Something I was never told before coming to Thailand: the Thais have a unique way to tell time, by splitting the day into 4 segments. Unlike the West, where we just have 2 sets, a.m. and p.m., the Thais tell time with four sets: dawn, morning, afternoon, and evening. This subtle difference is almost never mentioned in any phrase book or travel book, yet it’s an important thing to know in order to travel to Thailand. Even most of the language learning books gloss over this important part of Thai life. I lived in Thailand for almost a full year before I realized how to tell time, and I suffered several misunderstandings. I went to lunch at 2pm to meet a friend who thought the appointment was for 2 in the evening, which is 7pm, dinner.
The four segments are split as follows:
Dawn is from 1am until 5 am, Morning is from 6 am until 11 am, and then there is noon. Afternoon is 1pm until 6pm, and Evening is 7pm until 11pm, capped off by midnight. Thus 7pm to us is actually 1 in the evening for Thais. You’ll often see drink specials in a club if you arrive before 4:00 evening. This doesn’t mean 4pm (they probably don’t even open until 9), but his means 4 “evening” or 10:00 pm by our watch.
Dawn is tee + time, so 3 am is tee 3 ( ตี 3) .
Morning is time + morng chao, so 9 am is 3 morng chao (3 โมงเช้า ).
Afternoon is bai morng + time, or time + morng yen, so 3 pm is bai 3 morng, 5pm is bai morng yen (5 โมงเย็น ).
Evening is time + tuum, so 9pm is 3 tuum (3 ทุ่ม ).
They have specific words for noon (tieng/tiengwan) and midnight (tiengkeun)
On a number of occasions I suffered timing mishaps. I was amazed how few phrase books, travel book or language tools even mention the Thai method of telling time. Most phrase books are filled with inaccuracies, are outdated, poorly written and include silly phrases. Berlitz is so outdated, you need a time machine to order your rickshaw and dance the jitterbug.
There is any easier way around the time exchange. Just use the 24 hour method of telling time, such as 18:00 for 6pm or 23:00 for 11pm.
Carry around a piece of paper, and write down 17:00 if you need the car service to pick you up at 5pm. Show them the 17:00 and there will be no misunderstanding. Most Thais do understand the 24 hour clock.
Double check your tour operator’s time telling, as well. I’ve seen tour operators who speak excellent English, accidental slip and say “meet back here at 2 o’clock tonight.” He means 8pm, but has made a simple mistake. Combining the Thai system in English is a common mistake with the few Thais who do speak English. This happens more often than you’d expect. Just confirm with him whether he means 14:00 or 20:00.