Mai pen rai is most commonly used as an equivalent to English phrases like “you’re welcome” or “don’t mention it”, and it’s often heard as a response to “thank you”. But mai pen rai carries deeper meaning than this. When asked to translate it into English, one Thai replied, “It’s okay… everything is okay… don’t worry”.
Thai is a tonal language, and this is one instance where the tone (falling in this case) seems to have an uncanny alignment to the sentiment behind the phrase. Mai pen rai is normally spoken in a casual, warm, reassuring way, with each of the syllables verbalized in a soft, descending harmony.
After a couple of years in the kingdom, one thing I’ve noticed is that Thais are remarkably resilient in their quests to not get stressed out. “I’m going to be 20 minutes late for work? Mai pen rai, it’s no reason to rush”. “That motorbike just came centimetres away from hitting me? Mai pen rai, no harm done.” “My entire house is flooded with two metres of dark, stinky water and crocodiles are raiding my kitchen? Mai pen raaaaaaaiiiiii, there’s nothing I can do about it, and besides, the crocodiles are hungry.” It’s an enviable mental tactic that one could argue deflects responsibility, on the one hand, or allows space for acceptance of whatever might be happening, on the other.
Mai pen rai can also be translated as “never mind“, and in this sense it relates to the Thai cultural conviction that people don’t have much control over things, a belief that probably stems from Buddhist teachings on impermanence and karma. The actions of others and even one’s own thoughts and feelings are believed to be mostly out of one’s control, so — mai pen rai – just accept and move on. It’s reminiscent of the famous Spanish phrase, que sera sera, “whatever will be, will be.” (Go ahead, sing it).
For foreigners travelling in Thailand, mai pen rai is a useful phrase because it can reassure Thai people that, even though they may have screwed something up (your food order for example), you don’t mind and everything is fine. But be careful of the context — in the sense of “never mind”, one might unwittingly dismiss an offer to help or make things better in some way.
It’s also wise to keep in mind that this mai pen rai
“whatever will be, will be” concept can at times be taken further in Thailand than would be acceptable in many countries. Here’s a story to better explain:
Some time ago, I relied on island hopping speedboats to get around the Andaman Sea in southern Thailand. On these mini voyages, I always sat at the very front of the boat. I relished in the thrill of the rides, feeling sorry for those stuck in the stuffy, mostly windowless back section of the boat.
One day, as the speedboat was preparing for a trip from Ko Lipe to Ko Bulon Lae, a member of the crew came up front and told myself and a couple who had joined me to move to the back. The couple relented, but being my stubborn, authority-defying (and foolish) self, I stayed put. I figured it was some stupid new regulation (I come from the US, the land of stupid regulations) and that if they really wanted me to move, they’d tell me again, in which case I would.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, the crew member came back two minutes later, saw that I was still sitting there, gave me a smirk and disappeared into the back. Mai pen rai was never spoken, but that “okay, whatever will be, will be” sentiment was clearly present in his smirk. The boat shoved off.
Within two minutes of being on the open sea, the front of the boat began violently smacking up and down against the water. Empty soda cans, suitcases and seat cushions bounced up and down like popcorn in a frying pan. I also bounced — practically out of the boat at some points. It was sort of like riding a wild bucking bull, except that if I fell off I’d plummet into the ocean and there wouldn’t be any navy seal rodeo clowns to save me.
“Oh, the sea is choppy today. It’s not safe in the front of the boat. That’s why the guy told me to move. Well, I’m an idiot. But it would probably be more dangerous to now attempt moving to the back, so I have to spend the whole hour-long ride enduring the experience of being repeatedly spanked while bouncing on a trampoline.” And so my thoughts went. Needless to say, I wasn’t shooting any videos.
Thinking back, the same occurrence never would have happened in the States, or many other countries. The “no passengers in the front of the boat” thing would have been a very serious regulation and they would have forced the jackass (hi there) to move before the boat could be cleared for departure. And they would have been right, I suppose, to not say mai pen rai in this case. In Thailand, however, mai pen rai often trumps sensible safety measures.
When you’re travelling here, do as the Thais do and go with the flow — to a point. Try using mai pen rai to your advantage when an infant screams for hours on a bus ride or a vendor tries to get an extra bit of pocket change on that T-shirt sale because you’re a foreigner.
But also be aware that mai pen rai is a deeply ingrained, pervasive societal trait and not merely a phrase, so don’t expect locals, even those in uniform, to tell you what’s safe and what’s dangerous. In the kingdom, it can be a thin line between que sera and carelessness.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.