Sunday, October 08, 2006

Young bride, old groom


The girl in the deckchair was one of the prettiest of Thai girls, young and fresh. Her companion, in his sixties, was powerfully built with greying hair across his chest and back and was wearing tight Lycra swimming shorts.

It was beauty and the beast.

That’s the observation of Ben Farnsworth, the 20-something protagonist in the novel, Thai Girl.

A “young and fresh” Thai girl clinging to a “short, dumpy and almost bald” white man is a common sight in Thailand. Thais call the men tao hua ngoo, which means “old nasty man with a snake on his head”.

What goes through the mind of Andrew Hicks, the author of Thai Girl, when he sees these oxymoronic couples?

“It is often looks awful and obnoxious,” he says. “The ugly sex tourist is a fact.”

Is it fair to say that back home no woman (except their mother) wants these men?

“It is often true,” says Hicks.


“Maybe because they are fat and ugly,” he says.

Then why are they so desired in Thailand?

“The girls are prepared to tolerate an older farang because of his money,” he says.

Before querying the 60-year-old Englishman who is married to a Thai woman half his age, I cushioned some of my questions with “this is not referring to you”. I was sincere, as Hicks is not “short, dumpy and almost bald”.

The tall and trim man can pass for a dignified John Major, the former British prime minister. Hicks, a former London corporate lawyer and National University of Singapore law lecturer, has authored law books such as The Company Law of Malaysia.

Why do young Thai girls marry an old farang (Thai for westerner)?

“Strangely,” he explains, “they can give each other the same thing although they are offering each other something different. Fundamentally, they are giving each other a new life.”

New opportunities open up for a young Thai farmer’s daughter, who has limited prospects, when she marries a farang. And the marriage offers a farang a completely new life.

“I’m divorced, retired and have very little left to do in my life and marrying my Thai wife gives me the whole of her country. I’m no longer an outsider,” says Hicks, who since 1977 has travelled throughout Thailand, jotting down his observations of the interaction between Thais and foreigners.

Their marriage provides the opportunity for his wife, who is a rice farmer's daughter, the opportunity to live between London and Ban Mahachai, her village in Thailand.

But bringing home a Thai wife has a “slight implication”.

“The sad thing in England is when I say I’m married to a Thai, there is a slight implication that I must have met her in a bar, that she must be a prostitute,” he relates.

For the record, three years ago, he met his wife Cat while she was working in a restaurant in Phuket.

The stereotype is unavoidable.

“Sadly, Thailand has earned its sex tourism reputation,” says Hicks, who runs

“From the Vietnam War onwards, Patpong, Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboys and Sukhumvit have been major attractions for sex tourists.”

The traditional Thai girl is the opposite of a go go dancer, however.

“She will return home before dark to look after mama and papa and she is not allowed to see boys,” Hicks says, relating his observations of life in Ban Mahachai, a village near where he lives in Isaan, the arid north-east region.

However, some of the girls are driven into prostitution because of their fear of poverty.

Typically, in Isaan, which is about an eight-hour bus ride from Bangkok, villagers own a small padi field that produces enough rice to sustain them for a year.

“Other than one or two calves, they’ve got nothing else to sell. They hope their children can leave the village to earn money so that they can send home 500 baht (RM50) a month. That (RM50) is what they live on (for a month),” he says.

The young woman faces the terror of letting her parents down. “She will do anything to make sure her parents don’t go hungry,” he says.

Publishing his observations of life in Ban Mahachai is what’s next for the writer. Hicks’ non-fiction book will be titled, My Thai and I.

(Published in The Star on Oct 8, 2006)