Language Barriers

Street shot of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

Language barrier is one of the biggest challenges in traveling, but it also provides some of the funniest and most unforgettable experiences anywhere you go.

One time I joined a group of strangers in northern Thailand for a day trip to the Great Triangle, the border between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The trip included a short boat trip across the famous Mekong Delta to Don Sao Island, a modern-day tourist destination along the Mekong in Laos.

At the departure dock, four elderly Chinese women who were offloaded from another boat because they have reached the passenger capacity were added to our boat.

The boat captain and tour guide gave out instructions that were repeated over and over that if we were not back at the boat on the agreed departure time, the boat would leave us behind. And that would be unpleasant because we would then have to explain to Thailand immigration why we were not back from Laos on the designated time.

At the agreed departure time, the four women Chinese were missing. We waited for long minutes and everyone started complaining but they were just nowhere in sight. We couldn’t wait any longer because other boats were pulling in to pick up their passengers.

Passengers walk on the gangway at Don Sao Island, Laos.

As soon as we pulled out and another boat took our spot and we saw the four women walking leisurely toward the dock. They were not aware that we had already pulled out. In fact, they didn’t recognize their boat anymore.   

We have to fall in behind the long line of boats to get back to the dock again to pick them up. Passengers were pissed off but it turned out the four women never understood the instructions in the first place. They nodded their heads when the tour guide made the announcements but it turned out they didn’t speak or understand English. They also didn’t understand they were late and had delayed the travel schedules of all the others.

In Thailand, everybody talked to me in Thai– from the masseuses to salesgirls and waitresses. Even the old woman selling mangoes   on the street always adds an extra one or two mangoes because she was fascinated that I look like a local but couldn’t understand or speak the language.

Boats fall in line to pick up passengers from the Thailand side of Mekong Delta.

Back in Chiang Mai a couple of days later, I was having lunch at this restaurant which became my favorite, just a block away from my hotel. The restaurant is run by a Thai lady married to an American and most of the patrons are westerners.

I was busy taking photos of into my fried fish order in my corner table when this guy approached me. His English accent mixed with his broken attempts at Thai language made it all impossible to understand. He was definitely asking me something but of course I couldn’t make a head or tail of it. I raised an eyebrow and shook my head.

After long minutes of trying, he scratched his head in frustration. That’s when I said, “Uhm, would you like to try again? English this time? I don’t speak or understand Thai either.”

The look on his face was priceless.

And before he could say anything, I beat him to it and told him he was probably the 526th person to tell me that they thought I was a local.

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