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.

16 responses to “English Language and Tourism in Thailand

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Richard. If it weren’t for your excellent write-ups on off-the-beaten-path places, I’d/we’d never know about those non-high-tourist locations. To get Thai people to actually think about marketing their country would be way too daring. They need to provide English translations of signs and literature only once. After it’s done–and they have paid the expert for his translation–they can eliminate the dual pricing for the tourists. Fat chance for either the provision of English or the elimination of dual pricing. They really don’t care, and it’s their loss.

  2. There is no way a tourist can take a cheap bus ride in Thailand if he/she doesn’t know Thai.=(

  3. Waaa. They don’t speak English in an Asian country. Too bad they weren’t colonized, it would be much more convenient for tourists if they had been!

  4. I agree with you 100% Richard. I have lived in Thailand for 5 years and have also travelled in other countries in the region. In my opinion the TAT have to wake up. They just seem to be resting on their laurels as they think that the tourists will just keep coming. However, neigboring countries are fast catching up. I find places like Malaysia, where English is more widely spoken, to be more relaxing. They also have beaches, national parks and a rich culture. At the moment we are thinking about relocating there. Thailand is no longer the hassle free country with the easy going people that it used to be.

  5. luckily for Thailand, Malaysia is a lot more expensive – I mean if you want to travel cheaply, stay at a simple guesthouse, eat in the street, sign up for daytrips. the only exception seems to be public transport.

  6. How “unfortunate” for Thailand that it wasn’t colonized by a western country. Tourists have to haggle the tuk tuk fares with sign language. How inconvenient. Poor babies.

    And if the Thai were to pick up a 2nd language, should that language be English? I’ve read (can’t find the data source anymore) that tourists from China, Japan, and Korea altogether combined to be the #1 source of tourists to Thailand. I’ve been to China and Korea, and have lived in Japan. I don’t believe the general populations of those countries speak English any better than the Thai. Those coming to Thailand probably prefer that the Thai speak their languages.

    Personally, I embrace the differences, linguistic et al. I believe rewards await those who seek out adventures. As more of the world becomes more the same, I found Thailand more enchanting precisely because it is different.

  7. I haven’t found language to be a major problem. I have learned a few simple Thai words, and of course I can rely on sign language.

    Backpackers and independent travelers are adaptable. Those on package tours would need translators.

    Anyway, Thais should brush up their English for other reasons, e.g. to be exposed to the concepts of democracy, human rights etc.

    @Bergen
    I believe Malaysia is the ‘single’ largest source of tourists, and we speak English.

  8. Agree and agree. Why are we paying 300 baht whereas the locals are paying 30 baht to a show which conducts in Thai? Sometimes I feel they did it on purpose to put off the foreigners so they can have the whole country for themselves. Maybe they don’t really want us here except for our money afterall.

    Poor marketing is also a problem. I bet no one knows Thailand is currently hosting the International Martial Arts festival (or competition) at this moment.

  9. I could not agree with you. I am a thai person. for me when I saw forieners need help I am so happy to help them. I am not shy to speak with them. I also write about english’s blog to give some information to foriener who want to know about our cultures for fun and imporve my english. I think it’s a lot of thai people need to help or speak with forieners but may be you don’t find them.

  10. When I first visited Thailand in 1992 very few people spoke English outside of the big cities and I was forced to learn some words and phrases to get by. In the town where I lived I think two people spoke English! I have never been good at languages but it was fun to practice my Thai and I always had a very positive response. In Bangkok however, many people wanted to practice their English by speaking to me, which at times was frustrating as I wanted to practice my Thai! When I travelled to Malaysia I didn’t enjoy it so much because they all seemed to speak English and it was so westernised compared to Thailand. These days many more people speak English in Thailand, even in rural areas, in fact I’d say that in my experience most young people speak some English and are keen practice it, which is a very different experience to what you have had, Richard.

    Regarding dual charges, I am happy to pay more than Thai people to see tourist attractions, after all as a westerner I earn much more than many Thais, and I think tourist attractions should be accessible to all Thais regardless of their income, so yes, they should be cheaper for Thais. Obviously though, farangs living in Thailand are at a disadvantage if they are earning a local salary.

  11. What’s so good being colonized?The Thais have their own right in choosing what language they want to use.I’m not Thai but I love Thailand and I learn to speak the language.Thailand is a very nice country and so does its peoples.They might be a little bit shy and reserved,it is not that they are unfriendly but it’s the way that they’re brought up.They feel proud to speak their language and they will treat you like a family if you can speak their language,even a little bit will do.Do French like to speak English?No…so does Thais,most of them can but they prefer to use their language to show their patriotism.So,please dont misunderstood Thais.From my point of view,all traveelers should have a “Plan B” before embarking on a journey.Dont just simply buy the cheapest plane tickets out of your country and expect to be pampered all the time.Be prepared for the worst to come.The best gesture in Thailand is to smile,”wai”,learn the culture and observe the ‘Do & Dont’s”!Every country is different…that’s the reason why we travel!If you can’t cope with it,just stay at home and watch videos!Thank you.

  12. What you wrote is true..as tourists, we’re not expecting the host country to translate everything in English, but to make it more tourist-friendly. They should start improving services and having brochures in English is a big step..and I agree even local shows/trade fairs should be properly advertised, in their own language and in English..

  13. Annie Yong

    Agreed with your thought. I love to travel to Thailand and would like to explore more locals’ travel spots but hardly find information in English. Fortunately because of your blog, I manage to know more non usual/common travelers attraction.

    Don’t give up. Thailand is a nice country and you are blessed for able to stay there. Keep promoting and your effort will not be wasted. Khorb Khun ka.

  14. I agree with you, except about colonization.
    In my opinion, unlike the French, majority of whom really hate English, Thai people find it uncomfortable to talk in English even if they know, possibly due to the structure/style of Thai language which is very much different from English. For example “vegetarian fried rice” is called “kao pad jae” in Thai, where the order of adjectives is in the reverse order (rice fried vegetarian).

    Anyhow, there many reasons which makes sense for the Thais to practice English, and authorities of education and tourism sectors should take care of it.

    Having said that,…..

    I found the basic rules for communicating in English (whenever you don’t know Thai) in Thailand as follows.
    1. Talk slowly and word by word
    2. Use simple words comprising common nouns and verbs in simple presence without prepositions (of course, being a non native English speaker, I am loosing my English skills & vocabulary by staying in Thailand for few years)
    3. Use “no” at the beginning of any sentence if you want to express negation (but, again, it should be a simple negation only)

    The simplest solution is, having a good Thai friend who can understand good English and ready to respond your calls at any time. As mobile SIM cards are available off the shelf and call charges are very much affordable, make a call to your Thai friend, tell what you want and ask him/her to explain it in Thai to the person in front of you.

    Day by day I am learning how to make my days comfortable in Thailand and enjoying my life. In deed, Thailand is the cheap and best destination.

  15. Agree completely ref. tourism Richard. The Thais really haven’t got their act together in that respect. I suppose you could see it as ‘quaint’, but in these difficult times Thailand can ill afford to lose any more business to the more efficient competition…

    On the other hand, as an expat, I’m one of those who is determined to get a good grip on the Thai language. I find it very frustrating not to be able to get into the thoughts and minds of the people of a country because of a language barrier. So in a way I am thankful that they are not the world’s greatest linguists. All the more incentive for the expats to learn the lingo, which I believe is the ‘respectful’ thing to do in the first place…

    (Vijay … it’s a myth that the majority of French hate the English (its people, or its language, come to that). I’ve lived in France for twenty years before coming to Thailand, and this is just a silly stereotype the tabloids spread around)…

  16. Pruthiraj Nayak

    This is really a good blogs which helps people who are travelling outside their country.