Incorrect Place Names and SE Asia

Bombay recently changed its name to Mumbai, so did Bangalore to Bengaluru, and cricket commentators fell over themselves to use the new names as quickly as possible. On the news these days they say Beijing not Peking, Canton is vanishing as a name for Guangzhou though admittedly drunken Dutch still call New York ‘New Amsterdam’.

So here’s my question, why doesn’t this world recognition of correct naming apply to South East Asia. Most people still seem to refer to Myanmar as Burma. Ho Chi Minh city is universally called Saigon, the country of Laos still has the ‘s’ added to its name by everyone in the world, despite the fact there’s not even a final ‘s’ in the Lao language and few in the country could even pronounce the word ‘Laos’. Bangkok of course is not only not called Bangkok it’s never been called Bangkok, though we can somewhat blame the Thais themselves for this one, not promoting the real name and even using the word Bangkok themselves, when speaking English.

Getting real names wrong also has its perils, I had an experience myself, I hesitate to tell as you will probably think me think me a really awful person, but here goes anyway……….

I forget the year, it was either 2001 or 2002, the company I was working for had flown me up to Khon Kaen for a month and that day I was flying back. Hubris was rife in the air, I was the kind of person who was flown not bussed around the country by his company. However the day before my bubble was burst as the company asked me to come into work the evening when I arrived in Bangkok. As my flight was early afternoon and I was arriving at Don Muang around 3:30pm I could start work at 6pm.

To get to Chit Lom where I worked from Don Muang would take minutes on the Sky Train, I didn’t really want to arrive at work at 4pm and hang around 2 hours. Going home first wasn’t an option as by the time I got to Nontaburi I’d have to turn straight around and go back, so I decided I’d go down to the bus stop outside the airport and take the first aircon bus directly there with vacant seats and have a relaxing journey looking out the window for an hour or so killing plenty of time.

The scene was pretty typical I sat in the bus shelter, there was a woman next to me, a couple of guys standing either end, taxis waited beside the road in a line for us to get bored, buses sporadically stopped and an old women tried to sell us green mango. I had a backpack with me with a month of supplies for my time in Khon Kaen but as I was going into work I was wearing my work clothes so looked pretty smart and clearly wasn’t a tourist.

After about 5 mins at the bus stop an American guy late twenties/early 30’s appeared dressed in an expensive business suit. He walked up the line of taxis one by one speaking to the drivers who shook their heads a lot. After trying all the taxis he tried a bus driver who just happened to have stopped, also to no avail. My curiosity was sparked. He appeared to have a piece of paper in his hand and then showed it to the two guys standing at the bus stop who also shook their heads. Finally he headed in my direction and spoke to the woman sitting next to me, she spoke good English and I eaves dropped the problem.

The man who was red faced by now and looking really panicked handed her the paper and asked if she knew this address, repeating the words “Wireless Road”, she promptly told him there was definitely no Wireless Road in Bangkok. The now almost crying businessman explained to her that he had flown all the way from the US for an important business meeting, had tried everywhere but no-one knew where Wireless Road was and now was down here out of desperation, the meeting started in 20 minutes.

Sitting listening to this I knew immediately what the trouble was. US companies and even the US Embassy stubbornly still insisted on calling the road in question Wireless Road, addressing all correspondence to Wireless Road and telling all Americans who enquire for business information it’s called Wireless Road, without even deeming to mention like Bombay to Mumbai the Thais for decades had returned it to the original name Wittayu.

Sitting there I thought this is your lucky day mate, not only do I know where you’re going, I know how to get you there in 20 mins, I’m going to Chit Lom, Ok you pay, we’ll jump in a taxi, I’ll tell the driver where you’re going, to take the tollway, at 4pm it’s unlikely to be jammed and you’ll most probably make your meeting bang on time. I’ll be at work early, which is what I wanted to avoid, but hell I’m a nice guy and if it helps you…….

So as I mooted over my good Samaritan act, the businessman got up from sitting next to the woman next to me walked straight past me not even turning to acknowledge me and returned to the two standing guys and asked them a second time. He then over the next 10 mins hailed a few cabs, asked a few passers by and stopped the odd bus, not even once coming over to me.

I sat there thinking, now I don’t exactly look like a tourist, anyone with half a brain could see I lived and worked here. Also he was a businessman, expensive suit and this company had rather than video conferenced or phoned chosen to fly him halfway around the world for a face to face. Obviously a very important meeting, so you would think the company would send a top guy. Business I thought was about initiative, it’s a sink or swim world, a Darwinist scramble where those with initiative prosper and those without are evolved into extinction. Being a top guy, this guy should have had the initiative to ask me, he didn’t, the only person who could have helped him, he asked everyone else, even the green mango seller. It’s not really my responsibility to go up to him and sort his life out. I mean he works for a company; the company presumably makes a product. Imagine I desperately needed this product but had no money, would his company give it to me free? Of course not. so am I really obliged to help this company out, free of charge? Give my product away, a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of Bangkok.

Later, I got on my bus and that was the last I ever saw of the guy, 20 minutes had passed, his meeting had started, his panic and desperation had subsided, he now had a sort of resigned look, I guess he had come to Thailand and found a sort of inner peace in his own way………. I still remember the chided puppy dog expression fading out of sight as the bus drove away, sometimes I wonder what happened to him, did he lose his job and stay in Thailand. Perhaps he’s here now and is now a fire dancer on Ko Pen Ngan or preaching Darma in Lumpini Park on a Sunday afternoon after finding Nivana at the bottle of a bottle of 7/11 Lao Khao, saved from an empty life of corperate futility. Me I found inner peace too, I had the one chance in my life to sabotage global corporate capitalism and took it. I slept well that night.

Anyway back to my point, I wonder what it is specifically about SE Asia that it’s ok to be so wrong about place names compared to the rest of the world? Should we even try to use correct names. With Lao for instance it’s not difficult as the word Laos is completely unheard of in the region and within days of setting foot in the country even the most ill-informed tourist clutching their copy of Lonely Planet with Laos written boldly across the cover will have abandoned the ‘s’ realising its total non-existence in speech or writing in the country. With Bangkok it is more difficult, over the 15 years or so when talking to Thais I have endeavoured to say Groong Tep all the time, but find nine times out of ten they still say Bangkok back to me. I recently bought a bus ticket to Groong Tep from Isan, walked up to the Chaiyaphum Air ticket counter and asked when the next bus to Groong Tep was, the lady behind the counter replied the next bus to Bangkok was at The real absurdity of the situation was apart from the word Groong Tep I asked in English and apart from the word Bangkok she replied in Thai.

US Emabssy Website Contact Address.

9 responses to “Incorrect Place Names and SE Asia

  1. I think Victory Monument is a reasonable name. How many tourists can really say and remember “anusawareechaisomanrapoom”?

    Ever heard of “Krasnaya Ploshad” or “Zijin Cheng”? They have English names for the same reason.

    For a short name like “Witthayu”, going native is the best. Btw, it translates as “radio”, not “wireless”.

    “Bangkok”… don’t touch that topic unless you can say “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit”. That’s the proper full name.

  2. Thomas Vase Jensen

    København is Copenhagen in english…

    Didn’t he even have contact phone number in case he got delayed, that contact could easily have told the taxi driver where to go…maybe the tie was too tight

  3. Good point over all.

    However, as a Thai, I would like to point out that the name “Bangkok” didn’t come out of nowhere. *WE* called it that hundreds of years ago.

    When the first group of westerners arrived back in the 1300-1700s during Ayuttaya ear. They’ve been trading in the area at the mouth of Chao Praya river called “Bang Makok”, translated to an area full of “Makok” trees.

    After the fall of Ayuttaya, the capital was moved first across the river on Thonburi, and then to the Bangkok side. Despite the glorified longest name for a place which we now know as “Krung Tep”, the world already know us as Bangkok for hundreds of years. So we’re sticking to it.

    And seriously, I wouldn’t subject any foreign tongue to try to say Krung Tep. Bangkok is much easier. 😉

    Read about it here:

    Personally, the bigger issue than consistency in place names in Thailand is most needed standardization of how things as spelled in transliteration. i.e. Suwannapoom or Suvarnabhumi? etc.

  4. In the case of Burma, it’s less about sloppiness or insensitivity and more about politics and transliteration. The name of the country has long been disputed within its borders, and is deeply entangled with ethnic conflicts. Myanmar and Burma are actually rooted in the same word, but because of different ways of transliterating tonal languages into non-tonal Romance languages, they look very different to us.

    When the military dictatorship decided to change the spelling in 1989, in a way that arguable favored their majority ethnicity, many opposition groups refused to make the switch, and some countries have followed suit to express their displeasure with the regime.

    The wikipedia page on this topic is kind of amazing:

  5. I thought that the continued use of Burma instead of Myanmar was a form of political protest by the governments of some countries, including Australia, USA, UK France and Canada, used ti express their non-acceptance of the military junta.

  6. I just remembered another impossible place name in Bangkok. Victory Monument.

    The name is impossibly long in Thai and no Thais (that I asked anyway) knew what the hell “victory Monument” was.

  7. For Victory monument you only really need say Unusawree, the rest of the words seem to be redundant. Even when on a bus to Ratchadamnoen that goes nowhere near Victory Monunent I have told the conductor Unusawree and they have told me the bus does not go there, so I have had to add Pratchadipratai. Unusawree on its own seem to refer to Chai, not the other monuments, even if you are next to one.

    I also think Unusawree is a lot easier for us to say than Victory Monument is for Thais to say. “Weektoree Mohnoomaend”

  8. very well written and enjoyable blog, thanks 🙂

    however – places have “English names” don’t they? many Italian cities have stupid English names – Napoli is Naples, Venezia is Venice, Roma is Rome. Wien is Austria is Vienna. other European languages do the same, e.g. London is Londres in Spanish. you know the list could go on and on. ok, I get it, these are long-standing historical names. that’s the only difference to me.
    I come from a country called Magyarország in our native language. most of our neighbours use some form of this name to name us in their languages. should I suggest the English-speakers eliminate “Hungary” and replace it? would be weird wouldn’t it? the Bombay – Mumbai folks could make a decision because English is one of their national languages. it’s a different power game.

    however…. of course I agree that the likes of Wireless road are stupid. or we should translate all the street names to English when speaking English. that would be quite a feast with the kinds of names we have here. that poor businessman should have been given a business card with Thai spelling to give to the taxi driver anyway instead of having to verbally explain in any language. he could have just so badly misponounced Witthayu, with the th and the a in the second syllable, that it is well possible noone would have understood him anyway…..

    complicated problems – I’m not necessarily arguing, just trying to raise some points.

  9. It can certainly be confusing to someone of a different origin…Let’s be honest, a lot of those names are hard to pronounce for a foreigner. So why not make it easier.