An American husband living in Thailand with his Thai wife says he believes that deep cultural differences in his relationship with his wife can be dangerous even if rewarding.
Not so long ago a foreigner marrying a Thai woman or dating a Thai woman could have been sentenced to death by beheading under the Thai legal code. The Thai
authorities at the time had the option to impose life imprisonment or degradation of status to 'elephant rearer'.
Undoubtedly there has been a change in attitudes within Thai society towards Thai women finding love with foreigners and today many single Thai women from educated
backgrounds with good jobs, often government jobs, seek love with foreigners. However it would be true to say that there is still a conservative voice among some quarters of Thai
society that disapproves.
One of Thailand's most famous authors illustrates this disapproval when writing poignantly about an elegant Thai woman marrying a foreign love partner. The
Thai woman is described as not unlike beautiful Thai women at the Thai court in ancient times. In the scene, the Thai woman is sitting with an American man on a wedding stool.
The Thai woman is from a respectable background with a good education. The words used to describe the scene are 'uncomfortable,' 'unacceptable' and most tellingly,
'disappointed.' The excerpt illustrates the reservations held by conservative Thais towards the growing phenomenon of Thai women finding love with foreigners. Interestingly, there
is less offence at sex tourism as this simply involves unfortunate Thai women who sell their bodies for money to foreigners. Most respectable Thai people but particularly more
contemporary Thais will admit that the Thai prostitution industry is an embarrassment. But the sight of Thai women openly in love with foreigners is more offensive to some more
traditional and conservative Thais even today in the midst of a growing acceptance by many. What the author is writing about illustrates perhaps a desire by more conservative
Thais to preserve Thai culture and close it off from foreign influences.
Thai culture and Love in Thailand
It is said often that foreign men should learn Thai culture before entering into a relationship with a Thai woman. Some dismiss this notion and point out that every person comes
from a different culture but that love is essentially the same the world over. But this is not quite true. Thai culture is a very strong and living one less influenced by external forces than
perhaps any other. There are deep but obtuse differences between Thai culture and foreign cultures. These can be found particularly in the personal and religious sphere.
Love is a different thing to people from different cultures. It is hard for western foreigners to sometimes to appreciate the difference between Thai culture and western culture.
One of the obvious ways to illustrate this is to point out that for Thai women the concept of God is sometimes difficult to understand. Buddhism is more about a way of thinking and
also in Thai culture one of the key cultural traditions is respect for seniors and taking care of parents.
Sex is closed subject in Thailand
Love in Thailand is very much about respect and duty. For a Thai woman, there is respect and duty to her husband and to her parents. It is a very conservative society.
In western countries, relationships and love have become enmeshed in sexuality and sex. But Thailand and Thai culture has a decidedly modest approach to sex. 'This is
almost a joke when you think about how Thailand has become so infamous for its sprawling sex for sale industry' says Carla Boonkong. 'For most Thai women this is the reality. In
Thailand and within Thai culture, women are brought up not to think about sex as a personal thing much less enjoy it. Even talking about sex is taboo.' The result is a clash of
cultures and confusion when you consider the numbers of Thai women working in Bangkok, Pattaya or some parts of the world in the sex industry.'
Foreign men and Thai bar girls
It might be the explanation for many of the poor results that occur when foreign men meet and marry Thai bar girls. 'I think a Thai woman who has been brought into the sex
industry is going against her own culture but you often hear that Thai bar girls see the sex industry as a way to take care of their families even though casual sex is prohibited by
In proper Thai society a Thai woman who has more than one sexual partner in her life is seen as a 'bad' woman. This explains why many divorced Thai women or women from
failed relationships in Thailand end up seeking foreign relationships. 'Many Thai men have a very low view of women who are divorced or even widowed,' says M/.s Boonkong.
Conservative view: Thai women and foreigners
Many Thai academics and commentators see the modern trend in sexual liberation for women and the growing numbers of Thai women seeking foreign partners for love as
sign of 'decline' in morals in Thai society. Thailand is still very much a 'patriarchal' society.
Love in Thailand: Thai men expect to marry a virgin
It is still common in Thailand for Thai men to expect to marry a virgin. Such a thought went out of fashion in western societies about forty years ago but it is still strong in
Thailand today. 'Many Thai women see a Thai woman who isn't a virgin as a 'used' object. It's shocking but this is true' says M/s Boonkong. 'It's like in Victorian times in England. If a
Thai woman is divorced then it is common for those in Thai society to blame the Thai woman and she will more or less agree with this herself. It's the same when a Thai man
seeks a new wife or second wife and abandons his first wife. Surely there must have been something wrong with her.'
Thai women are wired differently
John Hoskins is an American married to his Thai wife for over twelve years. 'Even if you don't initially believe in the differences between the cultures, as you live with a Thai
woman, you will find out about it. Because your Thai wife will tell you often that she is so proud of Thailand but will never really expand on the deep stuff, wow it's so deep it shouldn't
even be discussed. For me what puts it on my radar is that the only time I have ever seen my wife lose it is when it was a cultural difference. When it happens, it frightens me, it's not
messing around. Often it's because she wants to do something for me and feels like you know it's her duty. I truly believe that the culture is so deep that it's dangerous. As the years
go by it's the differences between our backgrounds that make the relationships so different and way out happy but I always bear this danger in mind.'
Widows and divorcees seek love
A recent survey showed that 58% of Thai women finding love with foreigners are either divorced or have come from a previous relationship. This figure will continue to grow in
coming years. A study by one Thailand's leading commercial banks estimates that there will 5-6 million Thai women without love partners by 2020 the majority of them being
divorced women or women who have had failed relationships.
The treatment of Thai women who are divorced or widowed within Thai society is a significant factor behind their motivation to find love with a foreigner. 'In Thai society and
often with the Thai women themselves there is an unstated opinion that if a woman is divorced it is because she has not lived up to her husband's expectations or been a bad wife,'
says Carla Boonkong a journalist from Bangkok. This is echoed by John Hoskins the US man married to a Thai woman previously divorced from a Thai man. 'Talking about this, it
sounds unreal but I can see how this fits in. I have lived my wonderful wife now for five years and it is touching to see how she works so hard to do everything for me, it's as if she's
afraid that if things don't work out, it'll be her fault. Now she's no walkover and a strong woman but even on the rare occasion when we disagree I detect this vulnerability and
somehow it makes easier for me to give in.'
Widows are also stigmatized by many men in Thai society. 'To a lesser extent than Thai women who are divorced but there is also the Buddhist belief in fate or karma and
many widows who have lost a husband can feel guilty,' says Carla Boonkong.
It is thought among some sections of Thai society that widows and divorced women are full of sexual desire. Thai men often look to women like this for short term sex. One
researcher illustrates this by quoting from another famous Thai author, Suwanna Sukhnata. 'Why don't you try to get her? It's good to get it for free. That way you can save money
from going to the prostitute' or 'a widow like her is nonsense. She is dying to have a husband. Can't you tell from her eyes?'
These quotes illustrate the less than respectful attitude that some Thai men have for Thai women who are widowed or divorced. 'This of course is changing particularly among
better educated Thais and in urban areas like Bangkok but it does give us a flavour of the background that may drive many Thai women to seek love with a foreigner,' says Carla
Thai wives in London: love with foreigners
The background and culture of love in relationships for Thai women in Thailand is highlighted by findings of a Thai research project focusing on Thai women married to English
men and living in London. This research found that there was a pattern of abuse in a large number of the relationships (50%). This contradicts a similar survey of Thai wives living
throughout England which find only two failed or abusive relationships out of a bigger sample. However what was interesting about the Thai project is that the Thai women involved
were happy to remain with their English partners and deemed the relationships a success. Two examples for the projects where:
- A divorced Thai woman who had worked in the Thai sex industry. The woman was in a relationship with a Thai man who held a low position as a motorcycle courier. In the
survey she reported that the Thai man had physically and verbally abused her as a divorced woman and still made her feel like a prostitute. Her English husband was aware of her
background treated her with respect. She also reported that her relationship with her English husband had thought her to enjoy her body and value her sexuality.
- All Thai women reported having to work to send money to families in Thailand and facing challenges fitting into the culture in England. Many Thai women describe England as
'harder' and more formal than life in Thailand. While half the relationships in this research project ended in divorce or failure, all Thai women reported that they were happy that they
had found love with an English man in the first place. All participants in the survey reported that they felt stronger having adjusted to the culture in the UK and in particular about the
idea of enjoying sex for themselves.
Valentine's Day in Thailand - love in action
In recent years in Thailand, as the country has opened up to western culture, celebrations for Christmas and Valentine's Day have grown in popularity. Both festive occasions
appeal to a particular affection among Thai people for giving gifts as way to show love and appreciation.
Valentine's Day in particular illustrates how Thais and particularly Thai women feel about love. John Hoskins, an American living in Thailand tells us about his first Valentine's
Day in Thailand. 'I guess I let the ball drop because I was shocked to see everything around me on Valentine's Day and I hadn't bought a card or gift. I remember running to the
nearest store and picking up some flowers and card. I know it sounds lame but my life with my Thai wife was like Valentine's Day every day. But I was shocked when I arrived home
with my pathetic bunch of flowers and card. She had bought me dozens of beautiful red roses. She had dinner, candles, a Valentine's Day cake and card. She does it every year
since. I think it's because she loves the idea of Valentine's Day and wants our relationship to be romantic and full of love. She doesn't leave it up to me. It's so touching'. Carla
Boonkong has a note of caution. 'If John's wife was a younger Thai woman who wasn't a divorcee from a previous relationship, it wouldn't be so rosy for him. Younger Thai women
expect their men to do the running but absolutely love what many younger western women have come to think of as kitsch or sloppy. But I am sure there are many also that love
Valentine's Day like this.'
Every Thai woman wants her love life to be a success
'Thai women want their love lives to be a success just like western women but the patriarchal Thai culture and the closed nature of Thai society has made many Thai women a
little innocent but less cynical and out love. It is still accepted in Thai society that men are leaders in any relationship and it is quite common for Thai women to 'carry' the
relationship as matter of face. The same face that delights Thai women when a love partner does get it right and sends a Valentine's Day gift.'
Carla suggests the following characteristics of Thai women which are evident not only on St Valentine's Day but all year around:
- Thai women love photos. The upsurge in mobile phones and smart phones with cameras makes it so much easier. Thai women love to make photo albums showing them
and their love partner enjoy all special occasions.
- The rigid nature of Thai society means that Thai women expect everything to be 'as stated on the box'. Therefore Valentine's Day must involve romantic meals with flowers and
gifts even if the budget is tight and photographs must be taken.
- Thai women love 'Hello Kitty', stuffed teddy bears, cakes and chocolates. All signify a good time. A Thai woman will be very proud of a pillow case or dressing gown which says
something like 'Best wife' in contrast to younger western women who live in a society which would regard such expressions as 'sad'.
Foreigners finding love in Thailand
The numbers of foreigners finding love in Thailand grows every day and the number of relationships established is in the hundreds of thousands. The difference in the two
cultures for some is an obstacle but it is also one of the delights in such a relationship. However it should not be underestimated at any time.
'It's easy to make light of the culture difference. It is so true that the world is getting to be a smaller place so they say but a foreigner man should always remember that there is a
complete difference of emphasis and it could become a problem that flares up anytime no matter how long the relationship lasts. Thai culture is wired into the heart of every Thai
woman, it's what makes a Thai woman tick,' says Carla Boonkong.