can point, but this method isn't very satisfactory and it screams 'tourist'.
Most of these places have simple menus and more often than not the menu is displayed on the wall rather than having individual menus. The staff in these places don't generally speak much English, if any at all.
If a restaurant does have individual menus written only in Thai they may not give you one. Thais know that a few farangs can speak some Thai but they assume that none can read. If you ask whether they have a menu, they will tell you no. They have no English menus and assume that a Thai menu will be of no use.
Small Thai restaurants don't usually have much of a selection. First, you decide what you want to eat and then you go to the appropriate place.
With a limited slection of dishes on offer, tackling the menu at a small hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant is actually quite easy. The information on this page is to help you. Not only will you eat well but you may also impress a few people along the way.
My objective is just to provide some essential words. I haven't got the culinary knowledge to cover all aspects of Thai food, and anyway, it would be too much and impossible to remember.
If you learn and remember the following, you should be able to walk into any small Thai restaurant and make sense of the menu.
I object strongly to commonly used transliteration systems because they fail to do the one thing they are supposed to do. The only purpose of transliteration is to allow someone who can't read Thai to be able to pronounce a Thai word correctly using the English alphabet.
If the system of transliteration used isn't phonetically correct (none of them are) then the whole process is a waste of time.
My system of transliteration is based on living in Thailand since 2003 and owning a set of ears that listen to how Thais speak. It is impossible to write certain Thai sounds using the English alphabet - simply impossible - but what is possible is to improve on the disastrous systems that are used elsewhere.
Reading The Examples On This Page
These tutorials were designed to be studied in sequence. If you have followed and understood all of the previous tutorials, this should be a breeze.
If you are having problems, go back to the Tutorial Index in order to find the relevant tutorial to set you straight.
If you are having problems as a result of me not covering something, or not covering something sufficiently, please let me know.
The food sold at simple Thai restaurants falls into two basic categories. Once you familiarise yourself with the different styles it is obvious. However, most restaurants also display a sign to indicate what type of food is served.
It is very common in Thailand for a restaurant to prepare lots of different dishes and to store them in large trays or pots. This is known as kaaw gairng. After cooking the dishes initially, the food isn't kept warm or reheated. As a result the food is often cold or luke warm.
The vendor will give you a plate of rice and you can choose which curry you wish to eat with it. There is no limit but prices are normally displayed for one, two or three portions. It is a cheap way to eat.
Many Westerners aren't too enthusiastic about this style of food preparation but Thais love it and kaaw gairng is very popular.
The other style of cooking (much more popular with Westerners) is known as aahaan dtaam sung (aahaan = food; dtaam = follow; sung = order). This is food freshly prepared and made to order.
Thai cooks can prepare this type of food very quickly. It may only take a few minutes from ordering to the food arriving at your table. However, in many small restaurants there is only one cook preparing one dish at a time and if there the restaurant is busy you may have to wait a while.
ข้าวแกง - kaaw gairng
อาหารตามสั่ง - aahaan dtaam sung
The average rice restaurant will have a few standard dishes on the menu and these can be ordered with your choice of meat. Not all restaurants will have all of these. Here are some examples:
ไก่ - gai (chicken)
เป็ด - bpet (duck)
หมู - moo (pig/pork)
กุ้ง - guung (prawn/shrimp)
ปู - bpoo (crab)
ปลาหมึก or just หมึก - bplaa meuk/meuk (squid)
'beef' is เนื้อวัว (neua wua - cow meat) but it is often simply described as เนื้อ (neua - meat)
ทะเล - tuh-lay (This word means 'sea', but in a food context it means 'seafood'. In reality, if you order tuh-lay you will normally get shrimp and squid, but you may also get some fish or shellfish.)
If you're not sure of the tones, check the tone rules in Tutorial 14.
ผัด - put (to stir-fry)
ทอด - tort (to deep-fry)
ย่าง - yaang (to grill)
อบ - op (to roast)
นึ่ง - neung (to steam)
หุงข้าว - huung kaaw (to cook rice)
Wet Or Dry
With many different types of noodle dishes, you can opt to have them fried as they come or boiled in stock. You just need to suffix your order with the Thai word for 'water' or 'dry'.
น้ำ - naam (water)
แห้ง - hairng (dry)
Types Of Rice
There are also many varieties of rice, just as there are many varieties of apple and potato in other parts of the world, but individual varieties of rice are not covered here.
Depending on where you are in the country, there will also see regional differences. Sticky rice is the standard variety eaten in the northeast Isaan region. kaaw mok is something that I have only ever seen in the south, and I have only ever seen it prepared by Muslims. It is normally eaten with fried chicken.
As the photos here show, you will often come across signs that have been handwritten or that use fonts you are unfamiliar with.
Fonts used on signs in real-world Thailand are very different to the fonts used in books designed to teach you how to read Thai. This is why I include real photos.
After I learnt to read Thai from books, I then had to learn to read real signs because I didn't recognise the letters written in strange fonts.
ข้าวสวย - kaaw suwaay (non-glutinous steamed rice; literally 'beautiful rice')
ข้าวเปลา - kaaw bplao (plain rice; normally the same as above)
ข้าวเหนียว - kaaw niaew (glutinous/sticky rice)
ข้าวต้ม - kaaw dtom (boiled rice)
ข้าวผัด - kaaw put (fried rice)
ข้าวหมก - kaaw mok (yellow rice)
ข้าวมัน - kaaw mun (rice cooked in coconut cream)
ข้าวแกง - kaaw gairng (rice with curry)
ข้าวสาร - kaaw sarn (milled rice ready for cooking)
Normally written 'Phad Thai', but this is yet another example of the disastrous Thai to English transliteration system. The genius that devised the system decided to use the letter 'h' to indicate aspirated consonants.
English uses the same consonants for aspirated and unaspirated sounds. Thai doesn't (very sensibly). The problem with using the letter 'h' to indicate aspiration is that 'h', when used with certain other consonants in English, makes a completely different sound.
Instead of being an aspirated 't', the vowel combination 'th' to an English speaker indicates either the 'th' in 'this' or 'thin'.
This is highly confusing for English speaking learners of Thai and it even confused a Lonely Planet podcaster when he completely mispronounced 'Thonburi'.
This is why I prefer to use 't' for an aspirated 't' and 'dt' for a non-aspirated 't'. Similarly, I use 'p' for an aspirated 'p' and 'bp' for a non-aspirated 'p'.
When English speakers see 'ph' they think it is an 'f' sound, not an aspirated 'p' sound. This is why farangs thought Phuket was highly comical when the island first became a mainstream tourist destination because they thought it was pronounced 'F*** it'.
The Thai vowel 'mai-hun-aagaat' is not equivalent to an 'a', it is a 'u'. Don't take my word for it; use your ears and listen for yourself.
Ask a native Thai speaker to say the word for tooth/teeth in Thai and decide for yourself whether it is 'fun' or 'fan'.
With well known words and phrases I use the inaccurate transliteration, but for other words I use my own transliteration system which is more phonetically accurate.
The other problem with transliteration is that written English is such a horrendous phonetic mess. The 'u' in 'but' is the same as the 'u' in 'fun' and 'hub' and 'gum', etc etc, but 'put' is an entirely different sound.
For this Thai dish think 'putt' (as in golf), and not the confusing English 'put'.
When it is served you are also given some cucumber, spring onions, and part of a banana flower. You can add various condiments to suit your taste, including lime juice squeezed from a piece of lime, crushed peanuts, chili powder, sugar, vinegar, fish sauce, etc.
With many standard dishes served at small food vendors you can choose the 'special' or 'ordinary' version. The special version is a few baht more and is either slightly bigger or has a few extra ingredients.
Click on the image above for a larger image in a pop-up window and practice reading the various options. Here is some vocabulary to help you.
ไม่ใส่ - mai sai (without)
ไข่ - kai (egg)
เส้น - sen (classifier for noodles)
พิเศษ - pi-set (special)
ธรรมดา - tum-ma-daa (ordinary)
เล็ก - lek (small)
ใหญ่ - yai (big)
วุ้นเส้น - wuun sen (glass noodles)
สด - sot (fresh)
สาขา - saa-kaa (branch - of a business, not a tree)
A Real Menu
The restaurant this menu came from is typical of thousands of small restaurants across Thailand. There are no individual menus; just a big one stuck on the wall. The staff speak about five words of English and if you can't speak or read Thai you're going to have problems.
One of the things I love about being able to read Thai is walking into places like this and being able to act just like a regular Thai customer.
If you can decipher this menu, which isn't difficult, I think you will be able to understand the menu in the majority of small Thai restaurants.
Sometimes, in addition to practising your reading, you also get to practice your writing. At some places a waitress will take your order verbally, but at others you write the order on a small pad provided by the restaurant.
For example, kaaw put is fried rice (the straight translation is rice fried because Thai grammar uses noun-adjective instead of adjective-noun as used in English).
If you want chicken fried rice, tell them kaaw put gai, but if you want seafood in your fried rice tell them kaaw put tuh-lay.
This tutorial isn't really a tutorial; it's just reading practice to allow you to practice what you learnt in previous tutorials. Click on the thumbnail to get the large image of the menu and try to read it.
If you have a problem, send me an e-mail or go back to one of the previous tutorials.
Here's my transliterated version going from left to right:
kaaw put - fried rice
put prik - spicy curry sauce
put gra-prao - holy basil leaves
kreu-ung gairng - type of curry paste with herbs, garlic and lemongrass
prik pao - type of curry paste
prik thai dum - black pepper
pong gra-ree - curry powder
moo / gai tort gratiem - pork or chicken fried in garlic
ka-naa moo tort - fried pork with a type of Asian vegetable
ka-naa gai tort - fried chicken with a type of Asian vegetable
bpet kua see-iw - duck in a kind of curry sauce
put king - stir-fried in ginger
dtao-hoo song kreu-ung - tofu with minced meat of some kind in a sauce
put puk ruem - stir-fried mixed vegetables
put sort - stir-fried in some kind of sauce
bpriaew waan - sweet and sour sauce
kai jiaew moo sup - omelette with minced pork
kaaw put bplaa gra-bpong - fried rice with canned fish
put kee mao - stir fried in a kind of curry sauce
raat naa - noodles in a thick gravy
put see-iw - noodles
ka-naa bplaa kem - salty fish with an Asian vegetable
gairng jeut - soup with meat and vegetables
dtao hoo lot - straw-shaped tofu
saa-raay - seaweed/algae
wuun-sen - glass noodles
kai jiaew naam - omelette in a kind of soup
kreu-ung deum - Drinks
gek-huay - chrysanthemum juice
oy - sugar cane juice
gra-jiap - roselle juice
chaa yen - cold tea
chaa dum yen - cold black tea
oliang - sweet iced black coffee
o-wul-dtin - ovaltine
naam ut-lom - carbonated sugary soft drinks
bia - beer
A Real Drinks Menu
Branches of Starbucks are appearing all over Thailand, but small coffee shops and street vendors selling hot and cold drinks have been there a lot longer and are far more common. The coffee isn't quite the same, but the prices are a lot cheaper.
The following menu (which was on the side of a paper bag that came from a small coffee shop) is quite typical. If you have managed to get this far after studying the previous tutorials you should be able to translate it fairly easily. Many of the drinks use the Western name transliterated into Thai.
The stupid transliteration system also screws up pronunciation when transliterating from English into Thai. For example, the 'c's in Cocoa are aspirated but because they aren't written as 'kh' this gets transliterated into gor gai, thus turning the pronunciation into 'Go-Go'. This would be highly appropriate for a bar in Pattaya, but not for a coffee shop.
See if you can read it without looking at my transliteration underneath.
Gaa-fair bo-raan (Traditional coffee)
Gaa-fair nom sot (Coffee with fresh milk)
Chaa nom (Tea with milk)
Chaa dum yen (Cold black tea)
Nom yen (Cold milk)
Naam ut-lom (Carbonated drinks - Coke, Fanta, etc)
Naam pon-la-mai (Fruit drinks)
Most tea and coffee drinks can be ordered hot or cold. Iced drinks are normally slightly more expensive. Just remember the word order noun/adjective and add hot or cold at the end.
เย็น - yen (cold)
ร้อน - rawn (hot)
There are two ways that Thais serve cold fruit drinks, such as orange juice (naam som). If you just want the juice of the squeezed fruit, request kun. If you want a smoothie - fruit juice blended in a liquidizer with crushed ice - ask for bpun.
คั้น - kun (to squeeze)
ปั่น - bpun (to spin, turn, shake)
น้ำส้มคั้น - naam som kun (squeezed orange juice)
น้ำมะนาวปั่น - naam ma-naaw bpun (lemon/lime juice smoothie)
More Reading Practice
However, I was waiting at a hospital one day and saw a sign that I could read quite easily.
It occurred to me that anyone who could follow these tutorials could also read the sign, provided that they understood the vocabulary.
If you want to have a go at reading the sign, click on the thumbnail image to display a larger image in a pop-up window and try to read it. If you have problems, or want to check to see if you were correct, see below.
ลูกค้า - look-kaa (customers)
ที่ - tee (who, which, that - relative pronoun)
รอ - ror (to wait)
รับ - rup (to receive)
ยา - yaa (medicine)
นาน - naan (a long time)
เกิน - gern (more than)
นาที - naa-tee (minutes)
กรุณา - garuunaa (please)
ติดต่อ - dtit-dtor (contact)
เจ้าหน้าที่ - jao naa tee (person in charge)
ห้อง - hong (room)
จ่าย - jaay (pay)
ยา - yaa (medicine)
How did you do? Translating from Thai to English, or vice-versa, is always messy because the sentence structures and vocabulary are so different. An approximate translation would be: "Customers waiting to receive medicine who have been waiting longer than 15 minutes please contact the cashier."
Questions And Feedback
If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, feel free to contact me. Your feedback will help me to improve these pages.
The best way to remember the various characters used in Thai script is by writing them down on paper. In addition to improving your writing skills, the very act of writing the characters on paper will commit them to memory.
This is how Thai children learn and it is a very effective approach. The best way to practice your writing is by using the same worksheets that Thai children use. They are available everywhere in Thailand, but a lot more difficult to find outside of Thailand.
Thailand for Tourists
Living In 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. I always use Agoda to book hotels in Thailand. The company was established in Thailand and has great local knowledge, as well as a huge inventory of hotels.
If you click on one of the destinations opposite you will get a list of hotel deals from Agoda. It's generally a good idea to book on-line because you will get a good room rate and you won't suffer the disappointment of arriving at a hotel to find that it is full.
I book hotels regularly in Thailand and I have always found Agoda to be the best on-line travel agent. At times I have spent a lot of time researching hotel prices and although other deals sometimes look better at first I always end up returning to Agoda.
If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.
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