Thirak Jaa: The Complexities Of Love In Thailand

On the day after Valentine’s Day, let us ruminate on the topic of amour from a Thai perspective.

Many foreigners have claimed to be perplexed about what makes Thai hearts flutter due to their many cultural differences.

Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear groans on the lines of “Why is my Thai girlfriend so psychotic?” – granted, “psychotic” is a highly subjective term – or “My Thai boyfriend cheats on me, but gets really mad when I turn the tables on him”.

Local Thai dailies also regularly splash their front pages with sob stories revolving around love gone wrong, which usually end in violent tragedy with somebody either getting killed or committing suicide.

The latest outrage in the Thai media has focused on the grinning leader of a gang of teenagers who allegedly committed a slew of shocking crimes against a couple, including kidnapping, rape and murder.

The reason for the crime? Related to love, of course.

The alleged ringleader was incensed that the male victim had proceeded to court his ex-girlfriend after dumping the ringleader’s cousin. So, he and three other accomplices kidnapped the offending man and his pregnant girlfriend, and tortured them before stabbing and shooting the male victim dead. They also gang-raped the girlfriend, stabbing and bludgeoning her prior to dumping her body in a ravine. Miraculously, she survived and was able to get her attackers arrested.

Non-Thais might scratch their heads at this point and wonder how so much anger, effort and criminality could be invested in such an emotion as unstable and intangible as love?

It can’t be denied that there are other world cultures that are similarly highly emotional and who also put a big value on romantic relationships – like the French, for instance.

Indeed, in France, the term crime passionnel or ‘crime of passion’, in which a violent crime – usually murder – is committed in the heat of the moment, allows the perpetrator to be charged with either manslaughter or second-degree murder instead of first-degree murder if s/he can prove that the crime was not premeditated.

However, it must be said that the French do not usually resort to deadly violence to deal with a broken heart. They usually just cry, drink wine, write poetry, and take another lover.

Let’s take a look at Japan too. It has a high suicide rate, but does not see a lot of love-related deaths. Many Japanese suicides are usually due to men losing their job or the elderly not wanting to be a financial burden. This is because in Japan, being “useful” is closely connected with one’s sense of self-worth. Sometimes, death is the only solution to shame.

Back in Thailand, a job loss is usually dealt with either going back to your parents’ house or simply looking for a new one.

A job is just a job; something that provides money. As life’s basic necessities in Thailand are not too expensive, an unemployed Thai would not starve to death if he got fired. If worse comes to worst, he could sleep on the streets and still stay relatively warm all year round (a homeless European or Japanese, comparatively, could easily freeze to death in winter).

So as most Thais fortunately have access to basic necessities like food, water and shelter regardless of their income, their emotions spin around the one thing left to conquer – LOVE.

The loss of a lover precipitates such strong emotions in Thailand because love as a concept is connected with so many other important things. A jilted lover could lose face and feel disrespected. Love can also be seen as something territorial (“You don’t touch whatever that belongs to me!”). When these values are held so highly in Thai society, it’s clear how such situations can lead to murderous rampages.

To complicate matters even more, many Thais are easily distracted when it comes to love. A 2012 worldwide survey by condom maker Durex found that in terms of infidelity, Thais top the chart (Thai men ranked as first, Thai women as second).

And who wouldn’t be, with the abundance of beautiful and sexy people all around?

One only has to look at the various terms Thais use to describe the different kinds of romantic partners to appreciate the breadth of the relationships engaged in:

Faen – casual word meaning ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’

Saami and pharaaya – polite terms for ‘husband’ and ‘wife’

Mia and phua– casual terms for ‘wife’ and ‘husband’

Mia luang – main/official/legal wife

Mia noi – meaning ‘little wife’, referring to mistress

Kik – a casual term for a regular booty call

And the list goes on. It’s enough to give anyone trying to categorize a present relationship a headache.

Believe it or not, the majority of private detective cases in Thailand more often than not involves a suspicious lover.

One thing that has to be said here is that Thai men are usually spoiled by their women: first by their mothers, and then by their girlfriends and wives.

As a result, Thai men think they can get away with anything, which in turn causes their partners to grow increasingly paranoid, jealous and possessive (thus the “why is my Thai girlfriend so psychotic” question asked by many foreigners).

When a Thai woman finds out her partner is cheating on her, she often blames the other woman for “tempting” or “stealing” her man, but she will not admit to the fact that her man was the one who decided to cheat on her.

This tendency of women to fight over men is mirrored by the many lakorn (soap opera) that often show the obligatory catfight between the two main female characters (nang aek vs. nang rai) while the phra aek (male protagonist) looks on.

While this might look humiliating to women from other cultures, in Thailand woman literally have to compete for male attention since they outnumber men (and let us also not forget that a proportion of those men are either gay or ladyboy, who are also competing for male attention).

However, in the end, after all is said and done, everybody just wants to love, and be loved in return.