Understanding a Thai Wife…

Think long and hard before getting married - a Thai wife comes with some cultural baggage that you might not be expecting, so make sure you are well prepared. This page will give you a good understanding of the most contentious issues, so read on.

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The defining issue that sets a Thai wife apart from her western counterpart usually comes down to the nature of her relationship with her parents. As far as most Thai wives are concerned, respecting the wishes of their parents tops their priority list.

Her parents’ wishes easily outrank her husband’s wishes… and there sits the root of many a colourful argument!

One of the most common forms of cultural conflict revolves around the expectations of your girl's wider Thai family. If you are having relationship problems, it is all too easy to just blame all of those problems on the in-laws.

It's easy but not usually fair.

Reality is usually different in Thailand and you won’t be a good judge of what is going on, and why, until you are experienced. Mutual understanding takes time to flourish between east and west, but it is possible to find solutions that everyone can live with.

Her deference to her parents runs against any notion of western independence that you may feel, and you might not like it, but you should refrain from any kind of action to free her from this obedience to her parents.

It’s much better to work on your own integration into the family unit rather than trying to extricate your girl away from it. That doesn’t mean that you need to give up your values and bend the knee, far from it, but you should accept that your wife does need to fulfil her responsibilities.

Thai girls (and boys) are taught from an early age that their parents have sacrificed a great deal to bring them safely into the world, and that they owe them a huge debt of gratitude for this. It is a deeply ingrained part of Thai culture and there’s no way that any respectable girl would ever go against it. It has a name, it’s called ‘Ga-Tan-Yoo’.

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I might be giving you the wrong impression about ga-tan-yoo by calling it a 'debt of gratitude'; a debt implies some sort of burden that needs to be borne to settle things, but this isn't how it is.

Honouring the ga-tan-yoo system is something that brings great delight to Thai children and, if they are in a position to help their parents out in some way, they will usually relish the opportunity.

Many of the strained Thai/Western relationships struggle because the western husband feels somewhat neglected and second best to the Thai parents. On the other side, the Thai wife feels somewhat unfairly impeded in trying to do right by her parents.

Ga-tan-yoo will test your patience to the limit at times but you are well advised to take it very seriously if you want your relationship to work.

As always you’ll need calmness and understanding, these are two essential qualities that you will need in abundance if you are ever to successfully leap over all the extra hurdles that marriage to a Thai wife will throw at you.

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Finances – costs a Thai wife comes with

Settling down with your Thai wife can be an extremely cheap option, especially compared to married life in the west, but there are some unusual expenses that come with family life in Thailand that you don’t get back home. Some of them will trouble you on a personal level because your values aren’t the same as Thai values; the most obvious of these is the ‘dowry’ or ‘sin sot’.

Traditionally, a dowry is a sum of money that is paid to the parents of a Thai bride ahead of her marriage. It is handed over by the groom as a demonstration of his ability to take care of his bride.

The whole notion of cash being handed over as part of the marriage process feels a bit wrong, but don't forget that Thai family culture is very different to western culture. This is the way that things are done here and it will be expected.

It is also a measure of his gratitude to the bride's parents for raising her and taking care of her. There is also a supposed element of insurance in that the parents guarantee the virtue of the daughter and, if that virtue is false, the dowry should be returned to the groom.

All this is a little old fashioned and you should not feel pressured into paying any dowry that you are not comfortable with. Many modern Thai marriages have a display of cash that is symbolic of the dowry but, after the ceremony is complete, the cash is returned to the bride and groom. That said, many Thai families, especially from rural areas, will expect a dowry to be paid as part of the marriage ritual.

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Thai Wife Dowry; how much?

There's no way I can put an exact figure on what needs to be paid because each case is different. What would be regarded as a respectable amount for one Thai wife is different to what would be respectable for another. The right figure is influenced by many things including:

  • Your Finances - The size and amount of your own financial resources will be taken into consideration. If you do not have much money to spare, a good Thai family will not ask you for more than you can afford.
  • Her Finances - The wealth/status of your girl's family matters a lot. If you wish to marry into a high-society type of family then you'll better be in a strong financial position yourself.
  • Education - If a Thai girl has been to university then this will be regarded as a big investment by the Thai family in their daughter, and her future husband will be expected to contribute more in view of that.
  • Previous Relationships - If your wife has married before then her parents have already received a dowry from the previous husband, so nothing more than a symbolic amount (or nothing at all) should be asked of you.
  • Children - If your intended wife already has children by another man then your commitment to her includes a commitment to provide for her children. This is already symbolic of your love, and no dowry should be asked.

The list goes on, but you get the idea. The dowry might cost anything from nothing (if she has married before and had kids etc) to millions (if she is a highly educated high-society type).

As a ballpark figure, the average dowry seems to be something like 100,000 baht for a respectable girl that has never married before and has no children. For a girl that you met in a bar in Pattaya, you should not pay anything at all... for obvious reasons!

If you are asked for an unreasonably high amount, don't ignore it, it is an important sign of things to come after you marry. In this case it might be an idea to reassess your situation. If you suspect that you are being taken advantage of then don't be afraid to call the whole thing off - but don't use this as a bargaining position. If you call it off then it's over, no going back.

Thai DowryThe dowry is a controversial topic for most western guys.

I highly recommend that you don’t get married if you have any nagging doubts about the dowry and other cultural issues, even if you can comfortably afford it. Going along with it whilst holding a grudge about it is a clear sign that you are not yet ready to live with local customs, which is fine, don’t feel pressured to conform if you don’t want to.

Pretty much all of the failed well-intended relationships between Thais and westerners come about because one party, or both of them, failed to understand or accept the other's culture. Note that I said well-intended, if you marry a gold-digger then her intentions will be different from the outset, and the end results of these sorts of marriages are well documented!

Your wedding day; what to expect

First of all, you should be aware that the procedure for arranging to marry in Thailand varies with your country of origin. You will need to get in touch with the Thai embassy/consulate in your home country to find out exactly what documents you will need to provide the Thai officials with.

You can expect that, prior to your Thai wedding, you will need to obtain a legal document from your embassy. This should state that you are eligible to get married e.g. you are not already married, not recently divorced, you are old enough etc.

This document will need to be translated by a certified body too; your embassy will most likely not be able to do this for you, but there are plenty of companies dotted around Bangkok that can.

The legal age for getting married is 17, both you and your girlfriend need to be at least this old. If your girl is under 20, she will need her parents to give their consent for the marriage to go ahead (same goes for her visa to visit you in your country if you are intending that). Apart from these small requirements, you shouldn't have any real difficulty preparing for your Thai wedding.

It is not customary for the groom to make the arrangements, so you can relax and leave it all up to your girlfriend and her parents. Obviously, if there are personal things you want included, you can just pass that on to your girlfriend and she will take care of it.

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Thai wedding customs

Thai wedding customs are quite different to those in the west. Obviously there are some similarities, both are a celebration and give a good reason to have a party. That said, there are some things that will surprise you on the day, and not least because your girlfriend probably won't take time out to discuss the process with you!

A Thai wedding, or rather a Thai Buddhist wedding, usually gets started early in the day and is normally all done well before midday - the party gets going after that!

When the wedding ceremony actually gets started, you will find yourself sat on the floor next to your bride and in front of the congregation. Seating is not usually provided, so you will spend most of the time trying to mentally block out the discomfort in your knees and back…

In front of you, and facing you, will be a row of nine Buddhist monks. At various points during the ceremony you will need to 'wai' the monks - just follow your bride's lead on this one. Unless you speak Thai, you won't understand anything that's going on, and it will all just sound like a lot of chanting. The number nine is significant in Thailand, it's a lucky number and is meant to bring good fortune.

As the ceremony progresses, you will be formally greeted by the guests. You will be seated for this part, so your knees will get some respite. As the guests greet you, they will tie some string around one or the other of your wrists. This is a sort of blessing and I believe it is meant to ward off evil spirits.

As well as the string, some water will be poured over your hands, and a donation of money will be given to you. Don't be expecting anything substantial in terms of money, it's really just a symbolic thing. After you have met all the guests, you will slowly walk past each of the monks with your hands raised in the form of the 'wai'; each of the monks then takes his turn to throw water over you!

You'll end up half drenched…

Buddhist monks in ThailandMost Thai wedding ceremonies are conducted by Buddhist monks.

Next comes the food; the Thai wedding custom is to first serve up some rice for your deceased relatives. Thailand is very spiritual about the afterlife, and this part of the wedding ceremony is intended to gain approval from your dead ancestors. Again the number nine comes into play. There are nine big bowls into which you and your bride must place some rice.

The next step is to serve up some food for the monks. It is symbolic for the bride and groom to hand the food over to the monks; I like to think of it as a thank you for the drenching!

The eating and drinking then gets underway and the party gets going. It's all very easy really, nothing to get stressed over. Just follow your bride's lead at all times and go with the flow.

Registering the marriage

It is not unusual for an actual Thai wedding to be conducted without any formal registering of it carried out at all. But, to make matters legal, you will need to accompany your wife to the local 'amphur' i.e. council house.

You will need to take along your passport, certificate of eligibility to marry, your wife's family documentation and so on (remember to check with the Thai embassy in your country about exactly what is needed).

You will then be issued a marriage certificate. If you would like to get some legal advice about marriage in Thailand, as well as more information about how to register a marriage legally, a good website to look at is: siam-legal.com.

How much does a typical Thai wedding cost?

The majority of everyday Thai weddings between people of average income will cost somewhere in the 200,000 to 300,000 baht range. As this is quite an expense for a large section of the Thai population, many Thai couples never actually get married in the formal sense and just live together as man and wife for their whole lives.

For a Westerner to marry a Thai girl, you can expect your girl to want a rather more expensive wedding than the sort of thing most Thais go for. This is because you will be seen as a rich foreigner (even if you are not rich), and anything less than a suitably expensive wedding will cause some loss of face for both you and your Thai wife.

‘Tong Mun’ is another custom; it refers to the gift of gold that a groom gives to his bride before they marry. The gold that you give should be 24 carat, and how much you give is up to you. Not all Thai marriages use the Tong Mun tradition these days and I know of many marriages between a Thai lady and Western man where no gold was given to the bride.

You probably won’t be thinking about divorce costs right now, most people don’t when they are tying the knot, but it is a good idea to think it through carefully.

If you live in Thailand you can register a prenuptial agreement and protect all of the belongings that were yours before you got married, as well as half of the assets accumulated during the term of the marriage.

A good way to properly protect your finances is to enter a prenuptial agreement, combined with a refusal to buy land (which your Thai wife would have to own for legal reasons) and simply rent all of the things that you need rather than buying them outright.

Condominiums are an exception, you can legally own a condo in your own name, and you can protect it with a prenuptial agreement.

The same goes for car ownership and other assets. If your in-laws need a new home, one can easily be rented – you don’t need to pump a big lump sum investment into the marriage and you shouldn’t be pressured into to do so if you have found a decent Thai wife.

I know that this is all negative advice but it always pays to be cautious.

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Ongoing financial support for the family

Once you've tied the knot with your Thai wife, and paid the dowry, you might reasonably think that the financial support stops at this point... ha! Sit down young Skywalker, much you have to learn!

The financial obligations on a groom do not usually end with the wedding. Don’t forget that your Thai wife has her ga-tan-yoo to think about. You are going to need to help your wife to give some money to her parents on an ongoing basis.

Unless you are lucky enough to have a literally bottomless pit of cash, you're going to have to find a way of dealing with all the financial demands. One tactic you might try is to argue that your resources are only sufficient to take care of the two of you, or three of you if you already have a child.

Point out that any surplus cash that is coming in needs to be saved for a) your retirement since, presumably, you will not want your children to support you once you stop working, and b) future costs like the kid's education.

Even then you might still need to compromise. You could tell her that she can get a job and send part of her income to her parents.

This compromise has another advantage in that, once she's working, you'll be able to get some peace and quiet on your own! Otherwise, your Thailand wife will want to spend virtually every moment of every day in your company, making sure that you don't get up to anything you shouldn't!

It is easy to see how a family-support system like this might develop. There is not much of a welfare state in Thailand, there’s very little that resembles any kind of retirement pension, and traditionally Thailand has been a poor country (meaning that most people are unable to make savings for retirement).

Free healthcare is not provided by the state and only the rich have private health insurance. In these circumstances, when the parents are too old to work and cannot support themselves anymore, the children step in.

It's a perfectly good system that has worked for centuries.

It’s also a system that doesn't work once a typical Western man is brought into the equation! Constantly sending money to the family that you can't even communicate with is not going to work unless you have unlimited resources.

Your wider Thai family, if you have one, will probably not understand that in Western culture people have to save part of their earnings throughout their working lives in order that they can take care of themselves in retirement.

I'd advise anyone who is involved with Thai women to work tirelessly at getting this message across. I doubt that you will want your children to be left with the task of supporting you in your old age, so you need to get some appreciation of your feelings installed at an early stage of any serious relationship in Thailand.

Mutual understanding is your mission in almost all circumstances and not just about money. Always ask yourself... what am I missing here, what don't I understand, what don't they understand? This is usually the best starting point. If you want a happy and contented Thai wife, you’ll need to take some time to discuss these things with her.

If you can't get satisfactory answers, that is the time to start beating the war drums – but not before! Even then it is usually better to adopt the softly-softly approach when dealing with Thai ladies.

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All of these contributions should be proportionate to what you can afford, no one decent will expect you to stump up large monthly expenses if you don’t have the resources, but you’ll be held in very low regard if you live in the lap of luxury whilst your own in-laws are left to struggle in poverty.

I said at the outset that married life in Thailand can be very cheap, and it can, but generosity is a big deal in Thailand. That brings me to the final Thai custom that you’ll need to be aware of if you want you and your Thai wife to be regarded as good people.

Nam Jai (generous heart)

A traditional Thai wife will automatically assume that you want to demonstrate your generosity as widely as possible and to as many people as possible. In doing so, you are showing your Nam Jai.

Don't be overly concerned by this, it is exactly the way that a respectable wealthy Thai person would want to be treated in order that he could demonstrate his generosity. In return you will gain face and status (I wrote about the importance of ‘face’ on my page about Thai girlfriends).

Thai people love to show their generosity by buying gifts for each other. If someone is known to be wealthy, his friends will make opportunities for him to demonstrate his Nam Jai!

Also, this generosity flows in both directions, only a fool would keep on giving and getting nothing in return. For example, if you need a favour doing you will find that there are people who are not just willing to go at great lengths to help you, they’ll be delighted at the opportunity!

In rural areas in particular, where everybody knows each other, the concept is still going strong. When one farmer needs to harvest his crops, everyone helps out. That farmer will then return the favour when someone else needs a helping hand.

It remains to be seen how these traditional values will stand up in the face of globalization and economic development. I suspect that as people become less reliant upon each other’s help, these traditional values will slowly be lost in time. They survive for the time being, and if you embrace them you’ll be rewarded with a sense of community like you’ve never experienced in the west.

If you feel that you can’t adopt the principles of nam jai and ga-tan-yoo, then it might be a sign that marriage to a Thai wife is perhaps not the best idea for you. It would certainly be difficult to fit into Thai society if you can’t adopt some of the local customs, so this is something to think about before getting seriously involved with any Thai woman.

Your Thai Wife & Family Hierarchy

One last thing worth mentioning is family hierarchy. Whilst everyone in the west is considered more or less equal after several generations of battling for a classless society, Thai society is much more hierarchical.

This hierarchy extends to the family unit too.

The whole thing is quite complicated for foreigners to get a handle on, but Thais are very good at it. Whenever two Thais meet for the first time, they’ll have a good idea of each other’s ranking in the hierarchy within moments.

You probably want to know where you are thought to fit into this calculation, and it’s a good idea to talk to your Thai wife about it. A good chunk of your ranking will come down to the same calculations that went into calculating your dowry payment, but there are other considerations.

It pays to know how the Thais around you regard your position, and it also pays to know how to conduct yourself. If you don't know how to behave, you might make a bit of a fool of yourself by giving a nice big 'sawasdee krub' and a 'wai' to one of your nephews or nieces…

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