Books and literature
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Love, Money and Obligation looks at the phenomenon of Western men marrying women from northeast Thailand’s Isaan region. Photo: AfP

Review | The Thai women who marry Western men: lessons from one village in northeast Thailand in Love, Money and Obligation

  • Well-researched book looks at women in a village in the Isaan region of northeast Thailand who choose to marry foreign men
  • The author, anthropologist Patcharin Lapanun, examines the social impact of their marriages on the village and the women themselves
T. F. Rhoden

Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village, by Patcharin Lapanun, NUS Press, 4/5 stars

Well-researched and easy to follow, Patcharin Lapanun’s Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village is a powerful reminder of how interconnected the world has become – and how love can develop between people from completely different backgrounds.

Though a work of academic anthropology, based mainly on Patcharin’s PhD research, the book is still highly readable. It clearly and sincerely describes the communities in the Isaan region of Thailand, the women who inhabit these spaces, and the Western men who share their lives with them. Patcharin’s meticulous examination of the lives of Thais in one village, where some women have chosen to marry foreign men, makes for a fascinating read.

Patcharin’s central argument is refreshing, in that she does not want to bend the evidence to fit any narrative that denies women the chance to express their sexuality.

Love, Money and Obligation by Patcharin Lapanun.

This book goes against currently popular theories that see transnational marriage [in Thailand] as nothing more than a front for sex trafficking. The research captures numerous moments of this bias, particularly by Western women, who can see these relationships as material – or, even more crudely, transactional – arrangements.

As one Thai woman, who is married to a Dutchman and works in a grocery store in the Netherlands, said: “Yes, my co-workers sometimes tease me about this.

“Once I was asked how much my husband paid to marry me. I didn’t take it seriously, but this is the way they think about us.”

An Isaan Thai woman. Photo: Shutterstock

As the title of the book indicates, dimensions of love, money, and obligation are all involved in these women’s choices. To focus on one dimension would say more about the researcher than the people themselves. Patcharin’s argument is that they all matter.

Patcharin’s contribution to social scientific work on marriage and transnational marriage is fourfold. The first is her rejection of the view that these marriages are about either materiality or intimacy.

Rather, she presents evidence for a more nuanced view that considers the peculiar blending of local and Western cultural norms of gender and marriage.

Second, Patcharin’s insight into the role of individuals in the women’s “natal village” is enlightening and novel.

A bride holds banana, boiled egg and in sticky rice in her hand during a traditional Isaan marriage. Photo: Shutterstock

Her third contribution is about the consequences on the “local end” of these marriages. The researcher traces how these women have carved out a new social grouping within their village because of these cosmopolitan relationships.

Patcharin contends “that women married to Western men constitute a new ‘class’ determined by their consumption patterns and lifestyles, which set them apart from the traditional village elites”.

Finally, Patcharin examines these marriages within the context of Thailand’s history of international relationships. She illustrates the similarities and salient differences of East-West marriages from the era of Portuguese traders in the 1600s to the Vietnam war years when American soldiers were in Thailand, culminating in the contemporary era where cosmopolitan marriages are a viable option across social levels.

Women working the fields in Isaan, a comparatively poor region of the country. Photo: Shutterstock

Many readers will come away with thinking it’s an absurd luxury to look at any marriage from an overly simplistic, and perhaps puritan idea of love. For more than 10,000 years of settled agrarian society, this was not the default view on the union of man and woman.

Love, money, obligation, and probably a few more concerns have always influenced any decision about a potential marriage.

In the West – and particularly in America, where more than half of marriages now end in divorce – it is a rare privilege to be able to look down on an international union because there may be a discrepancy in age or the spouses’ bank balances on the day they say, “I do”.

Who is Kim Jong-un? Biography aims to make sense of dictator

As Patcharin correctly points out: “The phenomenon of transnational marriage is far more complex than a simple short cut to wealth.

“Rather, these marriages are situated in the processes of social transition and reproduction in the face of local-global encounters, in which gender, class, lifestyles, norms and practices regarding marriage and family are put to severe test, along with imaginings about a better life for all concerned.”

Empirically sound and equally enjoyable for the lay reader as for the academic, Love, Money and Obligation is an engaging read on the complexities and realities of international unions in our globalised world.

Asian Review of Books

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: An in-depth look at why Thai women and Western men get married