You can imagine the response when you call home and tell your family and friends that you are getting married… and she’s a bargain for only two thousand quid! “Oh, by the way, dad, could you lend me another grand as her uncle in Buriram wants a plough.” The Thai and Western perception of dowry is usually polarized – can be conceived as a warm gift for the family, an ingrained, irrevocable cultural necessity or as an unethical flesh payment.
Recently talking to Westerners about dowries I’ve heard things said, such as, “Why would I give her dad money to blow on gambling and booze.” – “Wasn’t too concerned about the dowry, but wasn’t expecting her aunt to move in and have to pay for her niece’s education.” – “She wanted a million, but I managed to get her down to three hundred thousand.” – “Only suckers would pay a dowry.” And from an ex-AUA teacher, “I’ve got to go and work in Korea, AUA doesn’t pay enough for me to save for the dowry.” Discuss with most, if not all Thais and you’ll find they espouse the dowry payment. From wealthy Bangkokians to penurious Isaan farmers, this ritualistic obligation is far from being unethical, rather, it is a determining part of social relationships- as coarse as it may sound to the Westerner, the sleazy adage ‘No money no honey’ works throughout the entire social stratosphere. Don’t be surprised if your burgeoning romance takes a nose dive when she finds out that you manage your accounts on an abacus.
But hold on a minute before you decry the financial transaction needed for your Thai bride to be; it wasn’t too long ago the dowry payment was an integral part of Western culture. The now archaic word dower was a payment made by a woman’s family to a man as insurance against his death. She was, if you like, endowed with cash or valuable goods if he was to die and leave her to fend for herself. Her money might also buy part of his real estate, which would be allotted to her if he were to die. This was a well established institution throughout Europe, and as far as India, where it is still intrinsic to the culture today. Note, if the women died childless it was usual for man to return the money to her family. The modern person may find all this ridiculous, and it certainly seems to demote the female as a societal member – making them more of a commodity than a pivotal organ. Yet if we are to criticise the dowry payment in Thailand (have a look at the dowry forums on ThaiVisa.com) it might be best to understand our own dowry history and the reasons for its superannuation. Besides insurance against the husband’s death, here are some more relevancies towards the Western dowry:
The size of the dowry was proportional to the groom’s social status; this usually kept lovers in the same social class.
Unmarried women were stigmatised as being a black mark on the family’s reputation.
Poor women’s families, financially bereft, would often give the woman to a rich man as a concubine and he in turn would support her. This, when you think about it, is not so different from the Thai mia noi (second wife). Providing poor women with dowries was seen as a form of charity. One common penalty for the kidnapping and rape of unmarried women was that the abductor or rapist had to provide the woman’s dowry.
This certainly does seem outdated and characteristically phallocentric of the past as well as being riddled with shortcomings, blatant sexism and the weary vapidity of old traditional ideology. As we evolve slowly in a physical way you could say we evolve rapidly in a cultural, cerebral way. Things change, and most pertinently to the dowry system, Western male/female equality. So it is disconcerting for a Western bloke to be expected to pay money for (not to) his Thai wife, even though two hundred years ago in his own country she would have had to pay money for him. You can only arrive at an impasse when discussing this with most Thai people: two different cultures have two different points of view and imperviously disparate ideas and opinions formed over a lifetime in very different social circumstances. I spoke to Ajarn Suriya Smutkupt, an anthropologist with a previous post at Korat University in Isaan. He’s currently researching a paper entitled ‘Farang in Law’ about farang marrying and living in Isaan. We had a three hour conversation on the Thai dowry, Isaan, prostitution and beguiled foreigners. “Dowries are not only seen in low society families,” he told me, “the founder of Grammy record’s daughter was married recently and it was a publicised event. The American husband bought her diamonds, gold, gifts and gave her cash. Dowries are very important as a social status symbol that newspapers often announce how much gold, how big the ring and so forth, which someone has had to pay or has received. Public knowledge, establishing alliances and the cohesion of families/blood ties are all very important in Thailand.”
“So why is the Thai dowry paid to the woman whereas the rest of world does it, or did it, differently?” I asked him, sitting atop a stool in a room stacked full of books and newspapers. Speaking English impeccably well he replied, “Land in Thailand is usually taken care of by the woman, or inherited by the woman. It is usual for the man to move in with her family after marriage, whereas in Western and Chinese cultures the woman will move in with the man and he will take care of her and the land. She will pay to be part of his wealth and his family status. Thailand is the opposite. This might explain the difference in dowry practice.” Suriya went on to say,
“Men must pay the kar nam nom or milk money, which literally means the money she owes for her mother’s breast milk; this is money the daughter must pay back to her family as a repayment for her upbringing. The milk money might be the dowry which the man pays to the daughter. Sometimes the family gives the money back to the couple, but he must prove that he has the funds in the first place. If the woman is not married she must pay this debt by herself; this is why you get many poor uneducated women selling their bodies to pay back the milk money.”
“But still, you must see that this practice is strange for the Westerner; some men feel they are buying flesh, almost like a call girl on a life long visit,” I said to Suriya hoping he might make me feel better about my resolution never to hand over a dowry. He replied, “Some Thai women think farang are made of gold, they think the streets of the West are paved in gold. It goes back to the sixties when the GIs were here, we didn’t have anything, no cars, no TVs, nothing. The Westerners that came over had it all, they were tall, pale, had golden hair and big cars. I suppose the myth that all farang are rich has never gone away. When a poor bar girl meets a farang guy it’s often her ticket out of poverty, or at least a way of helping her parents and gaining respect in her village.” “You see,” I interrupted, “gaining respect out of selling your body just seems inconceivable. Less after years in Thailand I suppose, but still very bleak and hard to accept.” He told me that a rejected girl, a girl forced to leave the village will often look for a farang husband. Many Isaan girls leave for
Pattaya and Bangkok looking for this milk money to give their parents. He added, “You are poor, you have nothing, your family have nothing and then a man supposedly made of gold comes along. They don’t care about age, they care only about the money – the farang is often just a meal ticket and nothing else. Foreign husbands have been known to have disappeared once their wives have been included into their wills. There are plenty of murder cases in Isaan involving farang. Something quite amusing I found while researching was the story of a farang that found out his wife had been cheating on him, so he hired a bull dozer and destroyed his and her property, right in front of her family. Foreigners really have to read the situation, many are naive; they don’t understand at all what they are getting into. A lot of girls are looking to milk foreign guys; not all are, but still you must be careful.” Touching on the subject of poverty and prostitution again he told me, “There’s a phrase in Thai: dtok keaw — it means drop the green rice and wait until it is ready for harvesting. This really is about child trafficking. The pimp buys the girl at about ten years old and then sells her to prostitution when she reaches puberty. The families have nothing and see it as their only way out. There’s less of it going on these days as much pressure to eradicate trafficking has been added by the government, but you can see the importance and the struggle to find money. People make these decisions from poverty.” “It seems to go right against the Buddhist precept of trying to give up the desire to gain material wealth.” I mentioned to the loquacious ajarn. “Well,” he smiled, “good point, but life is all about contradiction – this is in every culture.”
Interviewing random Thais and foreigners it was evident that the more a Thai man paid or would pay, the prouder he was, yet the farang I talked to seemed prouder of getting themselves a free bride or at least a cheap/discounted one: Us and Them at the different end of the psychological spectrum, losing face for the opposite reasons. Here are a few people, married and unmarried couples I asked about dowries.
“Men must pay
the kar nam nom or milk money,
which literally means
the money she owes for
her mother’s breast milk;
this is money the daughter
must pay back to her family
as a repayment
for her upbringing.”
Ben, Thai, 28 — not married but expects to pay not more than 500,000.
James, Scottish, 38 – paid 100,000. Porn, Thai, 28 – not married but expects 1,000,000.
Jake, USA, 32 – paid 200,000plusgold. Got it all back after the ceremony.
Hank, 70, Australia — didn’t pay a down.
“His family provided a dowry of tens upon tens of millions of baht,
a giant emerald necklace set worth 20 million,
gold and property in Bangkok, Hua Hin and Pattaya.”
but does help her father out financially.
- Bungee, 24, Thai – not married, expects 3-500,000.
- Gob, 57, Thai – married and didn’t pay. Bob, 31, Irish – paid 200,000 (a gesture, was never asked) but got the money back.
- Jump, 33, Thai – her family was given 100,000 plus 150 grams of gold and a condo in Bangkok. Her family gave her the condo.
Prem, 33, Thai/English – received no dowry.
Suriya then told me a story of a Swiss engineer who was the first man in Isaan to take a machinating wife to court and win the case. She had married him without telling him of a daughter she had had previously to a Thai man. After the marriage she started to gamble (with his money) and drink. Subsequent to their divorce she forced her first child into prostitution. “Men come here and think they can change these girls, they believe that things will be as they were in their own culture. The only successful marriages are the ones where the men are the negotiators; they learn the language and try and understand Thai culture. You must make your intentions clear from the beginning; you are associated with money and in most cases you are expected to pay your way.” “One more thing,” I asked, “would a Thai man be expected to pay a farang woman’s family a dowry.” “No,” he quickly returned, “he probably wouldn’t be living with her family, and anyway, it would be thought that they don’t need the money.”
Casting away from the doom and gloom, the venal mischief and insidious bar girls there are some successful Western/Thai relationships. Speaking to a couple who’d been together over 35 years it was heartening and instilled confidence to witness the obvious solidity and understanding in their bi-cultural relationship. Harry and May were married in a time when it was quite unusual for farang to become part of the Thai family.
Her family, affluent, travelled, and not exactly penurious expected May to marry a formidable man. “My parents saw Harry only a few times,” May told me, “they wanted me to marry a Thai society man but I think they liked Harry, he came from a good family and went to Oxford.” Harry then added, “Her father didn’t exactly ask me for a dowry but he did have a list of things he wanted to be done such as invite the British Ambassador to preside over the wedding. I saved some money and bought a diamond ring, which I thought was quite large. At the wedding May’s mother gave her one of her own rings to wear as she was embarrassed about the small size of mine.” May and Harry, finding these moments of awkwardness in their past amusing, went on to tell me about their relatives, some of whom were extremely wealthy. “My niece was educated in America. When she met a Thai man she said she loved, it was then over to the families to arrange a dowry.” I interrupted, “So it’s always the families that pay, not the man?” “It’ never the man,” May told me, “the families are responsible for the dowry; he doesn’t have to give anything. Much of the time dowries are about face, not losing face and showing how much wealth you have. In this case the man’s father was very rich, held a highly respectable position in Bangkok. His family provided a dowry of tens upon tens of millions of baht, a giant emerald necklace set worth 20 million, gold and property in Bangkok, Hua Hin and Pattaya.”
She added, “In poverty it’s all about the survival money, this is not the case in wealthy families. The kids usually just want to marry but the families demand something commensurate to their wealth.” The maid then came in and served us afternoon tea and scones so I asked if I could ask her a few questions. Her daughter had recently married and she had asked the husband for 100,000 baht milk money. When I asked her if she would have allowed her daughter to marry a poor man without a dowry she resolutely replied, “No way, if he can’t get the money then he must find it; his family must find it.”
Harry said, “Times are changing, the extended families are breaking down and more and more couples are living together. The problem with farang and Thai relationships in the extended family is that often the foreigner doesn’t understand the importance of her family. He doesn’t know that she has a duty to support her mother. The dowry is more for the family than for the children, although I didn’t expect a dowry from my daughter. I expect today’s generation are just looking for love. You also have to take into account that in Thailand there is no support for the woman if there is a divorce; the dowry is a kind of insurance.” Digressing a little we talked about second wives and infidelity. Harry said, “In older generations most men had a second wife, in fact a lot of Thai men still do. Second wives don’t get a dowry but they do get some kind of financial dependence. It’s been known for some men to have two sisters as wives!” Then May added, “when Bangkokians came up north from the city the local subordinates would provide officials with girls.” And I listened on as May and Harry talked me through the estranged past, the fickle present and the uncertain future — all of which harboured stories that seemed to oscillate from the nonsensical to the unethical, and then inexplicably, with a little more thought and discussion, seemed to border on reasonable.
Time is not just a great healer, it also desensitizes you to your surroundings, because the longer you are here the less unusual these acts are perceived. If you want to learn the Thai language it is better to forget English, not to translate so much, rather to take a situation and try and see it in Thai. From Thai to English, translations of words and grammar often doesn’t work, and it’s the same with culture; you can’t see things through your own set of opinions and ethics and expect it to translate into Thai or vice versa. You can’t bring together the two cultures; they don’t live happily side by side. I suppose the best thing you can hope for is to enjoy the chaos of a multicultural and often messy, marriage.