Back in 2002 while I was working for Reuters in Thailand, I researched and wrote a feature about mail-order bride agencies, which help foreign men meet and marry Thai women. People often make unkind and prejudiced judgments about relationships between Western men and Thai women, assuming (usually wrongly) that they have nothing to do with love and are motivated instead by money (for the women) and sex (for the men). Part of the problem is that Thailand’s vast industrialized sex sector is infamous all over the world.
For Thais from poorer backgrounds, employment opportunities are very limited, and for some the sex industry appears to offer hope of a better life. In reality, however, it often destroys the lives of those who work in it, and the skewed economic incentives caused by Thailand’s sex industry do great damage to the country. It is tragic that it is so difficult for a Thai from a poor background to get the opportunity to train to become a doctor or nurse or teacher, while there are so many opportunities to earn money in the sex sector.
Federico Ferrara, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong who runs the excellent Khi Kwai blog, wrote an article in 2009 called Thailand For Sale, about the sex industry and how it is sustained by entrenched inequality. As he wrote:
For the Thai bourgeoisie, the great thing about the status quo — beyond the fact that tourism makes businesses more prosperous, jobs more remunerative, and taxes less burdensome — is that while the measly sums families upcountry receive from their daughters keep them afloat and hence muffle the clamor for a more interventionist role of the state, in the absence of real economic development millions of provincial bores never go far beyond mere subsistence. Incidentally, though “sufficiency” is all the elites and the local press say provincial Thais should aspire to, the continuing reality of rural poverty perpetuates the incentive structure that makes prostitution the best possible career choice for upcountry girls by the hundreds of thousands. You can force people into mere subsistence, but it is quite another thing to extinguish any yearning for self-advancement, to sear upon people’s faces idiotic smiles of contentment. Nor, for that matter, would the elites really want for the slogging proles to surrender all hopes of a better life — not lest they piss away the steady supply of cheap labor that makes their parasitic lives so comfortable.
The pervasive sexism and condescension of members of the Bangkok elite was exemplified by comments made last year by failed Ponzi-scheme fraudster Akeyuth Anchanbutr, who declared on Facebook (in an effort to insult Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra) that:
Northern girls who are uneducated or lazy and intellectually retarded will look for an easy job that normal women won’t do… Mainly it’s prostitution … Therefore, the Northern woman who is devoid of intelligence and extremely stupid yet thick-faced enough to take up the position, you should know what profession suits you.
(He later denounced me on Facebook too after I criticized his remarks; you can read my response here, it’s in Thai with an English translation in the comments section.)
Mail-order bride agencies in Thailand thrive on inequality too — the semi-feudal nature of Thai society which gives the poor so few opportunities to improve their lives, and the vast economic disparity between Thailand and the West. And so, while many cross-cultural relationships are genuine (and I’m engaged to a brave and beautiful Thai woman myself), some Thais rush into unwise attachments with foreigners due to an understandable yearning for a better life, and instead end up bitterly unhappy, living far from home in an alien country with men they hardly know and can barely even communicate with. Thailand’s unequal society leaves the poor vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, both by other Thais and by foreigners.
As part of my research for my story on mail-order brides back in 2002 I interviewed Lawrence Lynch, the English boss of Thai-Professional Introductions, a fairly typical marriage agency which allows prospective foreign husbands to choose from four categories of Thai women — “Thai babes” (age 18-26), “Thai girls” (age 27-32), “Thai women” (age 33-39) and “Thai ladies” (age 40+). The company boasts that if men are in a real hurry to find a wife, they can meet and marry a Thai woman all within 48 hours of landing in Bangkok:
We can act at VERY short notice (48 hours) if required; but generally would advise a slightly more leisurely approach!
The agency also promises that it can find a wife for anybody:
We have found wives for a US judge, an English Lord, a council road sweeper, a man in a wheelchair, a man with one leg, men with missing hands, a deaf man, a man of 86, even a blind man!
The website is very rude about Thai men, declaring:
All ladies on our books are decent sincere ladies, genuinely looking for a loving caring partner, who they can love, take care of, and spend the rest of their lives with – Something they believe they will be unable to find in Thailand; as the majority of Thai men have a different outlook on life, and do not generally make good faithful loving husbands.
As a foreign man, I’m not so sure whether men anywhere are any better…
The website is equally rude about “Western women”, saying they tend to be fat and spoiled:
If you are one of the growing band of disillusioned genuine single Western gentlemen, who is “sick to the back teeth” with the new breed of twenty-first century woman. If you are disillusioned with the kind of de-feminised, over sized, self-centred, mercenary minded lady, available on the Western singles scene, who is only out for what she can get. Perhaps you are not “Gods gift to women”, feel that you are past your sell by date, or; are a workaholic, with no time to socialise, or when you do experience the singles scene, find it very shallow, and are completely disillusioned with it all. Thai Professional Introduction Services are for you!
It warns ominously that not all Thai women are “decent” and informs foreign men that it is impossible to meet the right kind of woman except through a special agency:
Any man who has visited Thailand, will tell you how easy it is to meet the WRONG type of Thai lady! And how it is virtually impossible, to safely meet a decent Thai lady.
The ONLY way to successfully meet a decent honourable marriage minded Thai lady is via a professional, ethical, reputable, experienced, Thai Government registered introduction agency such as T.P.I Ltd (Our Bangkok Company).
There is plenty of supposedly helpful advice about Thai etiquette — apparently foreign men should avoid wearing shorts, as Thais think that women who accompany short-wearing foreign men are prostitutes:
Always dress smartly when accompanying a lady in Thailand. Do not wear shorts or scanty clothing, especially in rural areas – This is insulting to the girl (Thai people will assume the girl is a prostitute).
And the website also reassures foreign men that Thai women are untainted by the baleful blight of feminism:
She is NOT like a feminist Western woman!
At the end of my interview with Lawrence Lynch, he asked if he could take a photograph of me with his staff. “Sure,” I innocently replied…
This may have been a mistake. For the past decade, the photograph of a smiling 31-year-old me has been proudly displayed on the Thai-Professional Introductions website:
Lawrence Lynch also features prominently in this superb BBC documentary by Louis Theroux in 2000. It’s both funny and heartbreaking, and illuminating not just about Thailand but about life. Theroux is a brilliant journalist, who uses humour and a faux-naive interview technique to uncover real insights about people. I recommend watching the documentary in full:
The film highlights the vulnerability of some Thai women looking for a better life — and some foreign men desperately looking for love —and shows how their dreams can be exploited by the unscrupulous. Lake Palmer is a tragic figure, and Ronnie Conrad a memorably sleazy villain.
If you are wondering what happened to Lake, things didn’t work out with his Thai bride, as a British newspaper article reported in 2004:
The 60-year-old admits he was taken for a fool by an Asian beauty he married only three days after they met.
She strung him along for eight months before dumping him for another rich European man, leaving him £12,000 in debt.
Now Lake, a former Army captain who served in the Borders, spends his days in bed, suffering from depression…
He said: “I cried for six weeks and I’ve lost all my confidence. I only have my Army pension to live on. I think that’s why she didn’t want me.
“I’ve had a nervous breakdown and I’m still desperately lonely.”
He later appeared on a British talk show to discuss his plans to propose to a Filipina:
It’s hideously compelling viewing, but also terribly sad. As the beautiful 1947 song Nature Boy by Eden Abhez says, the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return…