English Language and Tourism in Thailand

When I first travelled through Asia I remember thinking that it was lucky that I spoke English as my first language. I noticed that English was being used as the way to communicate between backpackers of different nations. For example, a German would speak to a Frenchman in English. When I stayed in guesthouses it was always useful for me to chat and share information with fellow travellers. I also found that many locals also spoke English. At least the ones that I came in contact with. In China I had many people come up to me to either see if I needed help or just to practice their English. It was much the same in Pakistan and India. Then later, when I was in Malaysia and Indonesia, I also didn’t have much of a problem. Naturally I made an effort to learn some of the language of the countries I visited. But, I could always fall back onto English.

That all changed when I first arrived in Thailand. I wasn’t approached so much by English speaking local people. I also found it difficulty communicating at tourist attractions and on public transport. This is not to say that there weren’t any English speakers. But, they were either very shy or spoke English with a bad accent. In fact, it could almost be guaranteed that if a well spoken Thai person came up to me in Bangkok, that person would be trying to scam me. Many Thai people either don’t speak English or are never forward enough to make the first move like this. I always found it funny that many Thai people would either cover their ears or run away if I attempted to speak English to them.

Compared to neighbouring countries in Asia, Thailand has always had a poor record as far as English language instruction goes. I guess they have a slight “disadvantage” in that they have never been colonized by a European country. However, in this global market, it is very important to speak English in order to do business with foreign countries. Although English might not be the most widely spoken language in the world, it is important as a medium of communication between nations. However, English is hardly ever used or seen in Thailand. It is true we have more now than before, but the quality and quantity is still limited.

Sometimes on national television or radio we get some news broadcasts in English. However, their English is often very poor. Apart from their unusual pronunciation, they often make grammatical mistakes. This is excusable at local level but not on national television. I have also seen over the last few years some documentary programmes on television with English subtitles. This is obviously a good step in the right direction. However, it often doesn’t make sense and I have to listen to the Thai instead in order to make sense of what is going on. Then there are the spelling mistakes. We have all seen them. You would think they would at least use a spell checker when writing copy for an advertisement. It is rather silly to spend thousands on an advertisement in the Bangkok Post only to have bad spelling.

I personally think that the Thai government did a poor job in supporting and helping foreign tourists in Bangkok and Pattaya during the recent red shirt protests. The television channels also handled it very poorly too. I had the television on all day and every day for the four or five days of protests but there was hardly any information in English. Imagine a tourist in a foreign country and you see that the army is out on the streets and that there are thousands of protesters. Where can you get information? If you are in a five star hotel then you probably can watch CNN or BBC. But for others the Thai terrestrial channels were of little use. I don’t expect them to give long translations. Sometimes the pictures talk for themselves. However, some of these pictures of the soldiers firing straight ahead were scary. Why couldn’t they have done some captions in English with breaking news? To find out what was going on, the tourists had to find an internet cafe.

Thailand makes a lot of money from tourism. It is in their own interest to not only encourage more foreigners to come to Thailand but also to make their stay here a little easier and to run smoothly. That way they might become repeat tourists. So, it would make sense to advertise in English the new tourist attractions and upcoming festivals and events in Thailand. However, in my opinion they do a very poor job of this. Take the recent OTOP in the City event which the government organized. The majority of the promotion was in Thai despite the fact that foreign tourists would be just as interested in this event to buy locally produced souvenirs and handicraft. When I contacted the promoters they promptly sent me a press release in the Thai language. When I asked for an English press release it took several phone calls before they finally faxed us a shortened version just a few days before the event. As if English was just an afterthought.

Even the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is guilty of not providing enough information in English. Take their website as an example. Although I am very grateful about the amount of English they do have, it is nothing compared to the Thai version of their website. Take the pages for upcoming festivals and events. According to their website there are only 25 events scheduled for April this year. However, if you switch to the Thai version you will see that there are 135 events listed! I did ask a TAT official about this once but she just said that foreigners are not interested in local events. I disagree. I find many of the smaller events far more fascinating and rewarding. Anyway, if they have the information already, how much does it cost them to have it translated into English? That way it would be our decision as to whether it would be worth going or not.

They also need to pay more attention with their website making sure it is kept up-to-date and is accurate. Sometimes they only post details about an annual event just a couple of days before it starts. That isn’t much help to tourists planning their holidays months in advance. If it is an event that happens every year then there should already be a summary. Then there is a problem of people entering the wrong dates on the website. I recently went to a fruit and food festival in Nakhon Pathom after checking out their website. When I got there I couldn’t find any festival. I rang the TAT hotline straight away to confirm the dates. It took a while for them to find an English speaker, but they were finally able to confirm that the event was happening on this day in front of the chedi. They didn’t believe me at first that I was there already and that there was no festival taking place. Luckily I didn’t bring a tour group.

I am also grateful that there are many brochures in English for tourist attractions around Thailand. However, when I ask about information for some of the less well-known provinces in Thailand I am told that the brochures are only in Thai or that not many English versions were printed. This is another problem. What if you have already been to Thailand and want to see something different on your next visit? How do you find out about some of the smaller attractions? A couple of weeks ago the TAT announced that they have just released a series of cheap guidebooks for tourists in Thailand. Sounded good. I rushed out to buy them only to find that they were only in Thai . The same goes when I turn up at tourist attractions. I ask for a brochure and many times they only have something in Thai.

A few months back I attended a tourism seminar for travel agents and travel writers from around the world. For a few days they showed us around Nakhon Ratachsima Province and then on the last afternoon we attended the seminar in order to give feedback. One of the main complaints from the people was the lack of English at tourist attractions. Not just the brochures but also signs and information boards. A museum that we were taken to had exhibit signs in Thai for 90% of the time. Which was strange as they were charging foreigners 300% more. I could understand the extra charge if they had to pay someone to write all the English for us. Then there are the shows at the Crocodile Farm. Again foreign tourists are charged a lot more but as the show commentary is only in Thai we don’t get any value for money.

At the end of the seminar, local hotels, tourist attractions and tour operators were invited to set up tables so that we could all see what there was on offer in Isaan. Guess what? We had a hard time finding any information in English. Even a book about Isaan launched at the event by the TAT was only in the Thai language. Sometimes it looks like they are trying to make our job harder. We are trying our best to help promote Thailand as a safe and friendly tourist destination. However, it is often difficult for us to find the information that we need at a time when we need it. Things are getting better but, for the sake of tourism in Thailand, it needs to be happening a lot quicker and more across the board. Otherwise tourists will start going to more English friendly destinations like Malaysia, Singapore and India.

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