Thailand's 'Swiss village'
Tuesday, 20 July, 2004
By Simon Montlake
Baan Jarn, Thailand
Festival day in rural north-east Thailand is traditionally a day of feasting and dancing.
At least 15,000 Isaan women are married to foreign men
For Lek Sankaprom, it is also an annual homecoming.
She has spent the past 14 years living in Switzerland, running a restaurant in Basel with her Swiss husband.
But on festival day she is happy to be back home, picnicking outside with her friends and family.
Lek is not alone in her choice of partner. Of the 540 households in Baan Jarn, at least 100 can boast a foreign son-in-law, almost invariably living in Switzerland.
Like clockwork, the wives come home every year bearing gifts.
To many Thais, Baan Jarn is known as the Swiss village - though it is surrounded emerald-green rice paddies rather than snow-capped mountains.
Scores of tall white-washed villas with tiled roofs stand out from the normal wood-and-concrete homes built in the area.
Wedged between her greying Swiss husband and her somewhat tipsy friends, 39-year-old Lek frowned when asked about local attitudes to those who marry foreigners.
"It's normal here. They accept me," she said. "I have many friends here who also married foreign men."
The spread of foreign husbands is sending ripples through many villages in Isaan, a region of north-east Thailand where rural poverty has often forced both men and women to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Researchers believe at least 15,000 Isaan women are married to foreign men, part of a growing trend over the last few decades.
These women are known as "mia farang", or foreigners' wives.
The men typically take their wives back home with them, but the couples often send money to Thailand, which pays for houses, cars and even roads.
Their remittances inject around $35m a year into the region's economy, according to the government's National Economic and Social Development Board. This amounts to 6% of the agricultural region's annual economic output.
Even the old men are starting to change their attitude. Before they worried that the women would move overseas and not be treated respectfully
Saksri Khomdet, village chief
The windfall has prompted the governor of Roi Et province, where Baan Jarn is located, to try to recruit mia farang to promote regional handicrafts and tourism.
He argues that they can become ambassadors for a region of Thailand that sees few of the 10 million foreign tourists that arrive in the country annually.
The idea has already run into problems because few foreigners' wives live locally, while many of those who do take a dim view of the governor's emphasis on profits.
Behind the economic data lies a tangled tale of social norms and discrimination.
In this region of Thailand, relationships between foreign men and Thai women are often viewed through the lens of the country's booming sex trade.
Although everyone insists their sister or daughter met their foreign partners while working as maids, cleaners or cooks, suspicions die hard.
Many areas of Thailand are a world away from Switzerland
In Baan Jarn, local residents bristle at questions about the trade that lies behind the lofty villas and brand new motorbikes.
"Go away, I don't want to talk to journalists," said one young man, his friendly smile quickly dissolving into a hard stare.
One resident explained that recent media reports had distorted the village's image, by suggesting that many young women wanted to become mia farang.
Researchers say much of the stigma attached to these relationships has begun to fade in recent years, although the stereotypes have yet to completely go away.
Everyone wants a foreign son-in-law. They know it means a ready source of income
"Society has changed in the last 30 years. Now you have television [and] the internet," said Decha Vanichvanod, director of the research centre which commissioned the survey of foreigners' wives.
"People say, okay, if you want to marry, it should be your own choice."
Local officials in Baan Jarn point to the positive qualities of the foreign sons-in-law whose wealth has transformed the village in the past 20 years.
"Even the old men are starting to change their attitude," said Saksri Khomdet, a village chief.
"Before they worried that the women would move overseas and not be treated respectfully," he said.
But foreign husbands say local people's acceptance of them is often more about hard currency than Isaan customs.
They point out that the Roi Et governor's enthusiasm for mia farang is mostly based on their economic yield.
"Sure, everyone wants a foreign son-in-law. They know it means a ready source of income," said a German who married a local woman three years ago.