Learning Mai Bpen Rai

It all started with a salad. When you start seeing eyeball to eyeball with 40 plus years of living and eating you start putting on a few extra pounds, but in my case just a few mind you. Seriously!

Like most people I’ve reached a certain age where it’s easier to put the ounds on than take them off, so much so that I decided I really needed to watch more carefully what I eat. Hence I’ve started eating salads a lot which are actually pretty good even though they would by no means be mistaken for Thai food. That being said let’s keep my salad munching a secret ‘k? I’ve got my reputation as an all-things-Thai fanatic to think about!

I needed a few things from the store to make my salad so it was off to the Safeway. This was Saturday night so of course the place was packed and it’s a small store so there is not much room to move anyway. The lines at each register were very long. I took my time getting what I needed then browsed some more until the lines got shorter so I would not wait long to pay and get back home.

When I finally got in line a lady was in front of me with a shopping cart. We were in the ’15 items or less’ lane so I counted my selections twice to be sure I didn’t go over the limit. I’m kinda weird on the consideration thing that way. I didn’t notice how much the lady had but I did notice the cart. I remember another couple was in front of this lady but not 5 feet away in front of our register was the corral for putting your cart when your done with it.

Imagine my surprise when this lady finished emptying her cart then instead of holding onto it until the couple in front of us finished so she could return it she started backing it out of the check out lane, turned it around and pushed it over into one of the food isles! She actually went out of her way to push the cart FURTHER away into everyone elses way than if she just pushed the cart over to where it belonged! How rude and inconsiderate! She got back in line in front of me and I just stared at her for a minute.

I know it’s not a Thai way to start a confrontation but I couldn’t just let this go without saying something. I looked at her and said “You know that’s not where that goes don’t you” to which she just ignored me but looked like a kid busted her hand caught in the cookie jar. “Well?” I prodded but still she said nothing. She knew she was wrong but she blithely just paid for her stuff then left. I said something to the cashier about it and he replied ‘oh she’s a regular’ like that makes it ok!

Maybe I’m just a naive country boy living in the big city too long but things like this really bug the crap out of me. Where are peoples manners? What about being considerate of others? Am I being too uptight or have things really gone down the toilet here as far as we treat people? Someone get me to Thailand! I knew I needed to get a grip but I griped about that ladies rudeness all the way home with my groceries. I WAS being too uptight and I needed some stress relief. I needed Mai bpen rai!

If the face of Thailand is the famous Thai smile then the philosophy of Thailand is ‘Mai bpen rai’ (ไม่เป็นไร ) which literally translated means ‘no-is-nothing’ and is similar to it’s language cousin ‘Mai mee arai’ (ไม่มีอะไร ) which literally translates as ‘No-have-what’ and means about the same as ‘Whatever’ in English. You can also say ‘Mai mee bpan-haa’ (ไม่มีปัญหา, or no-have-problem) which translates easily enough as ‘no problem!’

But you might want to be careful you don’t say ‘Mai mee bpra-haa’ (ไม่มีประหาร, or no-have-execute i.e. kill!) You might just scare everyone or they think you at least need to lay off the caffeine!

Mai bpen rai however is the multi purpose tool of Thai since it can have as many meanings as Never mind. It’s cool. Don’t get mad, get glad. Take it easy. No worries. Oh well, I can’t do anything about it. It’s nothing. Etc, etc if not more!

It is THE all purpose Thai expression that along with a genuine smile will get you out of trouble faster than your Visa card (or good ole American cash), Buddha or a swiss army pocket knife in the hands of a boy scout! It will also get you in good with the locals more than anything if you make a blunder just remember to use ‘mai bpen rai’ generously, like every other word or so, and keep flashing your rich farang million dollar smile with sincerity.

When your in Thailand your bound to hear this expression. A lot. However you may be confused the first time you hear it since Thai’s don’t always pronounce their r’s. It comes out sounding like ‘My Ben Lie’ most of the time. You won’t recognize ‘Mai bpen rai’ right away but you get the idea you shouldn’t trust anything this Ben character says! However trust in it as a life saver and you’ll see how well ‘Mai bpen rai’ can work for you too!

Stuck in Bangkok traffic and your late for a meeting? Mai bpen rai! Everyone in Thailand is on Thai time which means they will probably be even more late than you!

Ordered Tom Yum Goong in a Thai resturant and got Curry Noodles instead? Mai bpen rai! Here’s your chance to try something new and maybe discover a new favorite.

Thai-blogs taking FOREVER to upload a preview of your blog (does that happen to anyone else?) Mai bpen rai! Here’s your chance to catch up on your reading so dust off your copy of Tolstoy! Nyet!

Tried to impress your girlfriend by saying ‘You look beautiful tonight’ in Thai but used the wrong tone instead so you said something more like she looks ‘unfortunate’ tonight? Well in this case you may need more help than Mai bpen rai can offer!

You can gloss over just about any situation with a little ‘Mai bpen rai’ and some honest ‘Jai Dee’ or (ใจดี, or heart-good in Thai) plus throw in some sanuk (สนุก, or fun) and presto! Instant absolution!

The Thai attitude of mai bpen rai will most likely fluster and frustrate us farangs because in the West we’re taught to take everything so seriously. I can see where many folks when they visit Thailand just won’t get it but I sure wish sometimes I could see more ‘mai bpen rai’ around here!

However some forward thinkers feel ‘mai bpen rai’ works too well. Thai people believe in just going with the flow of mai bpen rai as the philosophy of life so much it becomes an excuse not to change. Taken as meaning a ‘Oh well, I can’t do anything about it’ sentiment Thai people sometimes accept things the way they are when they can really be changed for the better. But then again it’s always a matter of perspective of what is better and what is just another complication in life for ‘mai bpen rai’ to get you through.

Last week my boss Nott, who is Thai, invited me to go swimming with her at the YMCA one morning before work. Since the salads weren’t working fast enough I took her up on the offer though I’m not sure what she thought of the sight of me in a pair of Speedos.

On the ride to work afterwards we passed the Starbucks on the corner from our bank building. She commented on this guy who illegally parked his car in the traffic lane just so he could jump out and run to Starbucks for his morning cup of Joe. Her reaction was kinda like mine about the shopping cart lady. Nott said she couldn’t believe how rude American people can be only thinking of themselves. Maybe she considers me more Thai than farang to say that in front of me. I just sunk down in my seat and didn’t say anything because I knew she was right.

That’s something I think about everyday when I have to deal with the real world out there. Somedays it’s maddening but then I just tell myself ‘mai bpen rai’ and just let it go. Like the shopping cart lady or the Starbucks guy I can’t be accountable for their inconsiderate actions when I am busy enough being mindful of my own! Somedays I don’t let that get to me but some days it’s hard and I can’t count how many ‘mai bpen rai’s’ I’ve uttered to no avail.

More than once I’ve caught myself ‘switching’ my English for Thai and ‘Mai bpen rai’ is a good example. I have a coffee co-consiprator at work and I often make a morning run to Starbucks for us. We usually pay for our own but sometimes she doesn’t give me enough money so I use my own to cover it. She always insists to pay me the difference when I get back but I waive it off saying ‘Mai bpen lie, mai bpen lie’ and she’s like….who’s Ben?

This week has been a hard one for Thai news with everything going on in south Thailand. There are just so many things in this world that ‘mai bpen rai’ can’t fix. Sometimes I wish I could trully be a kid again with no worries but Thomas Wolfe wrote you can’t go home again and sometimes there really are monsters in the world even if they aren’t hiding under the bed. John Mellencamp a famous folk rocker from the 80’s wrote a song I like which goes something like this –

‘Between a laugh and a tear,
Smile at the mirror as you walk by
Between a laugh and a tear,
If that’s as good as it gets for us
Well that ain’t no reason to stop trying’

Sounds pretty ‘mai bpen rai’ to me. I make a lot of jokes when I see the shape our world is in but sometimes that’s what keeps me sane. That, mai bpen rai and a certain someone I’ve gotten to know.

It’s almost midnight now and time to put my latest bit of blog to bed. Looking away from the glare of my monitor for a moment I see my certain someone now peacefully sleeping. Not a care that I can tell about the troubles of today or the uncertainty of tomorrow. Youth and innocence is like that. I remember another song by John Mellencamp where he sang “an honest mans pillow is his peace of mind” I believe that’s true and at the heart of what ‘mai bpen rai’ is about. Having piece of mind but that’s not always easy somewhere between the honest and the innocent where most of us have to rest.

I know I’ll cause a stir when I shut down the computer and pull back the covers to go to bed. Sleepy arms will reach out to pull me down into a warm embrace and snuggle close. Wrapping my own arms around to hold on tight the sound of breathing in my ears once again settles down for the night feeling safer and secure now I know with me there. Thinking about everything out there that is happening in the world I’ll probably lay awake for still another hour but for now I am happy. Silently I offer up a prayer and my own quiet chant lying there in the dark. I smile too thinking the words remind me of an old Bob Marley song ‘No worry, no cry’ I think it goes.

Mai bpen rai, mai bpen rai, took took sing, mai bpen rai
“It’s ok, it’s alright, everything gonna be alright.”

Till next time, Krab



5 responses to “Learning Mai Bpen Rai

  1. Sleepy Arms… so you do have someone, no?

  2. TG –

    Yes, but by a certain someones request I am asked to keep that part of my life private 😉


  3. This is the first of your articles I have read. It was very good, and accurate. Americans seem to think we are better than other people and can act as rude as we want to and it will be okay. I have never liked that attitude, but find it even more unacceptable after a trip to Thailand this past April. The Thai people were respectful and polite even during Songkran. The fact that I’m on the upper end of middle age might have something to do with it, but I was there two weeks and was never treated with anything but respect and lots of smiles.

  4. Hi Yaa,

    If this is your first visit welcome to Thai-Blogs! I am glad you liked my writing. It’s always a joy to hear that people have read and enjoyed my blogs and have been educated as well as entertained for a bit. It sounds like you had such a wonderful time the two weeks you were there in Thailand, oh how I envy you! I think you and I are the same in that we’re ‘old school’ guys and appreciate basic decency, honor and respect but given and received.

    Anyway since I turn 42 next month I think that makes us both old enough to remember how things used to be here in America. There was a time when everyone, no matter where you traveled to here in America, was friendly and courteous and polite, a lot like Thailand is now. It seems so strange sometimes that everything has changed so much in such a short time since I was a boy.

    Everyone here it seems is out for only themselves now and what they can get. The looting of New Orleans after Katrina is stark evidence of that. To be honest I think we have too much here, way too much of everything! What is the point of spending 10-15 minutes trying to decide what brand of toothpaste to buy from a selection that covers an entire aisle! All this consumer excess (i.e waste) is ruining the soul with it’s promises to ‘quality’ and ‘the good life’. Sorry that’s the Buddhist in me speaking out again. 😉

    Thailand is a fascinating whirl of culture, color and life but what I love the most is that people there are still like the America I remember where it counts in the heart. I know my dream for my future is there in Thailand because sadly looking at our country as it is today there is nothing I see here that I want to live in much anymore. Thai people have problems like we do sure but they still have heart and where there is heart there is hope.

    Wow, I meant to write just a nice thank you and welcome but it seems I have almost written another blog!

    Blame it on my work out. I joined a gym this week and went to my first workout tonight so I am too beat to move away from the keyboard at the moment lol. Time for another shower and bedtime after my workout I will sleep so good tonight. Thanks again Yaa and welcome.

    Keep those cards, letters and comments coming in folks. I’ll always leave the porch light on for ya. 😉


  5. Great article, Wit with such a tender closing! You know, the mai bpen rai way of life in Thailand has lowered my blood pressure noticably!

    On Thai politeness, there are a couple contradictory social characteristics that just baffle the heck out of us farangs. My motivation for sharing this is to solicit the insights of my fellow expats and even some Thai readers.


    #1: Lack of “lines” (or “queues” for our Queen’s English friends).

    You can be standing in what you thought was a “line” at the local 7-11 counter with an armload of items for 5 minutes. The customers in front of you finish up, and now you think it’s your turn. Not if you leave more than 12″ between you and the counter! If you do, more likely someone will walk from the back of the store with their items in hand and step directly in front of you. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there. No guilt. No shame. Not even a “I’m sorry I’m doing this” smile! It’s absolutely baffling. It happens with great regularity all over the country. I’m sure there’s a subtle cultural nuance here I’m missing, so I remain dumfounded. Someone enlighten me, please.

    #2 Driving habits.

    Thai drivers are absolutely merciless! Pulling out in front oncoming traffic, crowding you off the road (if you’re smaller), parking practically in the middle of a traffic lane while they shop at a market–thereby causing a huge traffic bottleneck for dozens of other motorists, roaring their SUV through a crowd of students crossing the road, and the list goes on. Again, absolutely at 180-degrees from the normal Thai sweet politness and “kreung-jai” spirit. The really unfortunate side of this is that Thailand has one of the highest traffic mortality rates in the world. Again, someone please enlighten me! Why does the sweet Thai grandma turn into a traffic demon when she gets behind the wheel?


    With all that said, I still say Thai society is overall MUCH more polite and considerate than anything I’ve experienced in the West or even other Asian countries. It far outweighs their bewildering social behavior on the road and at the check-out counter.

    And of course, for every one of these behavioral conundrums, I could name a dozen common anti-social western public behaviors that regularly raise the collective blood pressure of normally considerate people.

    So, keep pursuing your plans for Thailand, Wit. Just be prepared to use “mais bpen rai” a lot at the check-out counter, and keep that crash helmet handy! And remember, whatever blood pressure might be raised in those two scenarios will be balanced out by the more prevalent sweet “naam jai” and “krueng-jai” spirit of the Thai in the rest of your social encounters.

    [Sorry about this short comment! I guess I just wrote a blog entry in your comment section…]