On an Adventure Both Spiritually and Physically

My first visit to Thailand was in 2011. I had just spent 6 months in a Thai Buddhist monastery and decided to go and visit the country where the religion came from. I was on an adventure both spiritually and physically. I planned to go to the parent monastery of the one I had stayed in at home but, as I wasn't sure about the language abilities of the monks there, I first stopped off in Chiang Mai for a few weeks to pick up the basics of the Thai language.

My Thai Learning Journey

It took me a couple of weeks just to get to grasps with the Thai alphabet, made up of 44 consonants and 28 vowels. Although I could basically read the script I had no idea what the words meant and couldn’t begin to understand the tones. There are five tones in Thai and it's not easy to decipher what tone each syllable is. First you have to remember what tonal group the consonant is in (high, medium or low), and then the tone is determined from the vowel, an optional tone marker, and the word ending all combined together. Each syllable is like doing a mini algebraic equation which requires a lot of practice to get used to.

After learning Thai for about 6 weeks I headed for the monastery and awaited what was to come. My language skills were very basic and I think the most useful Thai phrases that I learnt were “I don’t speak Thai very well” (ไม่คุยดี) and “I don’t understand” (ไม่เข้าใจ). I arrived at the monastery which was pretty basic with very few people there. All the monks had gone away somewhere and apart from the stray dogs, snakes, bats, big lizards and millions of insects I was pretty much alone with no chance to practice my Thai language. I didn’t last long at the monastery and only after a few weeks I had left the monastery and was traveling around Thailand. It was not long before I was back in England working 9-5 in London.

Years went by and I kept an interest in Buddhism and would go on meditation retreats and visit the Thai monastery where I spent some time before. I even went to visit my brother who had coincidentally moved to Thailand and got a job as a diving instructor. Every time I went I would pick up a few new words and phrases and although my vocabulary was getting better I still wasn’t making any break through. I could only have the most basic of conversations. I soon lost interest with my job in London and left England in 2014 to live in a meditation centre in Burma. I stayed a couple of years and then came back to Thailand in 2017 and as an ordained Buddhist monk.

Meditation can be quite difficult but I think that the cultural difference living in Burma and Thailand has been the most challenging. My meditation teachers told me that I shouldn’t study as it would interfere with the meditation training. It wasn’t long that I discovered that learning the language would be necessary.

Shortly after my ordination I had to go to Bangkok for a visa run. I left early in the morning with a guy I had never met before who didn’t speak any English. When we got to Bangkok the man was looking for the English embassy. He knew we were close but didn’t know exactly where. After driving around for 20 minutes or so he remembered that he had satellite navigation and put the address in. It clearly told him exactly where to go, but for some cultural reason he didn’t take the advice. I was completely perplexed (something that happens quite often in Thailand). We drove around Bangkok for another 45 minutes. The man completely ignored the good advice from the sat nav, and then finally asked for directions. We finally arrived to find that this was not the place I needed to go. After a ten hour drive, visiting many embassy and immigration centres, we got back to the monastery with not a thing to show for our efforts.

I still don’t pretend to understand how Thai people think but against the teacher's advice I started to learn the language again.

As I mentioned before I think the hardest thing about learning Thai is the tones. Take the following mock sentence for example:

The dog comes, the horse doesn’t come
หมามาม้าไม่มา / hmǎ ma má mâi ma
Dog = hmǎ
Comes = ma
Horse = má

In this sentence the words for “dog” (หมา) “horse (ม้า)” and “to come”(มา) are all the same word, ma. But the tone is the only thing that distinguished the difference in the words. Of course this is only one example and there are many words just like this in Thai. Once when my brother was renting a house he asked if it was okay if his dogs could stay. The lady look a little perplexed but considered before asking how big are the horses. However not all mistakes are so innocent and small mistakes can be extremely embarrassing. For example the word “to ride”(ขี่) is the same (apart from the tone) to the word “to shit”(ขี้). So you have to be very careful if you want to ask someone if you can take a ride in their car, even a quick one.

As a meditation monk in Thailand it is very easy to go long periods without having to speak to anyone and when you do there is always someone close that can speak English. I have tried many study aids and courses to learn Thai but after using Glossika's Thai course for only a week (2000 reps) I have started to notice that the vocabulary that I have is finding its way into useful intelligible sentences. I am really looking forward to the coming months were I am hopeful that after such a long time I will break into regular conversations and hopefully fluency not long after.


About the Author

Matt is currently a Buddhist monk in Thailand.