Ban Cao, THAILAND: The main road leading through this village of 800 people in Thailand's northeast mostly runs through a scene of rural dishevelment, simple shacks with the ubiquitous rusted corrugated roofs, ragged clumps of banana trees and palms, and, here and there, a simple open-air restaurant or grocery store.
But next to the Ban Cao post office is a sort of anomaly: an imposing iron gate leads to a spacious house with verandas, a sloping tile roof, a garage, a well-tended garden with sculptures and lawns. It is one of several like it in this otherwise nondescript Thai town not far from Udon Thani, which was an American air base during the Vietnam War.
Are these the weekend getaways of Bangkok businessmen who have decided for some reason to build here, not far from the Mekong River and the border with Laos, rather than on some island resort like Phuket or Ko Samui? Not at all.
"Normally in the northeast when you see a big house, you know that this house belongs to a foreigner who has married a Thai woman," Adul Khankeaw, Ban Cao's headman, explained. "And if you go to buy a new motorbike or car and pay cash, the salesman will ask you if you or one of your relatives is married to a foreigner."
Thailand, of course, has always attracted foreign men interested in the local women, not least of course during the Vietnam War when the country was the favored "rest and recreation" destination for tens of thousands of GIs, as well as construction workers, Air America pilots, diplomats and journalists.
And, while the GIs are long gone, this country has, almost ever since the Vietnam War ended, been one of the chief sex tourism capitals of the world. Even a relatively remote place like Udon Thani, which is the local provincial capital, shows the marks of this. "Great Food, Drinks, Pool, Girls" is the way one restaurant advertises its offerings on the official map distributed by the town's hotels.
But what those imposing houses in Ban Cao show is a variation on the theme of Thai women and foreign men. They are the homes of men, mostly middle-aged and older, who have married local women, in many instances former bar girls whom they met in Bangkok or Pattaya, the two major centers of the Thai sex trade, and settled down in retirement in rural Thailand.
Usually an economic consideration has entered into these marriages at the outset. Quite clearly, comely Thai women are marrying European men, often 20 or 30 or even 40 years older than they are, because of the economic advantage of it to them. And for the men, they have companionship, an easy life in a country very cheap by Western standards, and somebody to look after them as they get older.
"At first it wasn't about love but for a better life," acknowledged one woman, Supee, 45 years old, who is married to a retired German named Peter, aged 62. Peter was a tourist in Thailand when they met 21 years ago and, after living in Germany for most of the years since, they moved to Ban Cao, Supee's native village.
"I didn't like him so much at first," another Thai married to a European man said of her husband, a retired French oil engineer named Jean-Claude. She gave her name as Boonyong, and she was working as a waitress in Bangkok (she was not in the sex trade) when Jean-Claude met her on a visit and asked her to live with him.
"I said, 'O.K.,' because I had just lost my father and now I could go home and be with my mother, which is what I wanted," Boonyong said. In Ban Cao alone, out of 180 families, 30 local women have married foreigners. There's a village in Roi Et Province, the Thai press has reported, where 200 women are married to foreigners, the majority of them German and Swiss. There are only 500 families in the entire village.
About 15 percent of all marriages in the northeast, a study published by Khon Kaen University found, are now between Thai women and foreign men. Most of the men are Europeans, but there are upwards of 300 or so Americans, many of them veterans of the Vietnam War who were based in Udon Thani in the 1960s and early 1970s and are living here, most of them with Thai wives as well.
There is a sort of calculated redemption on both sides of these marriages. Many of the women have painful stories, of working as prostitutes, of abandonment by Thai husbands and boyfriends, of children they couldn't afford to take care of. They make no secret of the fact that marrying some nice, older foreign man saved both them and their extended families from poverty and unhappiness.
And as for the men, many of them are divorced or unhappily married back home. They came to Thailand for a brief touristic encounter with the local sex-for-sale industry and ended up staying for life.
"In Vienna you have so many obligations," said a retired Austrian international lawyer who gave his name as Christoph Killy. He has been married for 14 years to a woman from Ban Cao. "There's so much you have to do and so much you aren't allowed to do there. Here you are free."
The truth is that deceit and tragedy, along with happy stories, are part of the picture. Houses and land, by law, have to be owned by Thais, and so there have been cases where Thai wives simply expropriated the properties built for them by their foreign husbands whom they expelled, and then invited their Thai boyfriends to move in with them.
"I've seen terrible things here," Killy said. "Some women are married to Thai men and they tell their foreign boyfriends that they are their brothers. So they sit together and eat together, and the foreigner even buys a motorbike for the Thai 'brother.' "
Still, it's easy to meet what seem like normally happy couples here. According to that university study, marrying a foreigner not so long ago carried a stigma. Now, asked what they want for their daughters, 90 percent of the inhabitants of the Thai northeast replied: "I want for them to marry a foreigner."