The Thai tradition of multiple wives continues among different levels in Thai society although the strict legal situation in Thailand is that a man can only have one wife.
A survey of over 300 Thai women undertaken for a Thai dating site estimates that as many as 17% of Thai women are Mia Noi or minor wives of Thai men. One commentator in Bangkok estimates that the figure could be as high as 20%. 'It is
a wide enough term and it is a facet of Thai society that I personally would like to see change,' says Carla Boonkong, a magazine writer. 'It is fall out of Thai society which is quite unique but I think many westerners see it too much as key part of
Thai culture, to me it often appears as a side product or should I say accident of Thai culture.'
Thai culture and custom accepts multiple marriage partners
To many western men the idea that many Thai men have more than one wife sounds like an exotic and perhaps in some instances an alluring prospect. To many women from foreign countries particularly western countries, it is anathema.
However according to M/s Boonkong, it is a little more mundane. 'It is a custom in Thailand across all levels of society and regions that some men, often wealthier men, take more than one wife. While many Thais accept this, many also do not like
the idea of a man having multiple wives particularly younger women,' she says. 'It would also be wrong to say that this was a rigid social and cultural phenomenon. For example you might have a frenchman who maintains a mistresses or an
Englishman who is having long term affair. What is essentially the same thing is more accepted in Thailand where western style religion never laid down strict and rigid boundaries. This was the law in Thailand up to 1935. Also we must remember
that there is a custom in Thailand of marriage being arranged by parents. Culture and tradition play a large role in Thailand as we see so often and is very much alive.'
Place of men in Thailand differs from western society
Thailand is a patriarchal society without the moral constraints of a strict religious system which merged in western countries and formed attitudes which strictly defined marriage. The introduction of monogamy in Thailand was, in fact, the
result of a response by Thailand's rulers to fend off conflict between Thailand's laws and foreign powers in Asia.
However, in truth, in Thai society, there is a marked difference in attitudes towards men from modern western societies. 'This is a startling fact about Thailand that hits most foreign men when they first visit, women smile at men and are
interested in finding boyfriends or partners. I have lived in the UK and of course society there is now remarkably very different. It's not just about feminism and all that but women have a more independent attitude. Even going back through history, I
believe western women have thought differently from Thai women when it comes to men,' says Carla Boonkong. Carla believes that this atmosphere breeds a level of insecurity among Thai women. 'This is why, apparently, Thai women make
such good wives or partners, this deference to men also prompts Thai men to behave differently. But this is changing now, and I am glad for it.'
Relationships in Thailand are economic as well as romantic
Thailand is a country without a western welfare system such as now exists in most western countries. This emphasises the importance of earning an income and the ability of men to be able to provide in any relationship. In addition, swathes of
the country suffer from economic deprivation. This has traditionally driven Thai women into the sex industry or into low paid jobs in foreign countries. The prospect of finding a financially secure husband is very enticing to many Thai women at
some levels of society. 'This is very true for young Thai women who move to the big cities in search of better fortune and find themselves challenged between low paying work and the sex industry, some find a long term boyfriend or benefactor. It is
not unlike the sugar daddy phenomenon among women from poorer parts of America fifty years ago moving to New York. The difference is that in Thailand, there is an accepted role here,' says Carla Boonkong. 'A woman can become a Mia Noi to
a wealthier or well established Thai man. I would also like to say that this does not mean that Thai women are not in any less loving or romantic, in fact they are more because relationships in Thailand are more traditional.'
Minor wife or Mia Noi a valid relationship in Thailand
But it would be wrong to think of the Mia Noi as a long term sex worker. Many Mia Noi have employment or even businesses of their own. Although most husbands with Mia Noi fully support the second wife this is not always so. 'It is very peculiar
but I have met Mia Noi who have gone without financial support from their husbands and who will try to fend for themselves but still remain loyal, this is where it becomes difficult for westerners to understand,' explains Carla.
The nature of relationships between minor wives or Mia Noi and their husbands in Thailand is complex. Their is a large range of varieties in such relationships. 'You can have an elder farmer who is living with two younger wives who are
distantly related for years or you can have a small market trader who is a minor wife to a government official. It can simply be a man who has moved on to another relationship with a woman but who still has a relationship with his first wife,' says
Legal situation of minor wives in Thailand
The legal situation in Thailand regarding minor wives is clear. There is no basis for a second wife under Thai marriage law. Marriage and Divorce laws in Thailand are surprisingly modern and based on the western model. However up until
1935, polygamy was very much part of the Thai legal framework regarding marriage. Up until 1935, there were three different forms of wives in Thailand. The first was the 'Mian Glang Muang' or main wife. This is was the official wife often chosen
by the families of the marriage partners.
Thai wife selects a minor wife for her husband
'To this day there is a reported Thai custom that the official wife of a Thai man will sometimes select or find him a minor wife, I have heard this said but I have never met a Thai wife who admitted that she had played this role. However I have
met Thai women who have encouraged and organised sexual partners for their husbands,' says Carla Boonkong. 'This is very shocking to western sensibilities and indeed to many modern thinking Thais but there is a thought process like this
among a section of the Thai population particularly where you have a Thai man who is wealthy.'
Third form of wife was a sex slave
The second category of wife in Thailand or Mia Noi up to 1935 was the 'Mia Glang Norng' according to the pre 1935 marriage laws. This wife was taken by the Thai man after or during the course of his first marriage. This is the role of the
minor wife today. But there was a third form a wife, the 'Mia Glang Tasee'. 'This third form of wife was effectively a sex slave or concubine who was purchased by the Thai man from her parents. This is certainly that would be unacceptable in
today's world but it still happens in some circumstances,' says Carla.
Monogamy is now the marriage law in Thailand
It is worth stressing however that Thai law today unequivocally states that a spouse cannot be married to another person while being the spouse of another. It is also true that most modern marriages in Thailand among the middle class, on the
surface, are identical to marriages in western countries. Monogamy is the law in Thailand but as we have seen, it is not always the practice and there is a complex spectrum of personal relationships between men and women in Thailand. This is
actually not so different to western countries but in Thailand there is a cultural acceptance among many within Thai society and prescribed traditions which would be unacceptable to many in western countries.
Sex partner in Thailand - the third form of wife
It would be wrong to suggest that slavery is accepted in Thailand. It is not and the Thai authorities spend a lot of time and resources in stamping out all forms of the practice in particular situations where women are coerced.
Thailand has been the subject of negative press coverage in recent years over emigrant workers working in virtual slavery in the country's fishing industry while the the sexual trafficking of Thai women often involves coercive agreement where
the women are effectively placed in bondage. However the Thai government spends significant resources in combatting these situations particularly where Thai women are sexual abused or exploited.
But the concept of a paid for concubine is an Asian one and is still active in some parts of Thai society. 'Yes, there are situations where men effectively buy a woman in Thailand by paying parents of the girl who will be obliged to provide a
service to the man. This is appalling conduct and is a dangerous path to take for many men particularly foreign men,' says Carla Boonkong. 'It is often confused with Sin Sot where a dowry is paid to a girl's parents or where money is paid to a Thai
girl's parents for her service. I know stories of Thai women who have gone to work as domestic servants in Japan or Taiwan after money was paid to their parents. Many of the young Thai women will feel an obligation to honour such agreements.
This ambiguous relationship also exists where a young woman is set up in an apartment effectively as a concubine to a Thai man. I have even heard of a situation where a foreign man has entered into such a relationship in Thailand. Personally I
think is not only unacceptable but fraught with danger but this sort of activity still exists in Thailand and it is quite difficult to draw the line.'
This third form of wife is a different relationship from that of the minor wife. Ironically, in some situations a Thai woman living with a man in this category may have less challenges that a minor wife who is not always a kept woman.
The life of a minor wife in Thailand
However,in practice it is very different. 'The strength of Thai culture and tradition within people's lives in Thailand can be seen here,' says Carla Boonkong. For the vast majority of Thai marriages, a minor wife is not an issue but it does apply to
a significant minority of relationships. For example, Thai law states that income earned and property acquired by a Thai husband and wife is common property during the term of the marriage while property belonging to both parties before
marriage remains personal. 'In many marriages in Thailand it is the woman who handles the finances and day to management of the marital enterprise,' says Carla Boonkong. 'Many Thai men with a strong Mia Glang Muang, who have extra
income, may choose to have a minor wife where the relationship is more casual and carefree.'
It is reported that many Thai men find it easier to relate to their minor wives in much the same way as a frenchman might behave towards his mistress. It should be noted that a man in Thailand with a minor wife, has a continuing obligation to
this woman. It should not be seen as a casual affair. 'This is the difficult part for westerners to understand particularly where it also possible that the man may not be always able to fully support the minor wife or where the minor wife is not simply a
kept woman and may have a job or even business of her own. And yet this is a very real long term relationship widely accepted in Thai society. I have heard of situation where a man will simply stay away for certain days or even longer periods with
the minor wife and later return home for an extended period, I think many western men and certainly western women would find it to hard to fully comprehend.'
Foreigner living in Thailand and minor Thai wives
Jim Dooley from Nottingham, a former business man who made his money in contract cleaning in England has lived in Thailand for nearly twenty years. He is sixty two years of age and now lives full time in Thailand. He does not have a minor
wife but is familiar with some Thai women and men who are involved in such relationships.
'As a westerner living in Thailand, I don't necessarily think the minor wife system is bad. The husband is happy because he's not so bored with just one woman and he also has a person he can actually talk to. And, as modern women in
Thailand often make their own money, the cost of having the Mia Noi can be a lot less than it used to be. The major wife is a lot of the time very happy as she has less pressure placed upon her for sex, she knows that her husband is having a
second wife and it makes it less likely they will get divorced and, as long as she and the kiddies are taken care of financially, this set up often works fine for her.
As for the Mia Noi side of the story, the couple of minor wives I've met here were are happy enough with the situation.'
Foreigner who has two Thai wives
Jim's friend Henrik is, in fact, a foreigner living in Thailand with two wives. Henrik is a successful Dutch businessman with an international business which trades all over the world. Henrik is quite wealthy owing over thirty condominiums in
Thailand as part of an investment portfolio he has built up since moving to Thailand sixteen years ago. He lives alternately in Bangkok and Phetchaburi province near the sea.
Two wives in Thailand 'keeps life interesting'
In 1999, when Henrik moved to Thailand when he was 42 years old. 'It is just my private life and I know there are many out there who might be more than a little angry with me but you know I have two wives in Thailand. One is my big wife or 'big
boss' as she likes to say herself and the other is the younger wife. Before I moved to Thailand I was told I hadn't long to live. I moved here because I am lucky in my business, I can live anywhere in the world and here is where I feel free. My legal wife
is forty one years old and my younger wife is twenty five years old so there is a little difference and these are very different relationships. But it is very good for us, it is something that has happened and it has worked out well. There are times when it
can be a little tricky but all relationships need to take care, I have a good life and so do my wives, so it's like that. It is better than being lonely and keeps life interesting.'
Minor wives are not just girlfriends
The key thing for western men to understand is that these second relationships are not 'affairs' or to use a English colloquialism: 'a thing on the side.' Mia Noi expect to be provided for by their husbands and there is an element of trust and
commitment required from both parties as in any marriage. 'Myself, I would not get involved in something like this I must be a bit stuck in my ways. For me the idea of having two women sort of defeats the purpose. But if you are a very successful
man and want to enjoy the company and excitement of a younger woman, perhaps this a way. I know I'd hate to be in a position where I was coming under pressure from two women! I know about this because my wife tell me about her friends and
I know Henrik's story but I don't think it's something you'll hear a Thai man talk about,' says Jim Dooley. 'It something that you see with foreigners living here for a long time and of course it is more common among our Thai friends.'
Thai men with minor wives
Carla Boonkong agrees that this is true. 'Thailand is quite enigmatic about things like this. For instance prostitution in Thailand is mostly reserved for Thai men but it is not something openly talked about at all. The same is true for minor wives.
Thai culture affords Thai men in particular, a lot of freedom and perhaps more options than western men. This is why Thai society is quite complex and byzantine at times for foreigners to understand. But also this is one of the very reasons why you
find a certain number of Thai women looking for foreign partners. More and more no longer accept it. But you must keep remembering that the majority of Thai families and relationships are not unlike western ones. This is a remnant of older Thai
culture in a country which has for many decades been moving towards a western model.'
Thailand's patriarchal society as it appears to a UK man
To Jim Dooley, a UK man who moved to Thailand in his mid forties, Thailand offers it's men and foreign men living in Thailand more freedom. 'There is seems to be an old fashioned point of view towards relationships in Thailand. I've lived
long enough in Britain to recognise this and to some extent I have come to see the faults with it, it's so sad to see so many women whose lives revolve around having a husband and taking care of him. I see it in my own wife and I rather think it is the
fact that I have come to think like that, that makes foreign men more understanding to Thai women and so Thai women see us in a more attractive light. The feminists have trained us well, maybe.The thing changes in flash when I arrived back in
Heathrow Airport in London, Oh boy, there I am on the other side of the divide, an old fashioned dinosaur to many of the younger women in England. That's the other side of it, so that's why I'm here in sunny Thailand,' he laughs.
Varied relationships in Thailand
What Jim is describing is Thailand's patriarchal society and Carla Boonkong agrees. 'To some Thai women, with a degree of affluence, the husband taking a minor wife is something that comes natural when the main wife finds herself
established. On the one hand, a Thai woman who finds herself ensconced with a financially secure husband, will sometimes lose the run of herself and the Thai man may find he is involved in a relationship that has become a duty. At the same
time, the Thai wife will be afraid of losing her husband and see a minor wife not as a threat but as a way of keeping the relationship. But it all varies, there are all sorts of variations and I as have already said, this is the situation in a very much a
minority of relationships. Many Thai men will be circumspect about such activities and often it is a personal secret, sometimes the main wife will know, other times she may not.'
Dutch man makes provision for two Thai wives
Jim Dooley's friend Henrik is open about his two relationships in Thailand. 'Yes my wife, she knows about my other relationship and so also the other wife, it is up up to me to keep the things moving forward but I care for both of these women,' he
says. Henrik reveals that he has made financial arrangements for both his partners in Thailand in the event of his death.
Jim Dooley is more cautious: 'I wouldn't advise any foreigner in Thailand to lightly take up this sort of relationship. My friend is an international businessman and a pretty cool customer. I would not like to be a foreigner caught between Thai
women who were not entirely satisfied of their lot, I mean even one unhappy Thai woman is more than any man could deal with,' he points out. Jim is married to a Thai woman who is twenty years his junior and they live in Pattaya. He is currently
moving to a new house in Hua Hin. His Thai wife is a Thai government official.
Varied nature of minor Thai wife relationships
To understand the varied nature of minor wives we should look at key factors in Thailand that make such relationships possible:
Marriage and relationships more practical: Relationships and even marriage in Thailand are more practical affairs with an emphasis on the ability of a man to provide. But this should not be exaggerated. 'Marriage in Thailand is still
very romantic and loving but it is less idealised than it is in western culture and Thai women are keenly focused on the material ability of the relationship to provide for living expenses and of course for children but there is also a personal and loving
aspect as with any relationship anywhere in the world between men and women. Thai culture fosters a 'warm' and loving environment in all familial relationships. Thai women look to their culture for pointers on how to actively support the
relationship and like to feel that they are in harmony with Thai culture and tradition. But because is more of a laissez faire society and paternalistic, men have more freedom and women are prone to be insecure.
Status of men more dominant in Thailand: Thai culture has thought Thai women to value men and play a supporting role. This is certainly changing as more Thai women opt out of marriage in Thailand in favour of careers. This is a
trend all over Asia. For many Thai women, economic considerations dictate that they find a man to support them and the cultural values of society suggest that in finding a husband, preferably one with enhanced ability to provide to provide, that this
also reflects on her character. A financially well off husband is seen as endorsement of the Thai woman. The converse of this is that if a Thai woman cannot find an appropriate or suitable husband and she has career prospects, she may well opt
to stay alone. At another level, a financially deprived Thai woman will see a role as minor wife to a more successful man as appropriate and does not feel the moral mortification that a similar western woman would feel. While a first wife, once she
is financially provided for and secure may not object to a Thai husband who discreetly finds a Mia Noi or may, in fact, take pride in her husband's financial prowess. But no relationship is identical as in all human affairs. 'I think most Thai women,
who are main wives, have some inkling about what is going on but I would equally say that there is always some sort of rivalry at some level,' says Carla Boonkong. At lower levels in Thai society there are some horror stories regularly featured in the
tabloid press of what can happen when things go awry. It is true that 'Thai Rath,' one of Thailand's most popular daily newspapers, although a broadsheet, features regular reports of Thai men who have been murdered or have suffered penis
amputations when one of the Thai wives has been left aggrieved by the state of the relationship.
An indication of the varied nature of minor wives in Thailand
Nam is a 32 year old Thai women. For the last ten years she has worked part time as a secretary in a Thai wholesale business but has lived in a well appointed condominium and drives a second hand car. Used cars are comparatively more
expensive in Thailand. Her part time salary of 10,000 baht per month would not allow her be able to afford such a lifestyle except that she is minor wife of a government official in Bangkok. She is now planning to give up her job, to open a coffee
shop which is being financed by her husband. Her eight year old relationship with the man is a happy one with a regular night out and financial security.
Mook (37) is the second wife of a Japanese men from Osaka. The relationship has been ongoing for over fifteen years and he has recently purchased a substantial property in Thailand which he has placed in her name. Mook is thirty seven
and her Japanese husband is sixty seven. Her husband has set up a fund to take care of his wife when he dies. Mook enjoys a carefree existence and loves gardening. She is extremely faithful to her husband and is very proud of her marriage.
Chutima (39) is not so lucky. She is a small business women who runs a food stall and a stall selling clothes in Bangkok as well as a small massage shop. She is the minor wife to a man who is an insurance executive. They have a three year
old son. However she is under constantly financial pressure and works seven days a week. The support she receives from her husband is erratic and she sometimes will not see him for two or three weeks. Yet she accepts this and the relationship
has been ongoing for ten years. 'At the beginning it was more romantic and easier,' she says and reveals that her husband has become indebted over the years and less able to provide.
View (35) from Loei province in Thailand.She left her husband only after money problems and he refused to talk causing a breakdown in communication. They have two young sons (10 and 8). She is currently online searching for a foreign
man or 'farang.' 'I like to marry the Englishman or the Australian,' she says excitedly. A recent survey on ThailoveLines, Thailand's No 1 dating site has revealed that 57% of men online from western countries have some issue with meeting a woman
with children although remarkably, surveys have also show that 53% of Thai women living with partners in Europe have had children before their relationship with a western man. View is a teacher but has been divorced from her husband for the
last two years. She found out three years before this that her husband, a senior banking official, had a second wife in a nearby village But she lived for three years after this revelation trying to make the relationship come right. 'I did not like it and only
found it out when my friend helped me to follow my husband to his other home, I was so shocked,' she says. View says that her husband became non communicative with her shortly after their marriage and she thought that this was how married
people lived. This continued after she found out about the second relationship. 'He only did talk with me and tell me what I do wrong and only on a holiday, my friends say that foreign men are different and now I enjoy talk with foreign men every
night, my life look brighter,' she says. Significantly View says that fear of losing her husband and children was the main reason she stayed with her unhappy marriage but she has now told her husband that she is preparing to say Goodbye to him
and has moved away from her home with her children to stay with friends.
'It appears that there less communication between partners in some Thai marriages,' says Carla Boonkong. 'I know this is changing as Thailand becomes more modern but there are still some very old fashioned attitudes at all levels of Thai
society,' she says. 'Thai women are less afraid today to speak up and also less afraid of losing status by divorcing or saying goodbye to a bad relationship. And I think this is a good thing,' she adds.
Introducing the Gig - between a minor wife and girlfriend
If foreigners interested in Thailand or seeking relationships in Thailand weren't confused already by the fluid nature of minor wife relationships and marriage among some sections of the Thai population, along comes the 'gig' to mix things up
'It's an expression being used all over Thailand right now and seems to mean different things to many different people.' says Carla Boonkong. 'It seems to be a terms for a friendly relationship on the side and often refers to sex.
Thailand's happy go lucky attitude towards sex and the 'gig'
Thai culture is very reticent about sex and in many respects very conservative. Yet in practice it is a complex yet traditional society. 'There are many conservative Thai men and women. For instance many middle aged Thai women consider
sex at such an older age to be unacceptable while many older women have affairs. Semi nudity may cause offence among some elements in society while many office parties feature 'sexy dancers'. There is certainly an ambiguous attitude
towards sex in Thailand but in general, Thailand is a country where people enjoy a lot of personal freedom,' says Carla Boonkong. This personal freedom, she describes, creates an environment which the 'gig' relationship thrives.
Thai women and sexy talk about 'gigs'
Ajarn Andy is a Thai professor at a university in central Thailand. He is over sixty years of age but his wife of nearly forty years has been paralysed by a stroke for the past three years. Ajarn Andy has in the past had a series of short term lovers
notably younger women. He loves his Thai wife very much but has a number of 'gigs' who he treats to a night out and often a little money.
Two Thai women are buying clothes together in a Bangkok shopping centre, one of whom has actively sexual relationship with her husband of over fifteen years while the other is more old fashioned. In order to shock the other woman, the
more sexual active friend tells her friend that she has a hot date tonight wit her 'gig'. It's a joke but her less adventurous friend is not altogether sure that her friend is joking and is shocked. In the shopping centre they meet a young Thai woman with
a UK husband working in Saudi Arabia hand in hand with a handsome Thai man who is her 'gig' and they are heading for night out. 'I have seen situations exactly like this. Even the Thais at the margins of society somehow find a way to liven things
up with an exciting love life, I have lived in France and for a little while in the UK and I think Thai people have a more carefree attitude towards personal relationships,' says Carla Boonkong.
Definition of a 'gig' in Thailand is not quite clear
There is some confusion among Thai people about the meaning of a 'gig' relationship. For most it is simply a casual relationship. But there is a question as to whether there is a sexual element to the relationship or not. For instance in Bangkok
among younger students some claim a 'gig' is a girlfriend or boyfriend who one dates but doesn't have a sex with but Carla Boonkong says that this is not fully accurate.
'A gig is a friend in flirtations and often sexual way, it is an accepted subculture in Thailand where there is a surprisingly high level of acceptance of human sexuality even though many Thai people are very old fashioned about sex. But there are
also many who are more liberal. I know an older woman over sixty who has many younger gigs. In this instance the term gig would more appropriately termed old gig,' she laughs.
Thai society and western cultures and values
The key thing for foreigners to Thailand to be accept is that it is dangerous to see Thai men and women through the lens of western culture and values. While the activities of Thai men and women who are wives, minor wives or gigs may seem
odd or even amusing to some, these cultures and practices can often breed confusion and misunderstanding among westerners involved in relationships with Thai partners. The same cannot equally be said for Thai women looking at western
men. More and more in Thailand, western culture and values are being seen and even welcomed. The key to it all is understanding and communication.