Thailand Tribute #6: Mai pen rai

Monks walking along the Maekong River in Mukdahan

Today I pay my respects to the backbone of Thai culture and its easy-going, no conflict, all smiles attitude which is summarized in one, simple phrase: mai pen rai. It seems to be an appropriate response for most situations here, as its meaning varies depending on the context. It is much easier to illustrate the utility of this phrase via scenarios, so let me paint a few pictures of when it would be an appropriate response: You are given a gift and say thank you. Mai pen rai. You are late and apologize for your tardiness. Mai pen rai. The neighbor dog jumps on you with muddy paws and stains another white shirt. Mai pen rai. A student’s backpack starts on fire during class. Mai pen rai. You are preoccupied with schedules and worry over future-oriented thoughts. Mai pen rai. You are given a three minute notice that the school is being fumigated and students are running away wildly as poisonous gases are billowing out of a leaf blower by a man wearing nothing but a surgical mask. Mai pen rai.

As you can see, there are few situations in Thailand where mai pen rai would be an inappropriate response, which is why it is my favorite phrase. It’s my fallback when I don’t have the vocabulary to express what I truly want to say. I often find myself in conversations with co-teachers and community members that have digressed to a series of pantomimes and facial expressions on my end; when my flailing and game of charades is of no help, I try to end the interaction with as much dignity as possible by smiling warmly and uttering mai pen rai. In Monopoly terms, it’s kind of like my “Get out of Jail Free” card.

Yesterday’s post on Thai time cannot go unmentioned when speaking to mai pen rai, as the Thai outlook on time seems to be a direct manifestation of this phrase. I think it is even difficult to distinguish at what point does one end and the other begin, as these two cultural phenomenons are so entangled and at times one in the same, it is perhaps impossible to do so.

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