Thailand is known as a nation filled with rich history and unique cultures. While most of its history can be seen in museums and various historical buildings, a fascinating part of Thai culture can be seen in their surnames.
Read on to find out why Thai last names are literally unique! Whether you’re curious about how Thai names work or interested to find out more about your Thai surname, this guide has you covered.
Simply put, there is no common surname in Thailand. This is by design since Thai people are required by law to have unique surnames. Surnames are a recent addition to Thai society, only having been required by King Rama VI with the Surname Act in 1913. Before that, most Thais went by first or given names.
According to current Thai laws, new names need to be shorter than ten Thai letters, excluding vowels and diacritics. Any new names also cannot be the duplicate of existing ones. Except for names registered before the existence of computers, there are hardly any common names in the country.
Research shows that out of 45,665 names studied, 81% of them are unique. There are so many different surnames in Thailand that if two people have the same last names, they’re most likely related in some way.
In addition to native-born Thais, this law also extends to immigrants and other ethnic groups. Anyone who wishes to be a permanent resident or Thai citizen must take a surname. They can either marry a Thai citizen, take their own surname, or create their own last names.
It’s very easy to change your last name in Thailand, whether it’s for personal or religious reasons. The legal process is relatively easy compared to many western countries – and many Thais believe that changing their name can change their fortune.
Many Thais go by two names: their official government name and a nickname. However, a person’s official name is usually only used in formal situations. Meanwhile, nicknames are used everywhere else, even at work.
Thai nicknames are rarely related to a person’s given name and may even sound strange to foreigners. Nicknames are usually given at birth referring to the baby’s characteristics – so you’d get nicknames meaning “fat” or “thin”.
Other parents give nicknames as well-wishes to the child. For example, a couple may name their child Book to wish them academic excellence, or Bank in hopes that they can be wealthy in the future.
Since last names are a recent addition to Thai culture, people had to come up with one to comply with the new law. They had to be unique, so there was a “first come, first served” feel to picking names.
When immigrants and people from other ethnicities needed to come up with names, their name pool likely dwindled considerably. This required them to come up with more unique names to comply with the law. As a result, they ended up with especially long names that had more than two syllables.
For instance, the surname of former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra, whose family is from mainland China, means “does good routinely”.
Some immigrant families also incorporated their Chinese surname into their Thai name. For example, a Chinese immigrant named Tung can combine their name with Thai words and turn it into Tungwatee. Many Chinese immigrants also simply added the Thai suffix sae- (“Chinese name”) in front of their surname – for instance, the name Saeyang means “Chinese name of Yang”.
Since everyone had to create their own names, each family selected a name that represented something good to them. This is part of the reason why many of these names have good and noble meanings. Here are some examples of popular Thai last names that people often hear:
Thai last names can be hard to say or understand if you’ve just seen them for the first time. However, you’ll come to appreciate how they sound and the meaning behind each name as you research.
Retracing your Thai roots is easy since your family members would likely share the same surname. Having old photos to research makes it easier! Unfortunately, old photos may not have stood the test of time and need to be restored. If you’re looking to get photos retouched quickly and affordably, contact Image Restoration Center today.