Why I’m worth it: in defense of the dowry

OPINION – I’ve often sympathized with foreign men when the word “dowry” is brought up.

In the modern-day Thai culture, a dowry is still common practice in wedding ceremonies. Thai dowries typically consist of jewelry for the bride to wear on her wedding day and cash for the bride’s parents.

The subject of money is awkward, even for the Thai couples. But a dowry is an even bigger matter (and mess) when the groom is a foreigner.

Not a single foreigner I know is comfortable parting with their hard-earned cash (generally at least THB100,000) to marry their Thai girlfriends, most of whom are from the Bangkok middle-class and obviously have no intention of deceiving anyone for money.

Whenever the subject is raised at the dining table, somehow the Thai girl is automatically viewed as a Nana gold-digger. The responses we often get from blue-eyed boyfriends tend to sound something like:

“That’s stupid. I won’t pay to marry someone.”

“I don’t have that kind of money.”

“I thought you loved me for me. This breaks my heart.” (Said in a sarcastic tone.)

When Thai girls talk money, our foreign boyfriends seem to grow earmuffs. I’m starting to think that maybe it is the word “dowry” itself that scares men. One guy even told me that the dowry is an ancient tradition that should have died hundreds of years ago. At the risk of sounding treasonous, I think he may be right, but the fact remains that the dowry still exists and is rightfully important to most Thai families.

The practice of giving the bride’s family a large amount of money was best suited to a past when male commoners had to leave their families every other month for work. In those days, when a couple got married the guy had to pay up so the wife could take care of herself and the children when her husband was away.

Somehow hundreds of years later, the dowry lives on as an integral part of Thai matrimony. The idea seems especially weird when you consider that Thai women these days often earn as much as their partners.

The question really should be why these girls still ask you to pay a dowry, and why they are so offended when you refuse to do so.

Let me enlighten you. As funny as it sounds, a dowry represents your respect. Most Thais are very attached to their families and, as a result, Thai marriage is a monumental union of two households.  That old aphorism, “if you marry a Thai girl, you marry her family as well” is true.

The dowry is a gift from the groom’s family and a small part of khan mark, an exquisite arrangement of Thai symbols of luck including banana leaves, flowers and fruits presented in golden trays. The khan mark is presented at the wedding ceremony, which is sacred and a chance for the wedded couple to ask their families for blessings. This means you officially ask your girlfriend’s parents for permission to have her as a life partner. Thai parents find the ceremony very important and necessary. If not done properly, it would seem to them that you’re running away with their daughter without respect.

So if you look at the bigger picture, it’s the Thai wedding ceremony that your girlfriend wants, not just the dowry. By refusing to have a ceremony you’re demonstrating that you are not willing to make things official and right for her family.

Now you might think, “In that case, I will just give her THB500. That’s my kind of dowry.”

Thais describe dowry as kha nam nom  (translated to ‘cost for breastfeeding’). It is an important display of appreciation for the mother-in law. Essentially, when you hand over a dowry you’re saying, “thanks for raising your daughter so well.” The value of a dowry depends on how much the parents think is appropriate for their daughter. So it is normal for a wealthy family to ask for a more expensive dowry.

Honestly, if someone puts a THB500 bill on the table and says, “this is all you’re worth.” I’m sure you would find that offensive as well. A THB500 bill could probably get you some action on Soi Cowboy but it’s not appropriate for a wedding.

Some might argue that a dowry objectifies women, but it’s simply not viewed that way in Thai culture. Proposing to your girlfriend means you’re inviting her to be a life-time partner. For those in love, you obviously know that’s worth more than anything. But even the most successful women want to know their “value.” Many even think guessing the amount is quite fun.

But does no money really mean no honey? Fear not.

Nowadays most city parents return the entire dowry to the couple as ngern kwan toong or starter money for the new family. This is a new tradition born out of modern culture and it makes a lot of sense. Any decent parents would worry about their child’s well-being. So why would they take such a large amount of money from her husband?

The concept of giving back has become common in Bangkok, but unlike paying dowry, giving it back is not mandatory. Ideally, any decent parents would feel the need to give all of the money back to the couple as a wedding gift along with their blessing. Some parents might take some of the money to pay for the wedding costs. Nowadays it’s quite shameful for parents to spend it on luxury for themselves. In conclusion, any parents with some common sense would know they shouldn’t take money from their child, especially if the parents are already doing well.

So the next time your girlfriend brings up the dowry subject, don’t freak out. The girl who truly loves you will marry you regardless of how much money you have in your bank account and accept the amount of dowry you can afford. We do not expect to be paid THB100 million like this Roi Et girl, which is absolutely ridiculous and any women with self-respect would not want you to overdo it and turn her to Cinderella. Also, keep in mind that mom and pop will probably return the cash anyway.

This advice applies to most relationships. If you’re unfortunate enough to be dating a gold digger, you’re probably financing your girl’s parents with monthly payments so this article and advice are not for you.

My parents once made a joke about how they wouldn’t let me get married for a dowry less than THB10 million. Some of my friends have heard the same thing but, hands down, we would be happy with any number as long as our grooms actually show up.

After all, I know my parents will give it back, no matter how little it is.

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One thought on “Why I’m worth it: in defense of the dowry

  1. First off all, well written article to explain the true meaning of dowry. But it still goes completely past one point. When two people get married and they are from different cultures, you have to keep both in view and try to find a balance between them. In the old days, a dowry used to be common in my country as well. The parents of the bride paid that to the new husband. (Yes you read that correct). Now this is not practiced at all anymore as when people got wealthier there was no need for it. People simply got married out of love.

    But to get back to my point. My culture is different, and I think it's only fair to expect that it is respected too. I am not married, neither do I have plans too. But I can imagine if I would, and I would pay a dowry, many people back in my country would look down upon my wife and call her a gold digger, and me stupid for being blinded. This is not how I would like people to view us.

    I think there are lots of different ways to show people you respect them, love them and treasure them. And the old fashioned dowry, is not necessarily the way to go to make things right for both cultures and families.

    My advise to people we struggle with it. Talk about it openly, find out what's important for everybody. If the dowry returns, then there is not a big deal going along with it. But I think you are entitled to come up for your own culture as well. Not everything has to go 100% according to Thai culture, if your girlfried loves and respects you, she will understand. If not, you might need to think twice about the marriage plan before going down that road.

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