Marriage at any price
Over-enthusiastic brides and indifferent grooms almost guarantee Thai wedding day disasters By Andrew Biggs
My heart goes out to the jilted bride who made the news this week, left standing in her wedding dress in front of a crowd of well-wishers, having to explain that her future significant other had chosen insignificance.
My heart also goes out to the groom. I have my nephew Neung to thank for that.
The 24-year-old bride was stood up by her 18-year-old groom. They'd met in April and had allegedly fallen in love in the three short months since.
So what happened? He had another girlfriend, but the real deal-breaker was his inability to pay a bride price of 300,000 baht.
Does this surprise any of us? The average 18-year-old Thai man in this country is lucky to have 300 baht in his bank account. Only the 18-year-old sons of wealthy pork-ball factory owners could afford anything greater. And besides, did she seriously believe her ideal life partner would come in the form of an 18-year-old philanderer whom she'd met 90 days previous?
"Bride price" is a direct translation from Thai, where it doesn't quite sound as cold and clinical as in English. The Thai word is sin sot, which translates as … well, bride price.
This is a payment that men must make to a bride's family for the right to marry their daughter. I was first introduced to it 25 years ago when my friend Vichien wanted to marry his girlfriend at the time. Before anything, he needed to find the bride price.
"You're buying her?" I asked, incredulously.
"No. I'm offering money for her."
"Isn't that the same? How much?"
"I don't know... 50,000 baht."
"You don't have 50,000 baht," I began, as Vichien looked to me and opened his mouth but I cut him off.
"Don't even ask!"
"It's just a loan."
"I can pay you back right after the wedding ceremony."
"Naiyana's mother will return it to us immediately. We hand over the money during the ceremony for everybody to see then she gives it back to us."
"What if she keeps it?"
"Then she's stingy."
"And I'm broke."
I had so many questions. Could I bargain down the price? You know, knock 10 per cent off the bride price and Vichien will throw in five years of absolutely no mistresses or minor wives?
Nearly two decades have passed since that fateful night, and yes, Naiyana's mother returned the money days after the wedding. But what a cultural eye-opener.
You see ever since I was a little boy, I was told the woman paid for the wedding, not the man. I remember my mother talking about "glory boxes"; suitcases unwed girls would use to collect stuff for married life. Though I never clapped eyes on such a box, I imagined them to be full of Wiltshire stay-sharp knives, bell-bottom tracksuits and K-Tel Record Selectors.
Over the years I have grown to understand the role of the bride price. Like so many things in this country, it is just a show.
Watch when a Thai star or some high-society offspring get married. The one thing you can depend on (other than a divorce soon after) is the mountain of cash and gold bars piled up in front of the happy couple. Sometimes these bride prices can run into the tens of millions.
Back in 2011 a big story erupted when the permanent secretary of the Transport Ministry was burgled while he attended his daughter's wedding.
Thieves made away with as much as 200 million baht … in cash. The permanent secretary had a plausible excuse for having the equivalent of a small African country's cash reserves in his hallways. His daughter was getting married, remember? That cash was the bride price, he said.
Why else, he asked, would he have such a huge amount of cash blowing through the halls of his Lad Phrao mansion? Yes, he was arrested soon after.
Which brings us to Neung.
Neung is the son of an old Thai friend of mine who died when Neung was just 15. Neung was in Bangkok studying high school at the time. His father's death meant he inherited a small durian and mangosteen plantation in Chanthaburi.
Neung continued his education to Year 12. Before returning to the farm he had found himself a girlfriend, Natt. Once a month he would come to Samut Prakan to visit her for a few days.
Neung is now 36 years old. Incredibly to this day he still drives his pickup once a month to spend time with Natt, staying at her parents' home.
Neung drops in to see me on some visits, out of habit, and often when funds are a little low and there is fertiliser to be purchased. Yes, your favorite correspondent helps out in such circumstances, and thus has a constant supply of his very favourite fruit, mangosteen -- as for his absolutely reviled fruit, Neung has known for years not to bring durian anywhere near my house.
It was just one month ago -- three weeks before the jilted bride story broke -- that I finally had it out with Neung.
"When are you going to marry Natt?" I asked.
"Mai roo," he replied.
"What do you mean, you don't know? You've been together for more than 20 years!"
"Yung mai prom," he said. I'm not ready yet.
"Since when has being ready ever stopped people from marrying?" I asked, as if I were an expert on the topic. But I did have a point. "Do you want to marry Natt?"
"Kor dai," he said. I guess so. Pinning Neung down on anything was a little like pinning down a tent in a hurricane. It was clear I'd have to take some affirmative action if children of Neung and Natt were ever going to see the light of day.
"Now listen to me," I said. "You're going to get married right here at home to save money."
"What about the bride price?" he asked.
I tried to hide my surprise. "Bride price?" I asked. "You've been going out with Natt for 21 years. Surely you don't need a bride price? Have you asked her parents?"
"No," said Neung.
I figured Natt's parents would ask for 50,000 baht at most, which would be returned. Incredibly Neung, never one to commit himself to anything -- Natt included -- agreed to talk to Natt's parents the following day.
Two days later, bad news.
"I spoke to Natt's parents," said Neung. "They want 300,000 baht … which they won't return."
They want … what?
"They're happy with the idea of us marrying. They said their neighbours were starting to wonder when we were going to tie the knot."
"And that wonder shall not stop any time soon if they continue to set that kind of benchmark. What on earth are they thinking? Have you bargained them down? And why aren't they paying it back?"
I suggested explaining to Natt's parents that their request would never facilitate a wedding. It may instead facilitate Neung's moving on, finding another girl whose parents weren't quite so out of touch with the bride prices of suburban Samut Prakan.
That's why I wrote, at the top of this column, that my heart also goes out to the groom in that news story. What a shame there are just too many over-enthusiastic brides, lackadaisical grooms, and greedy parents-in-law to ensure a "happily ever after" scenario for couples.
Neung and Natt continue to see each other once a month; I daresay they will continue their monthly trysts for eternity, or when Natt's parents pass, whichever comes first.
As for that couple in the news -- things aren't going to settle down so easily, for the real issue is not a lack of bride price. It is a mutual lack of common sense.