Some of what I learned about love in Thailand (part 1):
Obviously I know relationships differ across countries and culture. This post is a sort of companion piece to my blog on cross-cultural dating which I haven’t yet finished. (Writing my blog was pretty much the last thing on my mind during my 12 days in Thailand!) Thailand is incredibly multicultural. People from all over Asia go there to either live and work or for holidays and western people (usually Aussie, UK and North America) make up the majority of tourists from what I’ve seen the few times I’ve been there. Middle eastern also make up a decent percentage. In short Phuket is a Mecca of cultures, religions, languages and beliefs. And they all happily intermingle with little or no tension that I could see.
One thing I was quick to notice was that there were many young, or youngish, Thai women with older western men. Waiting for our baggage in Phuket I was watching an older man- perhaps 60-70- with a Thai girl who couldn’t have been more than 30. They had travelled together from at least Bangkok. And he was all over her. I watched as he kept fondling her and pawing at her arse and the carefully blank look she had until the moment he turned to kiss her or speak to her and then she’d smile like a minute ago she hadn’t been thinking wtf has my life come to. And in our hotel was an older man who couldn’t even walk standing up straight who would have been getting towards 80 with a young Thai girl who again wasn’t more than 30. I didn’t get it. I have always liked older men but by older I’m talking 2-5 years older. Not 2-5 *decades*.
Despite feeling a tad queasy at the idea of these couples I never once judged the Thai girls. They were doing what they had to do to further their life, to get away from poverty and have the things in life they wouldn’t have without these older men. The older men, however, I found myself judging slightly. I knew I shouldn’t and honestly I’m not a judgey sorta gal but I did. Still I told myself they were probably lonely and needed company and these relationships- as odd as they may look to us- fulfilled needs on both sides.
It was only talking to one of the Thai girls we made friends with whilst she was working in one of the bars that the whole issue came into focus. Because she was 27, with a lovely smile and face and laugh, a great figure and who would be a damn good catch and she was looking for a sexy man. But, she told me, said sexy man has to be older. Like how much older? I asked warily. And she said at the very least 50. She must have seen the shock on my face because she was quick to explain her reasoning: it was all about finding a man who was settled, mature and could look after her. Which I learnt quickly wasn’t uncommon there. It did remind me of the attitude of my half Greek/half Italian friend who stayed with her husband because he was a good provider for her and the kids rather than because she loved him. This I can only assume is the reason why many western men will go to Thailand to “buy” a wife. The added fact that women from these cultures like to really look after their men- the 50’s housewife- is just a plus I’m sure. (Note: this may be an unfair racial stereotype but I’m going on conversations I had with people over there, not all of which are recorded here because there were too many.)
Speaking to a Thai lady of about 40 (it’s hard for me to tell ages at the best of times, but even harder there!) about marriage and raising a family and I learnt that they are extremely family orientated. I don’t know if this is just a Thai thing or its across Asia but she told me that the man’s job was to make money, the woman’s to run the household and look after the children, even though many of these wives also have to work to supplement the husbands income. One day was a public holiday so the children weren’t at school and a tuk tuk driver we went with had his daughter with him after asking if that was okay with us. I saw a few other drivers with kids that day. It seems to me that the Thai people are very family orientated.
Whilst having a pedicure I got chatting to the young woman who was doing mine and then the other women joined in and they told me that they’d get a sponsor or their family or even village would scrape together the money to send them to beauty school and they’d leave their villages and come to somewhere like Phuket to work. One girl was from a tiny super-remote village in Laos, another from just across the border of Thailand and Myanmar. They’d send most of their money back to their families (after paying off their sponsor if they had one) to help look after them and they’d live in crowded homes in Phuket where they’d share rooms with anywhere from two or three to five other girls, all of whom were working in the tourist area and sending the money home to look after their elders. I’ve often thought if we can learn anything from the Thai people is how well they look after their family and elders.
One of the other things I think I love most about Thailand is how it’s completely and utterly non homophobic. I mean ladyboys alone are synonymous with the country. And you don’t see men taunting them or anything. Sure they worry about accidentally going with one and not knowing until the business end of the deal (I joked with a few tourists from various countries about them taking one for the team) but I don’t think I heard a single homophobic slur the entire time! My first trip to Phuket in Oct 2012 there was a huge American warship docked somewhere (we saw it on the cruise or flying in, I can’t quite remember) and there were a few sailors in a bar we were drinking in in the famous Bangala Rd and they were worried about how the hell they were going to tell. I joked when you see a dick then you can pretty much take it as a given. I did, however, point out some ways of telling like Adam’s apple, sometimes slightly masculine features and voice, they were usually more made up and in tighter and shorter clothes than tourists like us would be wearing in the heat and the simple fact that you could ask them. If they were a ladyboy they’d tell you. It’s not like Western countries where admitting you are a man dressed as a woman may lead to taunts and, worst case, gay bashing. For a few drinks we sat there and they’d guess if someone was a ladyboy or not until they were confident enough to give it a shot. I obviously never learnt the outcome but for their sake I hope they found themselves a nice Thai girl if that’s what they were looking for and were safe given that sexual safety isn’t the best in some countries especially when one party is drunk as a skunk and the other party wants to better themselves- even if the only way to do it is on their back, one tourist at a time.
Speaking to one ladyboy however I learnt something interesting: not all ladyboys are gay. In fact some would rather not even *be* a ladyboy! But as kids they were given makeup as presents and learnt to apply it (much better than I could ever do!) and once they got to a certain age they would leave their family village for the bright lights of places like Bangkok or Patong (perhaps other areas too but I’m not sure) and become ladyboys. Most of the money earnt, after their accomodation and upkeep, was sent back to their families and the ladyboy continued to work the street until they were- in his words- “too old and ugly to get customers.”
It also seems that the Thai people play on the ladyboy phenomenon. For instance on tours and things the guide will throw in joking comments about them and our boat boys entertained us on the way back with songs, drums and guitar and in one song one of the guys dressed up as a ladyboy and they sang about them.
There was one man we met who was worried about ladyboys. He was Russian and we couldn’t speak a word of Russian and his English was extremely limited but nonetheless we managed to have something of a chat whilst lying on the beach one afternoon. (He even bought us a beer!) But the one thing that we did garner from him was his disgust or fear of ladyboys- done using signs which were pretty universal. He was a nice enough guy despite this.
(Part 2 coming later- like when I can be bothered typing it up…)