Samui Wining & Dining
Lost in Translation

Some tips and tricks to be understood by waiters during your stay on Samui.


8When in Thailand, keep it simple. Perhaps best not to order like this: “Oh waiter! I desire to consume a succulent slab of your finest Aberdeen Angus, just seared in a flash so it’s practically still breathing.” when a simple, “Steak, rare.” will do. And anyone who utters a sentence like the first one to a Thai waiter deserves the perplexed blank stare, and slow but deliberate sidestep away from their table that they’ll invariably be met with. But we don’t have to sound like pompous nitwits to be misunderstood at a local Thai joint – restaurant based communication issues are a common sticking point for many visitors.

    But who’s to blame for the confusion? The tourist who hasn’t bothered to study the local language before arriving, or the Thai waiter who hasn’t learned English? Perhaps the answer is both and neither. But blame aside, there are a few little things you should know that may help you avoid frustration on your trip.

    Sometimes a certain phrase can catch on, spreading through a country like wildfire – be it correct or otherwise. Let’s take the common excavating truck, or digger, called a backhoe. Well in Thailand, someone, somewhere along the line, mispronounced it as macro, and it caught on. Not only among a few individuals, no, everybody in Thailand now knows a backhoe as macro. Its real name banished to the depths of the linguistic afterlife, never to be resurrected again.

      And then there’s that oh-so-commonly used phrase, “No want.” which essentially translates as something along the lines of, “No thank you kind sir, I think I’ll give that sexually defamatory T-shirt you’re selling there a miss on this particular occasion.” Or perhaps, by the other token the vendor asks you, “How much you buy?” They are not referring to the quantity of products you purchase on an average shopping trip, but instead are asking you to propose a price for the specific item they are undoubtedly thrusting in your face right at that moment.

       When it comes to eating it’s no different. And that’s why restaurants with pictures on the menus are a real blessing. You just point to the picture of whatever the dish is you want and that’s what you get – the waiter’s happy, you’re happy, and you leave with a full stomach. But what about restaurants that don’t have pictures on the menu? Or when you’re trying to communicate something more technical, like that your wife can eat chilli peppers but is deathly allergic to green bell peppers? Well that’s where it gets tricky.

       Not all venues will present you with the same problems. For example, street food vendors may not even know a single word of English, whereas waiters in a five-star hotel will almost certainly speak a decent amount, if not be fluent. Local restaurants along Chaweng Beach Road are used to getting a lot of tourists, so usually if one waiter’s English isn’t up to scratch, there’ll be another whose will be.

      It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that someone with a peanut allergy should really be careful in very local places, as peanut oil and crushed peanuts are used a lot in Thai cooking. So unless you really trust the chef to pay close enough attention to your request – if they’ve been told at all that is – and use different pans and cooking equipment just for you, then it might be worth playing on the safe side.

      As a rule of thumb, any place you see a lot of tourists in will have either English speaking staff or menus that are very easy to order from. But you probably don’t want to eat in the touristy spots and nice hotels all the time. Sometimes you want to have a more local experience. So here are some simple tips to help you get by:

      1. Talk slowly. Now this one’s pretty obvious, but the importance of it is not to be underrated. It also helps to leave a longer than normal gap between words so it’s easy to tell where one ends and another begins.

      2. Use simple words. Another pretty obvious one, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t realize they are using words that are slang or specialized. Be as simple as possible – for example, use the word, “hot”, instead of, “warm”, and instead of asking, “Have you got any of this?” say, “Have this?”

      3. Hand gestures can be very useful too. Ideally you could just point to a neighbouring table’s dish or a picture on the menu. Although it’s perhaps worth drawing the line at making clucking noises while flapping your arms to insinuate that you’d like the chicken.

      4. Learn the Thai word for your favourite dishes. Not only will this be immensely useful on your trip, it will also impress all your friends back home when you use it to order at your local Thai joint.

      5. Don’t be impatient and start to shout, it’ll get you nowhere. What it will do is raise your and your table’s guests’ stress levels, and that’s not what you came on holiday for.

      6. Just enjoy the experience! You’re on vacation after all. Ordering food in a local Thai restaurant may not be the simplest of processes, but sometimes it’s the mishaps that enrich a holiday – and if not, they at least make a good story.


Christina Wylie


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