If you are walking down the street in Thailand and a vendor tries to sell you something you are not interested in buying, a useful phrase to have on hand is mai pen rai. If someone thanks you, an appropriate response is mai pen rai. If a family offers you a meal, and you want to say yes, but you don’t want to inconvenience them, the best answer is—you guessed it—mai pen rai.

This diverse and culturally significant phrase carries many meanings, and Thai people use it frequently in everyday conversation. It roughly translates to “no problem” in English, but it’s almost more than just a phrase—it seems to encompass the culture and attitude of Thailand.

Learning important phrases like this one can open the doors to a truly immersive travel experience. One of the best parts of traveling is connecting with people in the places you are visiting, and knowing some of the language can be an effective path to meaningful interaction.

Oftentimes these connections can provide opportunities outside the average tourist experience: finding beautiful places hidden from the well-worn paths, eating more authentic food, or discovering communities outside the tourist-crowded areas that are more indicative of what the culture is really like.

In Thailand, my language skills helped me connect with people who showed me sparkling waterfalls with little fish that nibbled at my feet, served me the spiciest papaya salad I have ever had, and took me riding elephants barefoot and bareback without any other tourists around. Many of these people have become my lifelong friends—and it all started by learning smatterings of their language.

Putting in the effort to learn part of the language is a sign of respect for the people and their culture. You are likely to receive a warmer welcome and maybe even some raised eyebrows when locals are surprised, impressed, and appreciative of your efforts. Although if you absolutely butcher the language, that might bring on the wrong kind of raised eyebrows . . . so the more you know—and can pronounce correctly—the better!

Having a handle on useful words and phrases can also make navigating daily situations easier. Even simple communication can help, like asking for directions, ordering food, and negotiating prices. (Not to mention that prices magically go down when you can speak the language—you are showing that you are in the know and can’t be taken advantage of!)

Programs like Duolingo and Pimsleur are great for learning the basics of a language. Taking a local class or practicing with online tutors or conversation partners can help you go a step further in picking up patterns that can’t be taught by a program.

Learning part of the language before traveling is a worthwhile investment of time and effort. Your experiences will be more fulfilling as you worry less about keeping your head above water and focus more on diving into the culture and building real friendships with the people around you. Your adventure could start with something as simple as mai pen rai.

Jessica Johansen