In July 2012 a Dutch woman was allegedly raped and beaten in the Ao Nang district of Krabi by her Thai tour guide. In October the victim’s father published a music video entitled Evil Man From Krabi to confront the issue. Local Thai police and Thai Tourism Minister Chumpol Silapa-archa responded that the incident is not being considered rape as the woman had consented to dinner with the man. Read more here and here.
The situation provoked me to publish the following in an effort to educate you on some very basic realities in Thailand that may influence your time there.
Feminism In Thailand
Feminism hasn’t hit Thailand. Neither has the dissolution of class hierarchies, many of which are entrenched in socioeconomic factors and place of origin/colour of skin (and the relationships binding the two). Current Thai mainstream notions of equality and freedom aren’t on par with definitions in the West. Not all rules apply to all people. Not all freedoms apply to all people. Thailand is a country that is currently in cultural transition. Traditional patriarchal notions of morality are still the cultural norm with different influences of modernity being injected into the culture. As a result, Foreign women may not experience the same social freedoms they’re accustomed to in their native countries, particularly outside tourist areas. Stereotypes of Western women often apply and may influence your treatment.
Law Vs. Social Custom
Law and social custom are not always congruous. Although rape is illegal, what constitutes sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in public life is often grey (i.e. did the victim do something to provoke it). Some will construe a number of things, including what a woman is wearing, if she has been seen drinking in public/appears drunk (the stereotype of a ‘good’ Thai woman is one that doesn’t drink), or solely the fact that a woman isn’t Thai as a green light for highly disrespectful and sometimes dangerous behaviour. If the perpetrator holds a position of authority don’t assume those present will protect you. There is a hierarchy in Thailand and few people question it publicly. Further to this, disrespectful behaviour locally doesn’t necessarily take the same form as disrespectful behaviour in our native countries, although there is plenty of overlap. You may not be aware that someone is testing boundaries with you or trying to publicly demoralize you. Thai girls know the warning signs; generally, most Westerners don’t. I’ve experienced this at muay thai gyms.
What a Farang girl may believe to be silly Thai flirtation may actually be the result of a Thai guy treating her like an object for his amusement and for the amusement of others. He may also be testing to see if she’s easy (i.e. she didn’t get angry. Rather she consented to/partook in/may have liked the disrespectful behaviour. Note: promiscuity/perceived promiscuity devalues a woman’s worth in Thailand). It can be incredibly complex.
On one occasion I went to a fight in the countryside and was standing with my friend, a Thai male, when another Thai male came over to us. I have no idea if they knew one another. Oftentimes Thais treat strangers as though they’re friends. As a result, it can be difficult to understand one’s relationship to another. After speaking to my friend in the local Lao dialect, this man introduced himself to me, took my hand as one may take it to kiss it and inhaled deeply. He then looked at my friend and laughed heartily. My friend was less than pleased but said nothing. On our way back to the city he explained that because I’m Farang, I didn’t realize the man was being highly disrespectful to me. He couldn’t do that to a Thai woman. He also told me to never allow someone to do that to me again. Why didn’t he confront the situation as it was happening? On to the next point…
Saving face and aversion to conflict is intertwined and sets the stage. The Thai notion of saving face is somewhat intricate. This isn’t the piece to delve into it. However, what I can give you is this: people will lie and avoid anything that may be viewed as conflict in an effort to ensure all present, particularly those with the most esteem don’t look bad socially (as the Thai definition of looking bad dictates).
A couple of years ago, the cook of a muay thai gym I was training at in Bangkok told people we were standing with that I was stupid. Stupid in the knuckle-dragger-I-had-to-show-how-to-peel-a-banana sense (which indirectly she once did. She felt I couldn’t figure out how to peel a banana so she set forth to slowly teach me how in front of my peers). In regards to calling me stupid, she didn’t realize I understood her. My reaction? I called her on it. I looked at her, told her I understood what she said, chastised her for it, thus shaming her in front of everyone in the soi/small street. How did the three other people present react? They instantly said it didn’t happen. That I misunderstood her. That I don’t understand Thai language. I argued with them in Thai. Calmly, but I held my ground. They held theirs. Eventually, I left to my room. One of the women later caught me alone. She admitted I was right and apologized. Why didn’t she protect me publicly? To save face. To save the face of the cook who is older than her. To not create conflict (she didn’t know how I would react). To make me believe something disrespectful didn’t happen so I wouldn’t feel bad. To make everything better.
This isn’t an extreme example. From my experience this is standard. Preserving one’s reputation is critical in Thailand in ways most Westerners may fail to understand. Preserving the country’s reputation is also critical. The ramifications of causing someone or Thailand (thus Thai people) to lose face can be anything from nonexistent to devastating. In four years, I was neither able to consistently anticipate nor clearly identify linear consequences of causing someone to lose face.
Stereotypes Of Foreign Women
Foreign women, particularly Western and Japanese women with white skin are often considered highly promiscuous and are coveted both for their white skin and their assumed promiscuity. They also attract varying degrees of contempt for these same reasons. Some factors affecting stereotypes of both Western and Japanese women include imported porn and stories of how Foreigners behave in tourist areas. In regards to Western women, fashion and Western media products coupled with lack of understanding of Western culture(s), thus the context of those media products add to the stereotype.
The term ‘free sex’ is often thrown around when one speaks of Western women. Simplified, ‘free sex’ is defined as women having sex without expecting anything in return. When you don’t expect to be taken care of, when you don’t expect money, when you have sex purely for the pleasure of it, it’s free. Some translate this as Westerners being similar to prostitutes one doesn’t have to pay for. We’ll have sex with anyone at any time, you just have to ask and/or push for it. This stereotype in addition to Thai beauty ideals of white skin and pink nether regions makes white-skinned Foreign women of any race an object of fetish for many. It also increases their risk of danger.
As stated, Thai culture can be fairly complex. The above is a simplified breakdown to give you a general understanding of aspects of the current Thai social landscape. Please note, my intention isn’t to scare you. Rather, I want to help you make educated decisions and stay safe. This is all information I wish I had prior to my first visit. Please use this article as a foundation and remember that not all people in Thailand are bad and not all people in Thailand are good. In between it all, there are some distinct cultural differences that may confuse how both good and bad are qualified.
Stay on point. Trust your intuition. And please don’t translate traditional major publishing travel guide stereotypes of Thailand being The Land Of Smiles as Thailand being a happy magical land where people with less than good intentions don’t exist. That stereotype benefits the tourist industry, not you.
Lastly, I realize I haven’t discussed Foreign women of colour in this piece. I’ve had little to no experience with their/your treatment in Thailand. In four years, I remember meeting one Western woman of African heritage, once. It was on the streets of Bangkok. She expressed that she was happy to be back in city because while in rural Thailand she had been mistaken for a Filipina prostitute. It didn’t sound like an easy time.
Additional Information and Help
For more information and safety tips, visit my resources page for women travelling to Thailand. On it you’ll find articles on Thai culture, safety and travel tips, along with a number of personal stories that will add more context to this piece. You may also want to sign up to my mailing list for future posts. A subscription box is located at the end of this piece in addition to the sidebar.
Also note, I provide consulting services specifically tailored to Foreign women travelling to and living in Thailand.
As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.
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For more Thailand travel and safety tips, in addition to Thailand information you won’t find in traditional tourist guides, please visit my resource Tips For Women Traveling To Thailand.