Love in the Land of Smiles

I have in fact stolen the title of this blog post from a book I recently read about prostitution in Thailand. Whilst it is only one book, on one narrow topic in Thailand, it gave me some insight into the relationship Thai culture has with sex, something which has continued to baffle me throughout my time here.

As I have mentioned before, whilst there are distinct differences between Karen life and Thai life, in a community such as this, the lines are blurred, and I am unable to distinguish between the two most of the time. For the purposes of this blog though, I will refer to Thai culture.

I first became interested in the relationship Thai culture has with sex after the house warming party I went to the first weekend I arrived.

I had been warned by KHT before I arrived to dress modestly. I was not to wear anything above the knee or that revealed cleavage or shoulders in order to be culturally sensitive. KHT have a reputation to uphold and as a foreign teacher in the community, I am well known and want to give a positive impression.

In addition, traditional dress, which is still often worn amongst the villagers in day to day life (supplemented with more modern clothing) is very conservative. Long skirts and a V-neck, t-shirt type top for married women, a long dress for the single girls. The men wear a similar t-shirt type top but with low crotch trousers (although not as low as my genie pants – apparently this is traditional further north in other hill tribes of Thailand).

You can imagine how shocked I was then, when, at this mid-afternoon party, I saw scantily clad girls parading around a stage in high heels. What’s more, male partygoers frequently approached the stage to stuff 20 Baht notes (about 40p) into their underwear, both bras and knickers.

Perhaps it was the lack of expectation of such things, especially in a rural community such as this, but I was genuinely shocked by such behaviour. My desire to understand grew from there.

Fast forward a couple of months and I am still a long way from a full understanding, though I am perhaps a little more informed.

In many ways Thailand seems to be a place of dichotomies co-existing together. On the one hand, there is poverty, on the other people eat sweets every day (you can read a little more about that on my fellow volunteer’s blog).

It seems to be the same with sex.

On the one hand, it seems to be deemed inappropriate for women (especially) to have sex outside of marriage. If you do choose to have sex with a boyfriend and happen to fall pregnant, it is generally accepted that you will not find another partner in the future. There are significantly more Thai women than men and, as I understand it, no Thai man wants the burden of another man’s children.

On the other, it seems infidelity is rife. Although not necessarily deemed acceptable, it is without doubt accepted as part of life. This too seems to be a key feature of life here. Alcoholism, domestic violence, infidelity and other social issues exist, as they do across the world, but here everybody seems to know about them and just accepts it as part of life. Despite being illegal, there seems to be a thriving prostitution industry in Thailand, perhaps even more so among locals than with foreigners. Statistics suggest many men and women are involved in prostitution at some point in their lives and I have heard a few stories whilst here that support this.

There is also the third sex in Thai culture, the Khatoey, or as we call them in the west, the infamous Thai Ladyboys. The term Khatoey encompasses a vast range of men, from those who are actively gay (although this exists, it too is still illegal) to those who simply like to dress up as women on occasion. It is common and accepted (mostly – I have heard rumours of parents who don’t accept it in their own children, even if they accept it in others). Even in a small town such as Mae La Luang it is not uncommon to see Khatoeys. They are often well known in the community and, though they are often obvious, teachers and friends are quick to point them out to me.

However, Khatoeys, especially in a rural community such as this, are as likely to marry as anybody else. As long as he provides for his family, anything else he might do is overlooked.

There is a strong sense of duty in Thai culture, and as long as a man provides shelter, food and love for his family, he is considered a good man. It seems to matter less if he is unfaithful, or an alcoholic, as long as he provides. It is when he ceases to do this that marriages break down and divorce happens, but inevitably this is often a result of drinking too much or wasting his money on something else.

Unlike in the West, where we have an obsession with “falling in love” or “finding the one”, marriage here remains first and foremost a practical life choice. Many people marry when they want children, or because they need support of some kind, financial, domestic or otherwise.

However, were you to watch Thai TV for a day you might not believe this is still the case. It is full of music videos and soap operas telling stories of love and lust, marriage, break ups, infidelity and above all drama.

It seems too, that girls are encouraged to wear next to nothing when performing, to put on lots of make-up and to dance in a very suggestive way, whether they are 5 years old and dancing on the local school stage or 25 years old dancing in a music video. Were girl to do that off the stage though, it would be seen as incredibly shameful.

As an outsider it is hard, especially in such a short time, to understand the nuances of Thai culture and its relationship to sex and marriage. And of course I don’t doubt that it is different again in the cities. Social media and information and communication technology is rapidly changes the world. No doubt part of what I see is a community trying to adapt to the current influences whilst maintaining the old traditions, and when they are worlds apart, this is no easy task.

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