After 12 years in a bad marriage, Mali, a 33-year-old woman from Kham Ta Kla in Sakon Nakhon, made a bold move that many women from her village would never dream of doing. Getting a divorce bears a heavy stigma in a culture where special emphasis is placed on remaining a virgin before marriage. It's hard to find Thai men interested in dating female divorcees.
But Mali had had enough of her abusive Thai husband who would spend all day drinking and was incapable of working. She divorced him to seek a better future for herself.
She realised no Thai men from her own village would want to pursue her as a partner, so she decided it was best to put her past behind her and start a whole new life in Bangkok.
In 2006, Mali moved to Bangkok where she found work at a restaurant in the Sukhumvit area. A majority of her clients were Western men. With a fit body and pretty face, it wasn't hard for her to get male attention.
One day at work, she met a German man named Hunt who was enamoured of her straight away. At that point, Mali's English-language abilities were limited, so she spoke to Hunt with the help of a friend who knew some German and some English. Hunt knew he wanted to date Mali, but she told him she was still married and, besides, she already had a daughter.
But Hunt didn't mind the fact she wasn't a virgin. She agreed to go out with him.
Over the course of three months, they both fell madly in love. They got married not long afterwards and moved to Germany together.
That's where Mali's Cinderella story took a terrible turn -- she was sold off by her husband to another German man.
Mali's tale of leaving Thailand is what many Thai girls, particularly from the Northeast, dream of. In this part of the country, the job market is limited and the minimum wage low.
In a place where well-paid jobs are nearly impossible to come by, marrying a Westerner is considered the next best way to get out of poverty. But not many people know what these women have to go through and how many of them end up in broken marriages.
MY WIFE, MY GOODS
After three months of dating, Hunt asked Mali to marry him. He wanted to take her back to Germany with him. Mali felt a love she had never experienced with her ex-husband.
WOMEN’S STUDIES: Dusadee Ayuwat, a Khon Kaen University associate professor, studies the population and migration of Isan women, including those who go abroad with foreign spouses. Photo: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
Shortly after, they got married in two ceremonies -- one in Sakon Nakhon and one in Germany. The first few months of married life seemed to go smoothly for the couple.
Then Hunt turned abusive. He started to get upset with seemingly everything that Mali did. After three years of a bad relationship, Hunt had enough of Mali. He wanted to get rid of her.
"I couldn't speak German and I had a limited knowledge of English," said Mali. "One time, I saw Hunt talking to Frank, his friend. They were looking at me and pointing at me, but I had no idea what they were talking about. The next day, Frank came back with money in his hand. He gave the money to Hunt and told me 'let's go'."
Mali had no idea what was happening in the moment. Hunt simply told her to pack up her belongings and get out of the house. She was confused but followed his instructions.
She was driven to Frank's house where, after a week of staying there, she realised she had been sold off by Hunt. From thereon in, she performed the role of the "good wife" -- cleaning, cooking and having sex with Frank. She had barely known him before then.
They lived together for two years before Mali was sold off to another man -- discarded like expired goods. She had no negotiation power and no safe place nearby to flee.
So she went along with the men, having no other choice.
"I missed my family so much, especially my daughter," said Mali. "I wanted to go home but I couldn't. I didn't have any money at all. I thought I would live a glamorous and happy life in Europe with the man I loved, but in fact it was nothing but a living hell."
The third man got tired of Mali within a year. She was sold off yet again to his friend named Mike. Of all the German men she had been with, Mike seemed to care about her the most sincerely. He helped send her to language schools, where she learned both German and English. He cared enough to ask Mali how she ended up in this life.
After six years of being moved around from one house to another, Mali felt she had met a man who truly loved her. With him, she knew she would never be sold off or exploited again.
Mali lived with Mike in Germany for four years before moving to Sakon Nakhon to build a house in her hometown. At the age of 44, she had made her dream life come true.
Surrounded by her loving family, Mali and Mike now live happily in Kham Ta Kla.
Noi, a 38-year-old woman from Khon Kaen, is the daughter of proud parents. She left her hometown of Nong Na Kham at the age of 20 to work in Bangkok. Every month, she would send home money so that her parents and siblings could enjoy a good life and secure future.
HAPPILY MARRIED: Chonthida Hess, 51, and husband Willy, 65, live in Ban Chan, Roi Et province. It’s known as Ban Chan Swiss for the large number of Swiss men married to Thai women living there.
Noi had a high school diploma and a decent command of English. She didn't have a large variety of jobs to choose from, but she always managed to get work and send home enough money to cover her family's living expenses and her siblings' education.
After six years of working in Bangkok, Noi moved to Pattaya for a higher-paying hotel job. It was here where she met Michael, a hotel guest from Germany. They went on one date and vowed to stay in touch. He returned to Pattaya once a year and, after his third visit, Michael asked Noi to marry him.
Noi's parents were delighted to hear the news. Several women in their village had married Westerners and seemed to have a better life. They were anticipating the same for Noi.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS: Family homes in Ban Chan Swiss alternate between traditional Thai and Western-style houses. Below, the Hess family home.
The couple got married in Khon Kaen, then moved to Germany together. That's when she realised that Michael had neglected to tell her certain details about his life in Germany. "He has no home," said Noi. "He basically lives in a motor home in a park. We sell vegetables at the local market for a living. The money is only enough to support ourselves. I have barely any money to send back home."
Noi occasionally uses her Thai cooking skills to earn extra money. She works several jobs, from cooking to cleaning, to gather enough money to live and send home to her family.
"The scary part for me is coming closer to the time when I have to go back home to Khon Kaen," Noi said. "We only have enough money to buy round trip tickets, but not enough to give to my family. So we end up borrowing money every time we come back to Thailand in order to convince my family that I have a good life in Germany."
For the month that she returns home, Noi is expected to treat her family of 12 people every day, from taking them out for meals and drinks to buying them new clothes. She must also help renovate the family home and start building a new one on her parents' land.
This shows her neighbours that she leads a comfortable life.
"It's all about saving face," Noi explained. "I have to do all this so that my parents won't be embarrassed. It's an exhausting act -- I have to convince my family that I have a good life when I don't. We have to work hard to pay off the debt every time we come back from Thailand."
UNDERSTANDING THE TREND
Dusadee Ayuwat, an associate professor, was born in Roi Et, where many women in her village are married to Westerners. She remembers these pairings being popular since she was young.
FOR THE LONG RUN: Students from Kalasin College of Dramatic Arts are invited each year to perform Thai dance in Japan, where many of them will stay on for work and find a Japanese spouse.
For 30 years, she has held a teaching job at Khon Kaen University. Her area of interest is the population and migration of Isan women. Her work has produced an extensive body of research since the Ministry of Foreign Affairs first reached out to her to study such issues.
As the government noticed a trend of Thai women moving abroad with foreign husbands on the rise, Ms Dusadee was asked to use data from her research to help prepare these women for a life abroad.
HELPING HAND: Patcharee Arayakul, director of the Department of Women’s Affairs, helps run a workshop for Thai women who go abroad. Photos: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
In her travels to several European countries for field research, she realised that the lives of Thai women abroad wasn't as ideal as many people at home believed it to be. She found that over 90% of Thai women married to Westerners had been in unsuccessful marriages with Thai men. They described their ex-husbands as lazy and irresponsible.
For many of these women, the reason they chose to pursue Westerners was the imagined financial security that came with it.
"In the past, the trend was that Thai women over the age of 40 who had been married at least three times got married to older foreign men," Ms Dusadee explained.
"Then the trend shifted towards younger Thai women marrying older foreign men. But now the trend is Thai women and foreign men of the same age marrying. The men are mostly young backpackers who come to Thailand on vacation. No matter how much the trends have changed, the women consistently equate farang men with money.
"The real challenge for cross-cultural marriages is dealing with the cultural differences. Foreigners don't understand that when they marry a Thai woman, they become married to her family too. They then have to support her family the way these women do before they get married."
Her research also found that only a small group of Thai women get married with rich foreign men. Most Thai women in these marriages end up with middle- to lower-class men.
"I'm now working with the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) to teach Thai women how to maintain their relationships with their foreign husband. Talking about cultural differences and getting these women ready are necessary steps and better than telling them simply not to marry a farang. It's more sustainable," Ms Dusadee said.
THE LITTLE SWISS
Ban Chan village, based in the Thung Khao Luang district of Roi Et, is home to around 500 families. Twenty-two kilometres away from the province's main city of Roi Et, the village is an ideal place to raise a family -- quiet, removed, but close enough to key facilities like hospitals and markets.
The village's name is officially registered as Ban Chan. Locally, however, it is known as Ban Chan Swiss due to the large number of Swiss men married to Thai women living there.
Some media sources estimate the village has around 200 Swiss men living there.
Spectrum visited the village which, on first glance, seems to have a demographic dominated by children and the elderly. Chan Chaising, head of the Thung Khao Luang district, says the number of Swiss men in the village is likely overstated by the media.
"We have approximately 70 couples in our village but I have to say most of them are mostly living in Switzerland," said Mr Chan. "There are only three [Thai-foreigner] couples that are living in my village. All of them seem to have successful and happy marriages."
Chonthida Hess, 51, and her husband Willy, 65, are one of such three couples living in Ban Chan Swiss. They met each other 17 years ago in Bangkok, then moved to Lausanne for 17 years together before they decided they wanted to move back to Thailand to retire.
"My wife is from this town and I heard that there are a lot of Swiss people here," said Mr Hess. "That's why I decided to move back here with her. It's known as being a little Swiss area and I think it is good to be surrounded by people who speak the same language as me. However, I only really see them during Christmas or Songkran time."
Mrs Hess tells Spectrum the only issue they have faced while living in the village is the lack of Isan food. She also misses her family.
She says her marriage is successful since her family didn't expect her to financially support them like other Thai families do.
The village may at first seem like a typical countryside community. But when walking around, one notices how the big concrete houses are mixed in with local Thai-style houses -- signs telling of who exactly owns these residences.
NEW RISK GROUP
While working-class Isan women have long been the typical candidates for these cross-cultural marriages, a new trend now involves foreign men marrying young students, particularly those enrolled at performing art schools in the northeastern provinces.
"I found out that the new risk group is students who are in performing arts and drama schools in Isan," Ms Dusadee explained. "That's generally because they are often invited to perform in other countries and they also have great opportunities to work abroad with their skills. Many of them marry local men in the countries that they go to."
For this reason, Khon Kaen University is working together with the MSDHS's Department of Women's Affairs and Family Development (DWF) to help ease these women into making life-changing decisions like marrying foreigners or moving abroad.
Every year, students from the Kalasin College of Dramatic Arts are invited as cultural ambassadors to perform Thai dance in Japan, says Pongsapol Kanchanda, the college's deputy director. Many students will get jobs there as performers and stay on in the country for long term. They often end up marrying Japanese men if they can find work in Japan.
"Many of our students who graduate high school here usually get a job in Japan, while students who graduate with bachelor's degrees with us usually get a job in Germany, the Netherlands or Switzerland," Mr Pongsapol explained.
"I know that many of them get married to local guys in the country where they go to, but I don't know if they turn out to be successful marriages. That's why I think the workshop that the MSDHS is launching with us will be a useful tool in the future when they get into that situation. I want them to be smart and immune from trouble."
ARMED AND READY
At the MSDHS workshop, the students get to learn about the challenges of living abroad and what they need to know to prepare themselves for encountering new cultures and languages.
Patcharee Arayakul, the DWF director, tells Spectrum that she doesn't want to stop young girls from pursuing their dream to marry a foreign man. She just wants to make sure they know what they are getting into.
A study from the immigration police shows there are two million Thai people living abroad. The study doesn't disclose how many of this number are Thai women married to foreigners. But Ms Patcharee, who has met with large networks of Thai women in Germany and France, says they must constitute a high number of them.
"Germany has the most Thai women living there," Ms Patcharee explained. "They have a strong support network which I work with in order to get information and offer help. When I visited these women in Europe, I found the number one problem many have is a lack of legal knowledge. They don't know what to do or who to run to after they get a divorce. It is sad to realise that many of them choose not to come back to Thailand only because it will be a big embarrassment for them. They end up staying here to search for a new guy to marry."
The DWF is now setting up a smartphone app named YingThai for these women to get legal advice when they encounter a problem.
They are also starting to organise a workshop for arts school students in northeastern Thailand. The lessons will draw from the findings of Ms Dusadee's work. She is working on developing more approaches to help women make the big decision to move abroad.
"I won't stop anyone from going abroad," Ms Dusadee said. "They have the right to go wherever they want to. But what I am trying to do is equip them with the intellectual weapons that they need in order to survive in countries they know nothing about.
"Along with giving them knowledge on how to go about living abroad, I also plan to educate and encourage the families of those who are living abroad to lower their expectations. Just because they are living abroad doesn't mean that they are rich and being married to a farang doesn't mean they will have money.
"If the parents and family can lower their expectations and allow their daughters to live their lives, the marriage will be more sustainable and everyone can truly live happily ever after," she added.