by Hank Leukart
March 13, 2006
Learning to say, “Thank you.”
Street signs in Thailand don’t help much when you’re lost
ANGKOK, Thailand — One of my first thoughts about Thailand was, “This is just like Vietnam!” Strangely, I’ve never been to Vietnam, but almost everything I’ve ever learned about it comes from one of my favorite movies — Good Morning Vietnam, starring Robin Williams — which, of course, was actually filmed in Thailand. But, it’s almost all here: the spicy fish balls that Robin eats, weather so hot that “little guys with their orange robes burst into flames,” and the worst traffic anyone has ever seen. About the only thing that’s missing is Robin Williams, but he’s probably off doing heroin somewhere. In Thailand. Maybe he’s here after all.
The experience of visiting Thailand is so different from the experience of vacationing in Europe and even that of visiting other developing countries, it’s hard for me to know where to begin. First, I have met very few people in Thailand that speak English. This might not seem that important, but consider this: first, I don’t speak Thai, at all; second, Thai as a written language doesn’t use latin characters, making every sign and written word impossible for me to read (see a photo of one a street-signs I tried to use to find the National Museum, inline); third, while (sometimes) the phonetic spelling of road names or sight names are provided, the pronunciations are subject to interpretation both by the guide books and native Thai-speakers. As a result, finding off-the-beaten-path destinations takes me about twice as much time as it does when I travel in Europe (where most everyone in urban areas speaks English). I can’t manage to get anyone to point at a map — I’m not sure if they’ve never seen a map (unlikely) or they just don’t know their location. Of course, there are some English-speakers that work at hotels like The Oriental that cater to Westerners, but for the most part, it’s impossible to get directions or advice from anyone.
I’m not being critical; I understand how ridiculous it is for me to visit a country when I don’t speak a word of the language. But it does make everything a lot more fun.
I have learned one thing so far: khawp kuhn means “Thank you.” Because it’s the only thing I know how to say, I say it all the time. When I say it, it usually makes Thais giggle (due to the humor of my pronunciation being bad and their delight in my making any effort at all), which provides me with an extra incentive to say it even more. When I get in a miniature, motorized taxi (called a tuk tuk), when I get fried pork from street vendors, when a Thai girl says (barely) in English, “You quite handsome,” and when someone sells me a ticket to see a giant golden Buddah, I excitedly say khawp kuhn. A Thai girl tried to teach me to say “sorry” today, but I haven’t quite mastered it yet. It’s next on my list. WB