Category Archives: Learning Thai Experiences

The Last Orientals – The Thai Sakdina System

One of the pleasures of visiting Thailand is the sense of the old you get, the various protocols and traditions from an age gone by that Thailand still enigmatically clings onto in the shadow of the postmodern skyline. Seen by tourists the girls that stand at the doors to restaurants and shops simply paid to bow to customers as they enter are something old worldly, to a local they are nothing strange, simply basic politeness. Many visitors are left wondering how within a country where anyone can don a suit and stroll through Siam Paragon, how every Thai seems to innately know their place within an almost Victorian class system of deference and aloofness.

When a tourist puts his first tentative step on terra firma and for every moment henceforth unwittingly he is immersing himself in a translucent ether of Sakdina that he will probably never become aware. Sakdina harks back to the dawn of Thailand and in the 21st century has called on all its adaptability to survive. 21st century Sakdina can be seen as many things; the amount of privilege a person deserves, seeing an expensive car drive by with a police escort leading it rudely gesturing for ordinary drivers to get out the way, the deference shown by a servant to his master or students lowering their heads when they pass a teacher by in the corridor. Sakdina is the division of the society into commoners and higher castes and the realisation that a Tuk Tuk driver, even if he saved his pennies and passed that Degree at Ramkanghang Open University, he would never be accepted in a job vacancy of government officer simply because of his low birth. Sakdina’s origins lie deep in Thai history.

Origins of Sakdina

Medieval Thailand was a sparsely populated land, remote regions separated by dense rain forests, many isolated villages were only accessible by river. For the fledgling Ayutthaya Kingdom sprawling across the centre of this domain, maintaining control over remote possessions was a constant challenge, regional lords often enjoyed far too much autonomy in the eyes of a greedy capital.

It was in the reign of King Borommatrailokkanat (1448-1488) that a formalised system was introduced designed to force even the most far-flung regions into line. King Trailok passed a series of laws that have resonated down Thai history to today and are probably the most influential royal commands issued in Thai history. Trailok introduced a governmental system which nowadays is known as the Sakdina System, but at the time were laws of Civil, Military and Provincial Hierarchies. The system itself was based upon a cultural and social order that had been practiced in much of the country at local level for centuries, Trailok made three important changes to this system, he expanded it, standardised it and centralised it.

Thai society had long been divided into two classes, the nobles and the masses, the Sakdina System clearly defined the roles within society of these two groups, how they would interact with each other and amongst themselves creating a strict social order based on the quantified worth of each individual. Rigid castes were formalised within the ranks of both nobles and commoners excluding only Chinese and women of non-noble birth who were considered without worth.

Owner & slaves

When first introduced the Sakdina System was mainly a system of social interaction, the worth of an individual determined how he should responsibly behave and the respect he was due from others. In the Thai language where the usage of pronouns and bowing are so important, a system of ranks made a simple indicator when people met as to if they were higher or lower status and how low or high to bow and how to address the other person. The system not only established how much respect a person deserved but also how much social responsibly they were supposed to take. People of higher birth were expected to live by higher standards. The system also established the relationship between noble and commoner, even free commoner, was that of master and slave, all free males 18-80 were required to submit themselves for 6-8 months to their landlord each year, service could be either civil or military.

However, the problem with a system of privilege, even one started solely to promote cordiality, is abuse. Status could be used for personal gain and corruption and this quickly began to happen with Sakdina. Abuses such as, if a person of lower worth committed a crime upon a person of higher Sakdina they would receive a sterner sentence than whereas if the situation was reversed a person of high worth would receive a lower sentence for hurting a person of low worth. Higher-ranking nobles also used their Sakdina to gain audiences with the king.

Everyone person in the country of caste was assigned a numerical rank according to their worth. With the lower ranks of commoners, it tended to be job defined ranks, however in most cases it was rank that determined what job you were eligible to do. Extensive lists were created in Trailok’s time which meticulously number ranked every job in the country. The main benefit of the system for the Kings of Ayutthaya the number of any individual was modifiable by the monarch, this gave the monarch ability to reward loyalty and punish disloyally giving him a more powerful hold over his subjects.

Sakdina literally translates to Field (Na) Power (Sakdi) and is often referred to as Thai Feudalism. One part of Sakdina often over emphasized is the land rights associated with it. The ranking number each person of caste in the country received was often referred to as ‘Rai,’ which is a land measurement. It has been suggested that a person received Rai of land equal to his Sakdina rank. So a Government Officer with a Sakdina of 225 would not only have a social standing of 225 but also be granted 225 Rai of land by the king. Sakdina numerical ranks were, Crown Prince 100,000 Rai, members of the Royal Family up to 50,000 Rai, ranks of Nobles 400-10,000 Rai depending upon position in government, Government Officials 50-400 Rai depending upon position in the administration, Craftsmen 50 Rai, Commoners 25 Rai, Slaves 5 Rai.

While the distribution of land along these lines is by far the most famous aspect of Sakdina, it may not have happened at all but rather using the word Rai to describe Sakdina may simply have been symbolic. This argument is supported by the fact areas of land were given Sakdina values and these don’t seem to correspond the real size of the land. A district may have only 10,000 Rai of actual land but be given a Sakdina value of 30,000 Rai to distribute amongst the inhabitants, suggesting the Sakdina Rai rankings were purely symbolic. That there was no land distribution is almost certain from the 16th century onwards when Chinese merchants, monks and married women of non-noble birth were given Sakdina numbers, leaving only unmarried peasant girls and Chinese labourers as without Sakdina.

A sizable proportion of the population had the ignominious status of having no Na. At first women who were not of noble birth were considered of no worth along with the sizable Chinese immigrant population. When the laws changed allowing married common women Sakdina she received it based of two factors, her husband’s Rai and her status as wife, 1st wives would receive more Rai than the 2nd and 3rd wives and so on. The wife would also gain or lose Rai depending upon the fortunes of her husband, even noble women with Rai of their own when married received Rai from their husband. Marriage to a husband of higher Rai meant she increased her Rai, a noble woman could also lower her Rai by marrying a man of lower Rai. Sakdina was not an entirely inflexible system for men either; men of lower caste could also raise their Rai through marriage to a noble woman. Also a father blessed with a beautiful daughter could to try to marry her to someone of high Rai and receive an increase in his rank in return.

Sakdina in Modern Times

Unlike in the west, Thai Feudalism didn’t die but grew stronger as it aged. In the reign of King Chulalok (1782-1809) the system was codified as a legal system called The 3-Seal Code and officially used in legal disputes to determine how much weight a person’s testimony carried, the higher the Rai, the more believable the witness’s testimony was considered in court, so a person commoner accusing a noble would have little chance.

As Thailand fell under western influence and capitalised in the 20th century this new system brought many changes to challenge the established Sakdina harmony. Business traditionally low caste became of greater importance, an educated middle class emerged, and people were able to raise their worth in society and lose it. Sakdina was a system of social stability but capitalism could be a system of fluidity. However Capitalism didn’t prove incompatible with Sakdina which was able to make concessions and accept new castes onto its hierarchy and able accept the changing of fortunes. Sakdina was also able to change capitalism, Traditionally Sakdina determined a person’s role in society by its caste system by limiting ability of lower castes to higher office, by doing this Sakdina ensured most capitalist success came to mostly to the high castes already at the top.

Sakdina was legally abolished as late as the 1932 coup, but refused to go away. Even the Fascist Dictator Phiboon Songkran Thailand’s most powerful ruler had a shot at ending it, but failed, discovering almost 800 years of history, deference and effeteness doesn’t pass easily and especially not in Thailand. There’s a saying “understand Sakdina and you understand Thailand”.

In politics Sakdina sets the relationship between Thai government and the people, not in the western idea of a civil service, serving the public, but a higher caste considering the public slaves to be governed by them. Sakdina continues in the attitude the people at the top of society should not be criticised by those lower than them and creates a culture of passive acceptance of authority everywhere, no matter how unjust or corrupt.

Often for the tourist the most visible example of Sakdina is the sex industry. It often baffles foreigners how Thais can so easily see send generation after generation of their young girls into the industry but have little moral of even nationalistic qualms over it. This is ironically contrasted by the continual scandals of University girls entering prostitution, some to fund courses, but many such as the Chulalongkorn case, simply to fund clothes shopping in Siam Squares fashion boutiques. Sakdina again provides the explanation as peasant girls are of no worth in the system but middle class university students are not behaving as their Sakdina ranks demands.

Sakdina is probably still the most powerful influence on the Thai psyche today and its legacy never more prevalent than in the Thai political crisis of the present. Nothing more than PAD’s argument for the overthrow of two democratically elected governments illustrates present day Sakdina, PAD arguing that the people who voted for the overthrown regimes were uneducated peasants not capable of judging who to vote for. The PAD argument is simply the people who voted for the Democrats may have been fewer in number but by being educated middle class were of higher caste and Sakdina so their opinion should count more.

Thai Lesson 01 – Shopping

Wat Sala Loi in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) which was built in 1967. Unusual because it has merged Thai style with a modernist viewpoint

Here is lesson one for learing some useful phrases for your holiday to Thailand. Today’s lesson is “shopping”. You should be able to see the link on the right for the radio blog. One of the students at my school recorded the phrases for you so that you can practice repeating after her. Below is the written text.

Don’t forget, to be polite, men should say “krap” and women say “kaa”.

How much is this? – ra-ka tao-rai
That is a little expensive – pang bai nit noi
Can you make it cheaper? – lot ra-ka dai mai
Do you have a bigger size? – mee ka-nat yai gwaa mai
Do you have a small size? – mee ka-nat lek gwaa mai
Do you have a different colour? – mee see eun mai
Can I try it on? – long noi dai mai
I am just looking. – doo yoo na
How much is it together? – tung mot tao-rai
Where do I pay? – jai ngern tee nai

Learn Thai for Free

I know many people visiting these blogs are also trying to learn Thai. This is not always that easy if you are studying alone or just from books. In association with Sriwittayapaknam School, we will now be giving you some weekly lessons in the “radio blog” section to the right. You will see the playlist on the front page of Just choose which lesson you want to learn. More lessons will be added later.

Where is the toilet?

I think when I first came to Thailand, one of the first Thai phrases I learned was “Where is the toilet?” It is quite a simple phrase. All you have to say is “hong nam, yoo tee nai?” (toilet where?). I will talk about experiences in Thai toilets another time (complete with pictures). In the meantime, I will help you find where to find the correct toilet!

Finding a toilet or the right section isn’t a problem in Thailand if you keep to the main tourist route. The signs are nearly always in Thai and English and there is a picture of a man or woman for the different sections. However, as you travel to more isolated areas you might find it useful to recognise the Thai words.

Here are the first words you should look out for:

These are “hong nam” and “soo kaa” – two ways of saying toilet. You might see either.

Now for the signs that say “men” and “women”. If you are lucky, you will get a picture of each sex, but not always:


The one on the left says “ying” (you sometimes also see “poo-ying”). This is the more common lable for toilets. The one on the right “soo-pap-sa-dtree” is rarer but more proper.


The one on the left says “chai” (you sometimes also see “poo-chai”). This is the more common lable for toilets. The one on the right “soo-paap boo-root” is rarer but more proper.

You can see our collection of toilet signs in the Learn Thai with Pictures Photo Album. I thought I had seen just about all the signs possible. But, yesterday I was at the Ancinet City and these two toilet signs confused me for a second about which one was which:

As I can read, I could make an intelligent guess that the one on the left says “women” and the one on the right says “men”. The only way I could confirm this was to take a look inside! At the moment, I am presuming this is northern dialect.

Next time you are in Thailand, if you cannot read, enter the toilets slowly. Oh yes, I should add at this stage, the men’s toilets often have a female cleaner! They do that just to confuse you. Don’t take any notice.

Learn Thai with Pictures

If you are serious about learning Thai, I always advise people that they should make the effort to read. It is not as difficult as you might at first think. With a little effort you can start reading basic kindergarten books in only 2-3 months.

One of the advantages of living in Thailand, when you are in the process of learning to read, is that your local community is like your own private dictionary! Wherever you go there are new words to be read and to be understood. In many cases, even if you don’t know what the word means, you can figure it out by the surroundings. Otherwise, make a mental note of the spelling and look it up in the dictionary when you get home. I find this a really great way to learn some new words.

This afternoon I went for a walk down Srinakarin Road taking pictures for a new photo album that Gor is working on. What we are doing is helping people who are learning Thai in their homecountry. If you cannot walk around looking at signs then a photo album is the next best thing!

This afternoon, I found that walking down the road rather than driving I was getting a new perspective. You also get enough time to read more signs. It is not always easy to do that if you are driving a car! During my walk I took the following picture of the famous Michelin Man. Though this one is Thai style!

The new photo album is not finished yet but you can see a sneak preview of the 366 pictures already in the album by clicking here.