Readers' Submissions

Thailand’s Reputation And How It Affects Me And My Relationship

  • Written by Solomon
  • February 15th, 2010
  • 17 min read

Not so long ago, amidst all the recent discussion about the morality of participating in Thailand’s P4P scene, Korski wrote an interesting opinion piece in response to Stick’s weekly column titled “Stick Leaps Into The Morality Debate Ring” of 24th January 2010. Unfortunately Korski’s submission was removed from the list only a day after it had first appeared.

Both Stick and Korski raised many interesting points in their respective articles, and I enjoyed the insight they offered in their contributions. Of all the opinions and arguments raised there was one element in particular that stuck in my memory and that I’d like to comment on.

Quote Korski:

“Stick opens his essay by stating that “the sector of Thailand’s commercial sex industry for foreigners is a major blight on the country’s image.” This strikes me as an exaggeration, and perhaps a large one at that. I suspect that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of tourists who go to Thailand each year give little or no thought to farang prostitution, and never go near Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza or Walking Street. They may have heard of these places, and thoughts of “sick and demented farang mongers” may briefly enter their minds, but then their thoughts, I’d venture, quickly move on to how they are going to enjoy the temples, the food, the beaches, the hotels, and the smiling and warm and colorful people they encounter. Their memories of Thailand have little or nothing to do with farang mongers.”

Furthermore…

“All of this constant participation by Stick, and being around and thinking about and being preoccupied with farang prostitution cannot help but to have greatly influenced—nay distorted–his perception of how much farang prostitution has “blighted” the image of the country.”

Korski’s words to this effect have surprised me. I wouldn’t necessarily argue against his reasoning that prolonged exposure to the sex industry carries the potential of having one’s perspective distorted to some degree. However, I do find his assertion that the sector of Thailand’s commercial sex industry for foreigners being a major blight on the country’s image is exaggerated quite curious. It certainly doesn’t match with the observations I have made over the years. In order to put things into perspective I feel like I first need to tell some of my story…

I first came to Thailand nine years ago. I was 22 years old, and other than having had spent a very short time in South Korea a year earlier it was my first trip to Asia. I spent a month travelling all over the country, with a short excursion into Laos, and very much enjoyed the experience. Thailand’s P4P had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to choose the country as a travel destination. I was aware that Thailand had a reputation for sex tourism but did not know much about the scene. I had no particular interest in learning about it, nor did it cross my mind at any time to take part in it. It was while doing my pre-trip research that I had first stumbled over Stickman’s website, back in the old Chopsticks days. I remember thoroughly enjoying reading the articles about travelling and living in Thailand, and have ever since been a regular reader of the submissions section.

I didn’t return to Thailand for quite a few years until business obligations required me to take several week-long trips to Bangkok. Since 2006 I have gone to Bangkok on business on average four to five times per year, spending anywhere between five to fifteen days per trip. Meeting many Thais and expats alike during those years of coming to Thailand my circle of business contacts as well as friends gradually increased and has now reached quite a significant size. Whenever possible I have tried to take extra time off after all business was taken care of, spending it exploring all corners of the country as well as making several excursions into all other countries in the region. By now I have an okay grasp of conversational Thai and have taught myself to read and correctly interpret the intonation of the letters too.

I would lie if I claimed that during all those many visits I never got involved with any Thai women. I freely admit to having had a number of flings along the way, some more serious than others, and I also learned some painful lessons during the process. I also freely admit that I have probably caught quite serious jasmine fever in the process too.

On some occasions I visited the bars. Having learned more about the scene by then, at first I found them very intriguing, and I often enjoyed reading about guys’ experiences with bargirls. Despite this I never really felt tempted to barfine. I enjoyed observing, watching the pretty girls and their interaction with the customers, and in general the whole bizarre circus that was going on around them. After some time doing this, this too became old and whenever I was invited to join a party at Nana or Cowboy I looked for excuses why I didn’t want to go. The more I learned about the bars the less I felt like being anywhere near them. Probably one other reason for that is that I hardly drink alcohol which almost seems to be a prerequisite to really get a kick out of the bars. Spending quality time with my foreign or Thai friends at nice dinner parties or in a pleasant environment with live music had much more appeal.

In the end none of my flings with Thai women led to anything more significant. That is until I met Dao 2.5 years ago…

I was first introduced to Dao by friends of friends at a dinner party that both of us happened to be invited to. We immediately hit it off and at the end of the evening agreed that we both would like the idea of seeing each other again, and so it happened. Returning home to my European corner of Farangland we stayed in touch and gradually grew closer and closer to each other. I had never been interested in entering a long distance relationship for a number of reasons but eventually couldn’t help it from happening. I dived into it willingly without giving significant thought to the consequences or where it would lead. One could argue I lived for the moment. From then on, whenever I travelled to Bangkok, Dao became more and more the center of my attention. Several times I took extra time off from work and took her travelling if she could arrange to get away from her business. During the last two years we hiked the Indian Himalaya together, went to see the cherry blossoms in Japan, climbed Mount Kinabalu on Borneo, and visited minority tribes in Bangladesh. Last spring she also visited me in Europe for three weeks. When we were apart we spent significant time talking on the phone or on Skype.

Even though I’d like to think that Dao and I suit each other very well, unfortunately our relationship has never been very smooth. As much as we understand each other perfectly well in many very important ways, as difficult as our relationship has been in others mostly due to the uncertainty about our future together, and what I believe are trust issues on her part after suffering bad disappointments in past relationships.

I’d like to think that Dao is rather unusual compared to most other women, be it Thai or any other nationality, I have associated with before. Dao’s mother is from Phuket, her father from Chiang Mai. Her parents are both middle class with steady jobs, now retired and divorced. Dao spent most of her teenage years at boarding school in Bangkok and later studied business administration at an average Bangkok university. When she was 21 she had the opportunity to go to New Zealand to pursue a Master’s which she never completed. Instead she returned to Thailand prematurely to pursue business opportunities in Khao Lak together with her then American boyfriend. Business went very well for some years and showed very promising returns. Then came the Tsunami and put an end to it all. The business collapsed and Dao returned to Bangkok indebted, needing to start from scratch. For the past years she has worked in a number of different jobs, mostly management related, while trying to build up a new business again. Presently she makes about 65,000 baht per month, working up to 70 hours per week as a manager in an international company. Despite the good money she’s very unhappy with the long hours that come with her job and the stress that’s involved.

So many times, reading the opinions of others on this website and on message boards about Thai people in general and Thai women in particular, I can’t help but shake my head and ask myself just about how stupid anyone can be to think that they can put 60+ million people living in a country into the same small basket as it sometimes appears it is done. Obviously I know that generalisations and stereotyping are easy and generally don’t require much of an effort. And yes, obviously I have met a very large number of Thais that match the often mentioned clichés perfectly, but as always there are exceptions to the rule if you only care to take a closer look.

Dao’s honest to a fault. Actually she’s too honest for her own good which unfortunately is reason why she has been taken advantage of in business quite a number of times already. While Dao may not be the most intellectual person I’ve ever met she has a very healthy curiosity in life. Her written English is not perfect, but because of the fluency of her spoken English when abroad she’s sometimes being mistaken as an Australian or American citizen. She’s also one of the hardest workers I know. I admire her values, such as her loyalty and modesty, which truly set an example for me. On top of this, jealousy has hardly ever been any issue in our relationship, and if so then it was minor and quickly resolved. For those readers out there who seem to consider Thai women promiscuous by nature, it took us almost a year to get intimate with each other.

Dao hates gossip and superficiality and for that reason doesn’t have a very large circle of friends. The good friends she does have and keeps close to her I have learned to know as loyal and trustworthy people.

Granted, she didn’t always smile when we climbed up to the top of Mount Kinabalu, and she didn’t always look forward to hiking 15+ kilometers per day when we travelled the Himalaya region, but she appreciated the opportunity of experiencing this and didn’t complain. Basically both her and I consider ourselves as non-conformists; not out of choice, but by nature.

I cannot claim that I have many close Thai friends, but the ones that I do have bear little resemblance to the stereotypes that are so often expressed on this website either. Take my friend Siri for example. Siri’s a dentist who has his own surgery in Bangkok. He’s one of the most honest and diligent people I know, and his interest in and knowledge of European literature and classical music puts me to shame.

To quote Korski again…

“Can you have a decent conversation with a non-bar Thai woman girl about the global economy, or the political scene in Thailand, or what is right and what is wrong about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan? We get not a clue from Stick on any of this. And all I hear about any of the Thai women is that there isn’t going to be a good deal to talk about other than local gossip, and shopping, and TV soaps and the like.”

Honestly, I do enjoy reading most of Korski’s articles, as they are well articulated and usually thought-provoking. But then it’s also statements like this that seriously make me wonder why someone who has devoted his life to higher education and research resorts to such unnecessary and nonsensical stereotyping. The only explanation I have for this is that he has never had the opportunity to associate with people who don’t fit this profile, which is sad.

So how does all of this relate to the discussion about Thailand’s reputation?

Obviously the question of a possible shared future of me and Dao has been discussed on more than just a few occasions during the course of our relationship. For many reasons I don’t want to address in detail, moving to Thailand is not an option. Even if it was I don’t think I’d want to do that. I love spending time in the country from time to time, but after having visited so many times over the years I have learned about too many things that I’d probably find too hard to tolerate on a permanent basis. Furthermore, my trips to Thailand have become far less frequent recently. That leaves the option of her eventually moving over to where I live and sharing our lives with each other here. Fortunately neither I nor her are interested in having children, which is something that has been doubted by most people I have spoken to, again mostly because of the cliché that certainly all Thai women want to have babies, and without knowing our individual circumstances and outlook on life.

And even though I could easily afford to bring Dao over here and support her without having to worry about money, I’m more than hesitant for a number of reasons. Some have to do with my personal preferences in life, like the fact that I’m not comfortable at all with the idea of marriage which realistically would be the only way of us being able to be together in the long run. Others have to do with the reputation Thailand, and in particular Thai women, have in my home country.

One shouldn’t give too much thought about what other people have to say about you or your life, but in some contexts simply ignoring how people look at you and your partner can unfortunately have a more than detrimental effect on your circumstances, not to mention be a burden on the relationship.

Where I live, not too different from many other places, Thailand first and foremost has a reputation for sun, beach, and easy sex. Men frequently going to Thailand are quickly labelled as sex tourists, no matter what the scope of their reasons for travelling out that way may be, with all the generalisations that go with it. Men who have Thai girlfriends or wives are more often than not thought of as losers who cannot find a girl in their own country, which in turn is thought to reflect badly on their character. Being with a Thai woman almost always raises the question in many people’s minds if she has been a prostitute, and where you met in the first place. To illustrate the way people here think of many aspects of Thailand: The term “Thai massage” is synonymous with “naughty massage”. Most people don’t even realize that a real Thai massage is anything but of sexual nature. Last but not least, in a business environment, with all the stereotyping and quick passing of judgment the fact that you have a Thai wife may make people doubt your own good judgment in choosing a partner with an, in people’s minds, potentially dubious background. The fact that the majority of Thai girls living over here do actually have a background of having worked in prostitution at one or other time in their lives doesn’t help either and only confirms the stereotype.

Even on a recent business trip to India, upon mentioning that I was going to Thailand next for a visit, I received disparaging comments from all kinds of people. Unfortunately in much of life ignorance reigns supreme. The fact that the allegedly largest brothel in the world is in Sonagachi, Calcutta, didn’t do anything to put my Indian business partners’ preconceived opinion into perspective. The fact that prostitution is rampant in Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Brazil and many other nations doesn’t help either. None of those countries has a reputation anywhere near as bad as Thailand’s, either because the numbers of foreign sex tourists travelling there are far smaller in comparison, or because they are trumped by other, less offending facts in most people’s minds. Interestingly so even the Philippines, to my knowledge the nation with the second largest share of Western sex tourists in the world, doesn’t have anywhere near as bad a reputation as Thailand has in my home country. That is mostly because the Philippines have mainly been in the headlines for terrorism, political instability, natural disasters, and last but not least because a large number of Filipinas nurses have been recruited over the past thirty years to work here. Also, far fewer tourists make it to the Philippines than to Thailand, returning with stories of debauchery and unsightly guys disrespecting local culture by fondling their temporary girlfriends in public.

So yes, it really is all in people’s heads, but that doesn’t change the fact that it can negatively affect your and your partner’s lifestyle and standing in life. Dao very much enjoyed her time visiting me in Farangland, and all of my friends she has met have given her a warm and enthusiastic welcome. Nonetheless I for one am not sure if I want to expose Dao to living in an environment where most people she interacts with would probably first assume that she’s either been a prostitute or more or less has the status of a mail-order bride. I also admit that I’d personally feel a lot more comfortable with the situation if she was e.g. Singaporean, Malaysian, or even Vietnamese. Basically from any other nation that doesn’t suffer from such a horrible reputation as Thailand does.

For this reason, and many others, I’d very much wish there was no sizeable market for prostitution catering to foreign men in Thailand. As mentioned earlier I have a lot of other thoughts on this, but I find they are not relevant to the nature of this particular submission. In any case, I am not so naïve to believe that anything is going to change anytime soon. I guess a place like Pattaya has to exist somewhere, and even if it disappeared it would only be a question of time until it popped up again in the same or a similar form elsewhere.

Obviously there are other very important reasons why I struggle a lot with the idea of bringing her over, one being the fact that she’d have to learn a new grammatically very difficult language and with all likelihood for that reason would never be able to find an adequate job that suits her qualifications. Even though she says she’d be willing to accept that I just can’t see myself living with someone who is not only financially, but also socially very dependent on me. As sad as it is this simply doesn’t suit my nature and would probably quickly build up pressure that would eventually erode the positive feelings we have for each other, possibly leading to a demise of our relationship. I don’t want to let Dao go, but almost feel as if there’s no other choice. Fact is that the pressure has built up so much that it is seriously affecting our relationship already today, having taken it to the brink of collapse repeatedly. There is only so much one can take, and that’s true for both of us.

I’d be curious to learn how other couples who have been in a similar situation have dealt with these issues, and how it has worked out for them.

Stickman's thoughts:

What a heartfelt submission. I sure hope you and Dao can make things work. I guess there is going to have to be quite a bit of compromise on both parts if that is to happen.