Our trip to Thailand was great. There were wonderful things (like mango sticky rice), weird but nice things (like hair washing – a 15-minute procedure at a local salon), weird and not nice things (like people eating bugs), and then there was what I called the Thai Paradox.
See, before flying to Bangkok, I emailed our friend in Udon Thani and asked if there was a dress-code (you ask this sort of question after living in the Middle East for 2 years). She was happy I asked and advised to stick with bottoms that are to the knee or lower & tops that cover my shoulders. I was a little bummed, but it wasn’t a big deal, since this is the kind of clothes I wear here every day.
We also did our research on Bangkok and found out that we both needed to wear long bottoms & closed-toe shoes to visit the Grand Palace. Ok, no big deal again, we packed accordingly.
And then we arrived to Thailand & I felt like I was the only woman under 40 in the city of Bangkok who was not wearing a mini. Seriously.
I thought, “Well, this is the capital, it’s more touristy, people are more wild here. It will be different once we head up north-east.”
Wrong! In the very non-touristy Udon Thani girls still wore cute little dresses and shorts so tiny I’d never dare try them on.
When I asked our friends what’s up with the clothing thing, they explained that generally, Thai people dress modestly, but the younger girls and women want to look Western. “Well, I’m Western,” – I said, – “can I dress like a Westerner?” Their answer stunned me.
“You can wear whatever you want and they won’t care, but if you start talking to someone & they find out that you are a) a teacher’s wife and b) a mother, and you are dressed like that, you will basically lose all respect. Because you should know better.”
Now, we are not talking about daisy dukes & cropped t-shirts. We are talking about something above the knee & without sleeves. Quite a modest culture, huh? NB: I am not talking about the touristy beaches of Thailand here.
Where’s the paradox, you may be asking.
Well, you see, one of the things Thailand is known for is sex tourism. Male & female prostitutes abound, and while prostitution is officially illegal, I hear it’s actually government-controlled. Here’s a Wiki article on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Thailand It’s scary, really, how many foreigners come on a vacation & buy a local for the duration of their stay.
What’s even more strange to me, is that it’s not just the foreigners. Our friends told us that it’s considered absolutely normal for a man to have several mistresses + a wife. Sometimes the women aren’t too happy with the arrangement (we heard a story of 3 girlfriends who found out about each other & joined forces: they sold the guy’s pricey electronics & split the money :)), but in general it’s expected and not frowned upon. Even in their non-touristy city, both of our friends have been approached by the locals. They and their expat friends have been offered “special services” at a massage salon, the guys are consistently asked about their Thai wives (and why they don’t have any), the women are being told that the fact they already have husbands “is not a problem”.
Prostitution and extramarital sex? Yay! Bring it on! Let the whole world come and sleep with our people!
Women wearing anything above the knee? No way! That’s too risqué. We are a modest people.
I just don’t get it. I don’t.
P.S. The whole issue of modesty/modest clothes is something that I get passionate about very quickly, and since I seem to hold a somewhat not-mainstream-Christian view on it, you may not want to bring up the subject with me.
P.P.S. More reading on human trafficking in Thailand: http://www.humantrafficking.org/countries/thailand
NGO’s that help sex workers:
If you know of any others, feel free to leave a link in the comments!