“Play” in Thai Idioms – Part 2: Bad & Dangerous Play

คำว่า “เล่น” ในสำนวนไทย – ตอนที่ ๒: เล่นร้าย เล่นอันตราย

I have shown you the nice and fun side of “Thai play.” Now in Part 2, let’s have a look at the bad, tricky, silly, crazy, dangerous, scary, and superstitious side.

bad – scary play

Bad Play

There are many kinds of bad play and playing without honesty is among the first of obviously bad plays.

เล่นไม่ซื่อ /lên mâi sûue/ (lit. “play crooked”) =  to cheat, deceive, betray, double-cross

Someone who “play crooked” is someone who, as the word “crooked” suggests, doesn’t play straight, possibly has some murky motive and is prepared to cheat (โกง /koong/) or betray (ทรยศ /thOOr-rá-yót/ or หักหลัง /hàk lǎng/) another when an opportunity arises.

Another kind of bad play that is devoid of veracity and integrity is a dirty one:

เล่นสกปรก /lên sòk-kà-pròk/ = lit. “play dirty”

There’s no need to elaborate on this one. A synonymous vernacular of Thai dirty play is “play dogs.”


เล่นหมาๆ “play dogs”? Me? No way!

Of course, dogs have nothing to do with this “dog play.” It’s just the usual (Thai) human way of pointing fingers at anyone but themselves – and dogs are the nearest and most convenient animal to point fingers at. 😉

เล่นหมาๆ /lên mǎa mǎa/ (lit. “play dogs”, vulgar) = to play low, play dirty

Given that humans have (often unjustifiably) high opinion of themselves, to “play dogs” is to “play low and dirty”, play outside the rules or decency – beyond the pale, so to speak.

The last play in this category is not so much bad play, though it’s not particularly good either. I put it here because nobody likes this kind of play – well, who likes a hard ball, especially when being thrown one?

เล่นแรง /len rEEng/ (lit. “play hard”) = to play hard ball

Generally, “play hard” or เล่นแรง has to do with “playing rough and tough” or “hard-hitting criticism.” So, you can see why Thai people would most likely consider it a “bad play.”

Tricky Play

No one likes trickery, Thais included. These are tricky plays that Thais find unpalatable (especially if they are on the receiving end, that is).

เล่นลูกไม้ /lên lûuk-máay/ (lit. “play fruit”) = to play trick, play strategy


Yes, I know, this one needs further explanation. The word ลูกไม้ /lûuk-máay/ in its most literal sense means “fruit,” like in this proverb:



ลูกไม้หล่นไม่ไกลต้น /lûuk-máay lòn mâi klai tôn/ (lit. “A fruit doesn’t fall far away from the tree”), which has an almost exact English equivalent in “An apple doesn’t fall far away from the tree.” Like father like son. Like mother like daughter. Off-spring can be expected to inherit the traits of the parents.

If you open a Thai-English dictionary, you’ll see that the word ลูกไม้ /lûuk-máay/ means trickery, stratagem, finesses, wile, or artifice. เล่นลูกไม้ /lên lûuk-máay/ often has something to do with use of either little tricks or cunning, or something bigger and more cerebral like a strategy – often not openly revealed. For example, Thais might say มันจะมาลูกไม้ไหนกันแน่ when wondering what kind of trick or game someone, often an opponent, is up to. However, note that the ลูกไม้ /lûuk-máay/ (trickery, stratagem) itself may not necessary be bad or evil (in the Thai sense), although it is likely not seen as the most ethical kind of play.

There are of course more plays that will not pass most ethical tests – such as:

เล่นตุกติก /lên tùk tìk/ (lit. “play tricky”) = to use tricks or cunning to cheat

Usually this kind of play is done when parties are in a deal or some kind of agreement, and one party (or both) may use tricks or cunning to cheat or to break or circumvent an agreement. This is synonymous with “play crooked” above (as bad plays often involve trickery and dishonesty).

Another tricky play is called เล่นแง่ /lên ngÊE/ which literally reads” “play angle.” This tricky play, like เล่นตุกติก, is often done in the process of deal making, though it may also be employed in personal relationships.

เล่นแง่ /lên ngÊE/ (lit. “play angle”) = to play game/trick, to haggle to set own terms or conditions

The last play in this category actually should be in a category of its own, but I’ll keep it here. It’s a play that involves perhaps less trickery than unfairness. It’s a kind of play that is very prevalent in Thai society (in Asian societies in general), where connections are important in any deal and any kind of advancement in life or in business. I present to you “play crony, i.e. “cronyism” as we know in English.

เล่นพรรคเล่นพวก /lên phák lên phûaak/ = lit. “play crony”

also เล่นพวกพ้อง /lên phûaak phÔOng/; เล่นพวก /lên phûaak/

Silly & Crazy Play

Some plays aren’t really bad or tricky but rather silly or crazy.  For instance, to “play store” or เล่นขายของ /lên khǎay khǑOng/ means to “do things without due seriousness or real competence” as if in silly child play. When kids play, it’s cute but when adults play like kids it’s not only unbecoming but can also be irresponsible, like when government comes up with a policy or initiative and proceeds to act on it like kids playing store.

เล่นขายของ /lên khǎay khǑOng/ = lit. “play store”

And there are silly-crazy or “prankish” plays, which aspiring clowns, joksters and pranksters like to play. In Thai are they are described as:

เล่นบ้าๆ /lên bâa-bâa/ (lit. “play crazy”) = to play a prank

เล่นพิเรนทร์ /lên phí-reen/ (lit. “play strange”) = to play a prank


เล่นบ้าๆ เล่นพิเรนทร์ “play crazy. “play strange”

The aspiring clown (not the real clown like Krusty on the right), jokester or prankster is called คนพิเรนทร์ /khon phí-reen/.

The last play in this category could be somewhat prankish, though in matter of seriousness may not be so funny. But it is called “play funny.”

เล่นตลก /lên tà-lòk/ (lit. “play funny”) = to play a hoax or a sham, or to “pull a leg”

Dangerous Play


เล่นกับไฟ “play with fire”

Among the most dangerous and most destructive plays in any culture is “play with fire.” And there is such an expression in Thai too, carrying the same meaning as in English.

เล่นกับไฟ /lên kàp fai/ = lit. to play with fire

Of course, someone with special skills can play with real fire like in the picture, but “playing with fire” is most of the time a metaphor for playing with something dangerous, which can burn, consume and destroy you, if you are not careful. There are certain plays that qualify as dangerous in any culture, including Thai.

เล่นการพนัน /lên kaan phá-nan/ (lit. “play gambling”) = to be a gambler

เล่นหุ้น /lên hûn/ (lit. “play stocks”) = to trade in stock markets

Another dangerous play is to me fitting in this category of play.

เล่นการเมือง /lên kaan mueaang/ = lit. “play politics”


“Play politics” has two levels of meaning, one literal and the other cynical: 1) to enter a political career; and 2) to “play politics” in the sense of employing political stratagem or intrigue to gain advantage often in some unseemly or devious way, or to play partisan politics. In most societies, politics is a dangerous game with high stakes – you win big and lose big. How is that different from “play gambling,” eh?

Scary & Superstitious Play

Anyone with some familiarity with Thai culture will know that many Thais are highly superstitious. So, it’s no surprise that we also have scary-voodoo plays. Yes, we even play with superstition! And there are names for it:

เล่นของ /lên khǑOng/ (lit. “play things”) = to play (black) magic

เล่นไสยศาตร์ /lên sǎi-yá-sàat/ = lit. to play the occult

Thai people take superstition seriously and when Thai people talk of “magic” or ไสยศาตร์ /sǎi-yá-sàat/ (which means mysticism or the occult) there is “black magic” and there is “white magic” – black is bad, white is good – though I won’t go into that, not being an occultist myself J. In “playing (black) magic” or “playing the occult” charms and curses are supposedly made to cause passion, or to inflict or prevent harm. Those who “play the occult” are believed to be able to talk to spirits, deities or dead people, command or manifest the paranormal, etc. etc.

Now back to the term เล่นของ /lên khǑOng/ (lit. “play things”), which I think is interesting. A person who “plays the occult” or “play things” is called คนเล่นของ /khon lên khǑOng/. I reckon not all of them look scary but Thai horror movies like to portray them like in the picture here. (See this website to get a “feel” of the Thai occult.)


คนเล่นของ “the occultist”

If you ask an average Thai, you’ll be told that only some people have the power to engage in this kind of play and that the occult is sacred and dangerous to violate. The danger is particularly high if the aspiring player doesn’t know or have the magical or supernatural power to contend with the “thing” being played with. This is the situation called เล่นของสูง /lên khǑOng sǔung/ – dangerous and inadvisable. In this case it’s the “high thing” (ของสูง /khǑOng sǔung/), i.e. highly powerful or highly sacred.

Of course, many of us think all this voodoo stuff is a load of nonsense, but when talking to Thais, beware and be careful. When you hear any talk about superstition, listen carefully and you will almost always hear this phrase uttered by somebody:

ไม่เชื่อ อย่าลบหลู่ /mâi chûeaa yàa lóp-lùu/ “Even if you don’t believe it, don’t be disrespectful.”

You’ll never know what’ll be the consequences, and you don’t want to find out – is the message. 😉

ไม่เชื่อ อย่าลบหลู่

ไม่เชื่อ อย่าลบหลู่

> Check back for the last installment: Part 3 “Sexual Play, etc.”

6 responses to ““Play” in Thai Idioms – Part 2: Bad & Dangerous Play

  1. just found your website here

    for me its very interesting glimpses of culture/language

    have been married to Thai forty years and only smattering of language regret my lost opportunity to learn the language but still very interested to deeper understand culture and thinking

    thanks for your insights

    • Thanks, David for stopping by. It’s never too late to learn. 🙂 As a native speaker, I’m still learning everyday – opening Thai dictionaries everyday.

  2. This is a brilliantly conceived and executed idea! The idea of so many different variations on the theme of fun takes one that much deep into the mindset of native Thai speakers.

    Anyone who is serious about learning the inside of Thai culture should frequently visit your blog.


  3. I have indeed heard ไม่เชื่อ อย่าลบหลู่ . Oftentimes from Thais, but the English version also gets trotted out.

    It’s a good policy to follow when faced with the different superstitions found in Thailand.

    In the west, when coming across beliefs that we don’t hang with, we sometimes openly smile even with strangers. But here it’s best not to.

  4. I’ve also heard เล่นตัว – to play hard to get (English translation from my dictionary)
    Can this be used in the courting sense where you might initially feign disinterest but are interested nevertheless?

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