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Thailand: Land of Beautiful Women

160-page full-color Photobook

Part One

Beauty, grace and charm are not confined to any one nationality. Or so many men believe before they arrive in Thailand. As for those who actually live in Thailand – the fanatically loyal admirers of women of Vietnam and the Philippines notwithstanding – there is nothing quite like a Thai woman.

True, men the world over have a tendency to invest women of other nations with attractive qualities. One need only ask a Thai man about the supposed sensuality of Scandinavian blondes and a Scandinavian man about the charm of Thai women. But it has become increasingly obvious that Thai women are greatly admired by men around the world.

Even the most critical observer would have to admit that Thai women have a great deal going for them. It is still instinctive with all Thais to react to a situation with a smile and a polite remark. To react with overt anger and a loud voice is considered rude and an admission of poor manners. In a society in which politeness and a maibenlai (never mind) attitude play such important roles, it should not be surprising that Thai females of all ages possess more than their share of charm.

That is not to say that the women of Thailand are any less complex than their Western counterparts. Indeed, the writer J. M. Cadet begins his work on the Ramakien with the sentence, “The Thai are one of the more elusive peoples of the Orient.” The Thai smile is certainly appealing, but the foreign man who regards a Thai woman’s smile as a sure sign of agreement or approval may be heading for a series of baffling misunderstandings. But such warnings aside, their charm is both universal and undeniable; but what exactly is this quality?

The cheerful attitude, the graceful walk, the charming smile, the gentle nature, the lovely figure, all this and more seems to combine into a Siamese bewitchment seemingly capable of captivating men of almost any nationality.

Yet, despite the increasing demand for their charms, Thai women remain strangely unaffected by recent publicity and by the hordes of foreigners paying them compliments.

In fact, again and again, conversations with Thai women reveal what can only be described as an inferiority complex. To the average Thai, a high-bridged Caucasian nose and blonde hair and white skin are indisputable symbols of beauty. Hence no matter how plain a female Western traveler happens to be, to the locals (male and female) she is suey makh (very pretty). No matter that the Thai woman who thinks so is herself stunningly beautiful. In her mind, she does not have light skin, a high-bridged nose or blond hair, hence she cannot hope to compare with her Western counterpart.

Anyone who has spent some time in Thailand will quickly recognize that the Thai sense of beauty only occasionally approximates that of Westerners. The Thai man often prefers a slightly pudgy, fair-skinned northern woman, leaving lovely, dark-skinned beauties waiting in vain for suitors.

In the northern city of Chiang Mai, a friend and I were once taken proudly by a Thai driver (his namecard read “Danny Riverboy”) to the house of a former ‘Miss Chiang Mai’. Now, Chiang Mai is known as the ‘City of Beautiful Women,’ mainly because it is there and in such surrounding towns as Lamphun that women have light complexions. But the Thai sense of beauty seems to originate at least partly in the Indian understanding of feminine pulchritude. And, like many movie actresses of both countries, this means a woman of light skin and a slightly plump face, with figure to match.

And this, of course, is exactly what we found. A very friendly girl with creamy white skin and a stomach which revealed a fondness for the fattening “sticky rice” (khao niu) of the north. Not wishing to be impolite, we took a few photographs of the girl, complimented her on her beauty, and prepared to depart. However, just as we rounded a corner of her house, we almost collided with one of the most beautiful girls we’d ever seen. Her skin was dark, her long hair reached to her waist, and her features were extremely delicate. Yet, to the Thais she was not particularly attractive and, once we had finished photographing her, she resumed her chores as a maid and continued feeding the chickens, completely at a loss to understand why anyone would ever want to photograph her.

Perhaps the ultimate example of the Thai fascination with light skin occurred just at the end of one of my English classes at a private English school in Bangkok. A lovely young student with beautiful eyes and a figure that made Greek goddesses look like water buffaloes walked to the desk and held out a newspaper clipping. She smiled shyly and pointed to a picture. “She is beautiful, yes?” The year was 1967 and the photograph was of Lady Bird Johnson. Beauty is in the eye of.…

Nor is this fondness for light skin a recent development. In his Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam, the French envoy to the King of Siam in 1687-8, De La Loubere, wrote of “the fancy of the Siamese for white women.” He describes the reaction of two young Siamese Mandarins on seeing the picture of a white woman: “One of them replied that a woman like this would be worth an hundred catis, or fifteen thousand Livres, and his companion was of the same mind...whether they put so high a value on a white woman, either for the singular delight which they take in them, or only by reason that whatever comes from far, ought to be very dear, I leave to be determined.”

It is precisely because of this fondness for light skin that Thais often overlook some of the most beautiful girls in the kingdom. But they are there: working on construction crews, paddling in the klongs (canals), working on roads across the country, planting rice, or sweeping highways. In nearly every cluster of construction workers or highway sweepers there is invariably an incredibly beautiful dark-complexioned young woman completely oblivious to the fact that she is gorgeous. Her head is usually covered by a straw hat and her face is protected from the sun and dust by a wrap-around scarf, but even with much of her face covered, the smiling dark eyes over high cheekbones hint at her charming personality.

Although it is difficult to decide the occupation with the most beautiful Thai women, it is not difficult to name the women least likely to be photographed. That award must go to the highway sweepers who, upon seeing a foreigner approach them with a camera, instantly disappear into nearby jungles and mountains leaving the photographer with shots of abandoned brooms littering the highway as far as the eye can see. During Thailand’s period of insurgency troubles, I estimate I disrupted more highways under construction than all of Thailand’s former communist guerrillas put together. If the insurgents had ever realized that a Nikon FM-135 lens was superior to force of arms in stopping road crews from working, Thailand’s major road network might once again have consisted mainly of canals.

But as many knowledgeable foreign men have learned, when necessary, Thai women can be as shrewd and clever as they are sweet and gentle. As one long-time resident of Bangkok described it: “Thai women are extremely shrewd: they have to be in order to bargain every day in the marketplace with Chinese vendors. But when it comes to a Chinese merchant and a Thai housewife, I’d bet on the housewife anytime.”

Examples of the strength of character of Thai women in the face of adversity are found in nearly every period of Thai history. In the town of Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima) there is a statue of Thao Suranaree (Khunying Mo). During the Ratanakosin period when her husband, the governor of the province was away, a Laotian army invaded the area. By cunning and by heroic deeds, Thao Suranaree defeated the Laotians and saved the town.

Two of the bravest and most resourceful heroines of Thai history were two sisters who lived in the island province of Phuket during the late 18th century. At a time when Burmese troops surrounded the town, the governor of the area died. The two sisters used fire to blacken and curl coconut-palm leaves and issued these “arms” to their troops. From a distance, in the eyes of the Burmese, these palm-leaf “rifles” were indeed mistaken for rifle barrels.

The Burmese made several attacks on the town but the sisters rallied the people and set personal examples of bravery. Finally, after more than a month of fruitless attacks, as a Thai army appeared on the scene, the Burmese retreated.

His Majesty, Rama I, Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulalok, gave the two sisters their special titles of Thao Thepkasattri (the elder sister) and Thao Srisoonthorn. A bronze statue of the sisters was erected in Phuket which still stands today.

Perhaps the most famous heroine of all in Thai history is Queen Suriyotai who lived during the 16th century. Burmese and Thai armies clashed savagely on elephant back, and when her husband was in extreme danger, she drove her own elephant in between the combatants to rescue him. Although she managed to save her husband, Queen Suriyotai was killed in the attempt. Inspired by her bravery, the Thais routed the Burmese and the victorious Thai army, led by her sons, escorted her body into Ayudhya.

This independence and strength in the face of adversity or in taking up arms against an actual enemy is seen in the actions of Thai women in fiction as well. For example, in Prem Chaya’s play “Magic Lotus,” based on the fifteenth-century classic Pra Law, lovely ladies-in-waiting don men’s clothing and fight to the death at the side of their lovers.

One of the most famous beauties in Thai history was the 7th century queen, Chamadevi. Chamadevi was known for her beauty and charm but, unfortunately, she had transgressed a religious custom and was cursed with what can only be described as an extreme case of body odor. Thai legends assure readers that Queen Chamadevi’s odor could be detected at a distance comparable to that measuring the sound of three trumpets of an elephant plus seven beatings of a gong. The scholar, Kraisri Nimmanahaeminda, has calculated that distance to be a total of sixteen miles!

Early Western travelers in Siam also noted the independence and unconfined position of Thai women. In the 1850s, Sir John Bowring, a former governor of Hong Kong and the man who signed a treaty with Rama IV, noted that “on the whole, the condition of women is better in Siam than in most Oriental countries.”

Mgr. Pallegoix observed in 1855 that “Siamese wives are well treated by their husbands, they have much authority in ruling the family, they are honoured, they enjoy great freedom....They appear in public, go to market, do business, give and receive visits, walk to pagodas in town and in the country, and have nothing to fear from the jealousy of their husbands.”

In his two volume work on Thailand entitled, The Kingdom and People of Siam, Bowring quotes Father Bigandet, another early traveler, on “the favourable influences of Buddhism on the condition of women.”

In Burma and Siam the doctrines of Buddhism have produced a striking

and to the lover of true civilization a most interesting result – viz., the almost

complete equality of the condition of women with that of men. In these

countries, women are not so universally confined in the interior of their

houses, without the remotest chance of ever appearing in public. They

are seen circulating freely in the streets; they preside at a comptoir, and

hold an almost exclusive possession of the bazaars. Their social position

is more elevated, in every respect, than that of the persons of their sex

in the regions where Buddhism is not the predominating creed. They may

be said to be men’s companions, and not their slaves.

Nor was the good Father any lover of docile women. In what sounds like an opening bell for today’s feminists, Father Bigandet writes, “In spite of all that has been said by superficial observers, I feel convinced that manners are less corrupted in those countries where women enjoy liberty, than in those where they are buried alive by a despotic custom in the grave of an opprobrious slavery.”

According to one Thai saying, the women of Chiang Mai and the North are known for their sweet temperament (sugar), while those of the South are known for being a bit more hot-tempered (spice). As Thailand is still largely a nation of farmers, the farmer’s daughter who is most likely to attract legions of suitors is not merely attractive but, as the Thais say, the one who “can plant her rai (of rice) a day.” In other words, Thai women in the countryside are judged as much for their farmyard and paddyfield ability as for their comeliness.

And Chiang Mai is not the only area of Thailand known for the comeliness of its women. Not far to the west of Bangkok in the Sam Pran district, on the banks of the Nakorn Chaisri River, is the Rose Garden resort. It is said that in the Nakorn Chaisri area a man will find “the sweetest pomeloes, the whitest rice and the most beautiful daughters.”

Like men the world over, Thai men appreciate the fact that the search for a beautiful woman with a good heart may be a long one. Such a woman is sometimes compared to a white elephant, an auspicious symbol in Thailand. Hence, a man searching long and hard for his true love might shake his head and say, “A white elephant is found in the deep forest (Chang puek u nai ba).

The people of Thailand are at times described as displaying Indonesian-South Chinese physical features. Others describe them as a mixture of Mongolian and Malaysian stock, but however they are described, they exhibit a softness in their physical features just as they display a gentleness in their lifestyle. Fortunately, rather than rail against the many social and cultural differences between men and women, the Thai woman accepts such differences gracefully. “We don’t understand,” one lovely lady told me recently, “why Western women are afraid to be different.”

Perhaps this easy-going attitude toward diversity between the sexes is due to the fact that, partly because of Buddhism, Thai men and women have often worked on equal terms. Many visitors to Thailand have expressed surprise at the way in which women work at jobs involving physical labor. But, increasingly, Thai women are given equal opportunities of education, work and pay and have long been expected to share equally in the work, whether it be planting rice or serving meals on an airplane.

Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to overestimate the effect Buddhism has had on the women of Thailand. To the casual observer, it is easy to misconstrue a subdued reaction or a tolerant smile as evidence that Thai girls are unliberated and passive. Yet it is not passivity that determines such behavior; rather it is Buddhist teaching which places a positive religious value on the avoidance of emotional extremes, heated confrontation or the judging of another’s action.

Buddhist women understand that unlike Christianity where a person is punished for his sins, in Buddhism, a person is punished by his sins. Hence, shouting, anger, jealously and hatred will lead one farther away from the Buddhist way (Dharma) and, in addition to insuring unpleasantness in this life, such action might also lead to a lower rebirth in the next life.

Although not always followed, the religious and meditative goals of detachment and freedom from desire serve as ideals for every Thai. Every Thai woman is blessed with knowledge of Karma, and the understanding that “all things will come and go of themselves.” And if an undeserving man becomes rich and powerful, then “perhaps,” as one of my students explained, “he was a good man in one of his past lives and is now reaping his reward.”

And if a Western critic demands something be done about a situation in the name of self-respect, the Thai female might reply that by stressing “respect” for the “self,” he was already tying himself more strongly to the wheel of life which only leads to greater suffering. As any Buddhist knows, the mind that judges merely creates suffering; looking outside the self is not the way to happiness.

True, in modern Bangkok, the 21st century is doing its best to insure that everyone will want more and become less satisfied and more assertive. But Buddhism has penetrated and permeated the life of every Thai woman no matter how “Western” on the surface. Listen to the words of a modern Thai female writer: “The Buddhist consciousness is a pervasive force in Thai literature. It is like the air we breathe and the world we live in. It can only with danger be distinguished from the artist’s consciousness. In fact, even though it does not make a writer good or bad, the great Thai literature will only emerge when this consciousness is finally and fully expressed.”

There are, of course, many other cultural traits that contribute to the charm and beauty of Thai women. While in the West, public confrontation, criticism and debate are accepted practices, in Thailand people are calmed down during arguments with the phrase, chai yen yen, or “keep a cool heart.”

Popular Buddhism mixed with traces of animism also sharply distinguishes a Thai woman’s personality and outlook from that of her Western counterpart. In the West, a festival is something organized purely for enjoyment; hence, the extravaganza of a Rose Bowl parade in which pretty girls wave to crowds from floats. Yet no traveler to Asia who has been to such places as upcountry Thailand or to remote Balinese villages will doubt that traditional Asian festivals contain much more. Women in such areas are involved in living religions with living gods, where spirits and rice-deities are appeased and bountiful crops are assured by elaborate ceremonies, gestures, rituals, dances and prayers; where pretty women waving from floats are a colorful but extremely minor part of what is basically a spiritual festival.

One American southerner described his domestic life with his Thai wife as blissful because of just such cultural traditions: “She never raises her voice at me at home because she says the family spirit might be offended by disharmony and confusion. So she doesn’t shout and we never have any heated arguments. Even when I- well, never mind. But, take it from me, as far as I’m concerned, our family spirit is A-OK. He’s one of the boys.”

Men who have had relationships only with Thai women in Bangkok may think such traditions disappeared generations ago. But most of Thailand’s population is still located in the countryside not far from a ricefield. In these areas, a man who has never entered the monkhood even for a few weeks is regarded as a khon dip, or “unripe person,” and women of marriageable age avoid him as they would an evil spirit.

Under the pressure of foreign influence as well as the result of its own internal evolution, Thai institutions are changing. Marriage and divorce customs have not escaped this evolution. De La Loubere, the 17th century French envoy to Siam, mentioned that a Thai marriage would be concluded when “the young man goes to visit the lady three times, and carries her home presents of betel and fruit, and nothing more precious.” Today’s weddings are likely to cost a bit more and the yearly sama ceremony, in which the wife, among flowers and incense at her husband’s feet, begs for forgiveness of past errors, is performed far less often.

The first blow for women’s equality in the legal sense was struck in the reign of Rama IV (AD 1851-1868) when a young woman petitioned the king to allow her to marry her lover despite her parents’ objections. The royal decree which followed allowed women of 20 or above to reject a suitor even if approved by her parents.

Today, the man’s family might still be expected to pay a certain price for the bride known as kha nom (“the price of mother’s milk”), a diamond ring (traditionally a sum of gold), payment for the house and the cost of the wedding. The furniture and the land might be provided by the bride’s family.

Naturally, much of this depends on how traditional either or both parties are and how affluent they are. In any case, most modern marriages are no longer arranged although young couples often practice double-dating right up to the time of the wedding. Astrologers still determine the most auspicious date for a Thai wedding although if a young couple can afford it, they will live in their own house rather than with the parents of the bride as was once the custom.

In addition to receiving equal opportunities in education, Thai women usually have a large say in the financial affairs of their families. The late writer, Mom Rajawongse Pimsai Amaranand, wrote: “Traditionally women were supposed to assume their husband’s work or duties in his absence. With traditions like these, it is natural that women hold the purse strings. Business and making money were left to women while men went off on the King’s business to defend the country or to earn honor and glory for the family.”

Thai women have entered the mainstream of nearly all aspects of life, including careers in business, the professions, and the arts. And in rural Thailand, they still build roads and houses, plant rice, care for silk worms, spin and weave, and, when necessary, perform jobs usually reserved for men. An advertisement for the Thai Farmers Bank summed it up nicely: “Traditionally the women of Thailand combine their grace and charm with a strength of spirit and national pride. Femininity with a flair for commerce. Gentleness with dedication to their chosen fields. Achieving harmony in both the realms of home and office. Thailand is rightly proud of its women.”

The national pride of the Thais is also undiluted by traumatic reaction to past events as, alone among the countries of Southeast Asia, Thailand was never conquered by a European power. Hence, there has not been built up in the Thais any resentment toward foreigners or lack of confidence in dealing with them.

But still it seems impossible to define the elusive quality of a Thai woman’s charm. Writing on the same subject, the writer Boye De Mente made an excellent try: “Typical Thai girls have lithe builds, with shapely legs and long tapering fingers. They move with a languid gracefulness imparted by the benign calm of Buddhism and often honed to perfection by years of stylized dancing that requires snake-like writhing and squirming movements. The sensuality so typical of women of the tropics is strongly reflected in their faces and figures. Even their names – Chariya, Saisanom, Thida, Kesree and Valaya – are sexy.” As, he might have added, are their voices and even the clothes they wear, such as the pasin. And, to be precise, Asian woman are far more erotic than they are sexy. The distinction is fine, but important: the Western woman’s sexiness is contrived; the Asian woman’s eroticism is natural.

But it seems clear that the charm of a Thai female is far more than merely physical. It involves a vivaciousness, a naturalness, a well-developed sense of humor, and, perhaps, above all, the intelligence to deal with life’s problems while maintaining an almost childlike ability to delight in living. In other words, an attitude toward life which understands that life is meant to be enjoyed. As the Thais say, “If it’s not sanuk (joyful, happy), it’s not worth doing.”

It has long been an open secret in the aviation industry that European airlines go out of their way to hire Thai stewardesses. What passenger wouldn’t want to step on board a plane and come face to face with a gracious wai and a beautiful Thai smile? But more than that, there is something in the Thai psyche that allows them to serve others without feeling embarrassed or humiliated.

If it is possible for a woman to be even more beautiful than a Thai, or to have even more grace and charm, it can only be in the incredible combinations which one finds in various parts of the country. Western men do not quickly forget meeting women with a Chinese father and Thai mother, or Thai father and Indian mother, or Indonesian father and Thai mother, or those whose ancestry includes Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian combinations.

Perhaps even more than their physical beauty, it is the Thai woman’s warmth and genial approach toward life which makes them so irresistible. This quote once appeared in newspapers throughout the world: “In Thailand we have equality in the big cities. In the country, the women work right alongside and as hard as the men. Our attitude still is that the man is the head of the family. I love to think of my husband as the leader.” The speaker was Her Majesty, the Queen of Thailand.

It should not be surprising that the charm and beauty of a Thai woman attracts some of the most creative Western men living and working in Asia. The attraction was well expressed by Thomas Mann in his book, Death in Venice, in which he movingly wrote of what “...those who have devoted their thought to the creation of beauty feel toward those who possess beauty itself.”

Although a wise man once said that critical judgement is required “both for the production of art and for a developed appreciation of the beautiful,” in his classic book on beauty entitled, The Sense of Beauty, George Santayana wrote that like other values, beauty springs from “the immediate and inexplicable reaction of vital impulse, and from the irrational part of our nature.” In other words, our preference for beauty is ultimately irrational. A few modern scientists, on the other hand, contend that our preference for a certain type may be based on such factors in our makeup as neurotransmitters, hormones and enzymes.

If this is the case, then it would seem self-evident that beauty is not confined to any one nationality. But, as men the world over are learning, these are no women quite comparable to the women of Thailand.

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