A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.

How To Read and Pronounce a Thai Menu

Posted date:  February 15, 2007


Ever try to order food in a Thai restaurant only to be completely and utterly misunderstood, or even worse, ignored? Perhaps it’s because you just came in from Khao San Road and are not wearing shoes and shirt. But in most cases it’s probably because you’re not pronouncing the names of Thai dishes correctly. Thai is a picky language, and a misdirected tone, a shortened vowel or improperly articulated consonant can mean the difference between a hot meal and yet another bag of “Thai Basil” chips at 7-11. And not only are Thai words hard to pronounce, but,there is no commonly accepted method of transliteration from Thai to English, so a dish you saw spelled one way on a menu last week, could very well be spelled differently in the next place. To help you understand and make yourself understood, I’ve put together a basic guide to Thai pronunciation and transliteration.

Som tam
I sometimes hear non-Thais pronounce the first consonant of the second word like our t in English (ie aspirated, with a puff of air). Generally, if you see something written with a t, it is probably referring to the unaspirated t sound (somewhere between a t and a d, and similar to the t in the English word “stand”). On the other hand, if you see a Thai word with th, it is never pronounced like the th in the English words “thin” or “this”, but is rather the aspirated (accompanied by a puff of air) t sound. The same goes for k, kh, p and ph. Sometimes the unaspirated t is also written as dt, which personally I find confusing.

Phat thai or phad thai?
In Thai there is no difference between a final t or d sound (or ph, p or b for that matter). However do keep in mind that ph is the aspirated p sound, and is not equivalent to f.

Larb vs. larp vs. laab vs. laap vs. lahp
The length of the vowel sound is very important in Thai, and to convey a long vowel sound, English transliteration often sticks an r (or sometimes an h) into the mix. Myself, I prefer just to double the vowel, as the Thai long vowel sound is not exactly like the English r sound. Regarding the words above, there is no “correct” spelling–just remember to pronounce a long vowel sound when you say the name of the dish.

Some sounds simply don’t exist in English
Obviously transliteration has its limits, particularly in the lack of tones (a whole other can of worms that I won’t get into here) as well as the various sounds that are common in Thai, but that aren’t found in English. A couple examples of this are the eu sound, found in the word for “one” (neung), which is made by smiling (as opposed to rounding the lips). Another sound that doesn’t have a real equivalent, and tends to be written any number of ways is the aw (like in the English word “law”) sound. Sometimes you’ll see this transcribed as o or or.

l and r
The written Thai language distinguishes between r and l, but in everyday speech, the r is almost always pronounced like an l (in Laos they’ve done away with the r sound altogether). This is why the dish raad naa, when said by a cook on a street corner in Bangkok, is going to sound more like laad naa.

A few words and phrases to help you along when ordering:
mii … mai? Do you have …?
mai kin … I don’t eat …

neua sat
kai chicken
plaa fish
muu pork
neua beef
phak vegetables

thawt deep-fried
yaang grilled
tom boiled
neung steamed

khawp khun thanks
thao rai How much? (the easiest way of asking for the bill)

15 Comments for How To Read and Pronounce a Thai Menu

I recently ordered Pad Thai in a Thai restaurant here and was corrected by the polite Thai gentleman…now I know how to pronounce it properly and with the right intonation. 🙂

I heard about the polite guy who was following his new girlfriend to her parents far away in the djungle. He was from Sweden and experienced cold weather with a lots of snow. Out in the small village he tryed to explain in thai to her parents about snow och snowing. In thai it is pronounced hi’ ma’ with short vowels. But he said hii maa< , and that created a great smile in his girlfriend fathers face and he commented in broken thaienglish: You really hab dogs so many in Sweden and hab all females, yes yes! Goood!
(Hii maaa = dogcunt!)

Thank you. How do you say “very very spicy”, like “as spicy as you would make it if I was actually Thai”?

Here are a bunch of Thai dishes with how to videos for each one. I think the Thai lady pronounces each dish before she makes it so you can not only learn to pronounce it correctly but also learn how to make it yourself

rasa: Glad to be of help!

goran: Yep–that’s why tone is important!

food marathon: Let me edit the post and add your phrases.

anon: I’ve actually met that lady here in Bangkok and the site looks pretty good–I’ll be sure to link to it!

What a wonderful crib sheet. Thanks for providing that. As a native English speaker, how much trouble did you have adjusting to a tonal language? By the way, how many tones does Thai have?

Perhaps the most useful piece of restaurant-friendly Thai might be, “One of everything, please.”

how do you pronounce “PROW WHAN”?
also, is “PAD” in thai pronounced the same as in english?

Thai language can be tricky indeed 🙂

I love to hear farangs trying to order a Thai noodle soup the first time !

Great article… looks like a wonderful blog!
Come visit my Travel Blog 🙂

Hello webmaster
I would like to share with you a link to your site
write me here preonrelt@mail.ru

Khorb khoon krub!

Excellent advice!

I find that speaking Thai is much more difficult than just listening. Therefore, it’s a great idea to work on one’s pronunciation…

Thanks, Austin. You answered questions that I needed help with! Hope you’re well.

Terrific work! This is the type of info that should be shared around the internet. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher! Come on over and visit my site . Thanks =)


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