Foreigners (farangs) are not especially known for their linguistic abilities in Thailand, perhaps because the Thai language is tonal which makes it more difficult to learn. Words may be pronounced in five tones which can give five different meanings, a high, a low, a rising, a falling, and a level tone.
There is, however, one phrase that everyone soon learns even if the tone in which it is spoken is often wrong – Mai pen rai. You will hear this used every day in many different circumstances and will soon begin to use it yourself. I used to have a tee-shirt emblazoned with the phrase Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mine – the misspelling of the last word in the translation being excused by the tee-shirt seller himself with the words ‘Mai pen rai’. ‘Never mind. It doesn’t matter?’
Mai pen rai cannot be literally translated: ‘not is what’ would be more or less the literal meaning but what it really means is ‘Never mind’ or ‘Don’t worry’, or ‘You’ve broken my foot but it’s OK” or one of those meaningless phrases we use in daily life to avoid embarrassment. In Thailand, it’s always accompanied with a smile.
You tread on someone’s sandalled foot and as the damaged one limps away you will probably hear ‘ Mai pen rai’ – it doesn’t matter. You spill red wine on someone’s white shirt, ‘Mai pen rai’ – no problem. The waiter spills soup down the back of your neck, ‘Mai pen rai’ – it wasn’t hot you say, as your skin starts to blister.
It can also mean ‘tomorrow’. ‘I’m sorry I cannot meet you tonight’. Mai pen rai (I’m in no hurry). Your partner has left you? Mai pen rai – plenty more fish in the sea.
This cover-all phrase is linked to the Thai character and their belief in ‘karma’ and the inevitable consequences of a past life. It is also linked to their dislike of confrontation and the wish to not upset anyone. The Thais will invariably tell you what you want to hear, not what is true, as in ‘Is it far to Bangkok?’: answer ‘No, just a little bit further down the road’, i.e. two hours drive away. And this isn’t far removed from embarrassment which is also tied to losing face. You lose face if you argue, you lose face if you are confrontational, so a Mai pen rai is always better.
If, when on holiday in Thailand, the waiter gets your order wrong then merely smiles at your anger and says Mai pen rai, it’s not that he is uncaring, it’s the Thai way of turning away wrath. If he doesn’t even come back with your order it could be that you weren’t understood and rather than embarrass you, he has ignored you.
In that case, just say Mai pen rai, and order again – with a smile.