Dating Despair: Why finding love in Bangkok is hard for Thai women

Illustration: Praew Tansanga
Illustration: Praew Tansanga

Dating Despair is a four-part series about why dating in Bangkok, well … sucks. This story is a collection of anecdotes from Thai women who live in the capital.

Belle* is 28 years old and has never been on a date in her life.

One recent afternoon, in a group chat between six Thai women who went to college together, Belle sent a candid photo of a decent-looking man she came across in her diplomatic career.

She sent a message, the kind that has appeared in many thousands of all-girl chats throughout history: “Girls, what should I do? I like him. Help me!”

“Smile at him. Remember, you’re a beautiful, chatty, lovely person!” one friend in the group suggested in the way that one offers advice to a friend that you know is destined for disappointment.

I remember receiving eerily similar messages from my childhood friends, high-school friends, and even former colleagues — poorly taken photos of guys with hopeful captions that illustrate their anticipation and excitement at the possibility of romance — but most of the time, those feelings are left unspoken.

While it has been written countless times that expat women in Bangkok have it hard when it comes to dating (and we’ll be hitting that topic ourselves in just a couple of weeks), when you look around, plenty of lovely, single Thai women don’t seem to be doing any better.

Think about the invisible office girls in ballet flats that you look right through on the BTS, the good girls who live with their parents in the suburbs, or the intense career women who receive more messages on LinkedIn than Tinder.

It’s as if they’re stuck in a romantic limbo. While there are no men courting them, they’re not bold enough when it comes to romance — they simply weren’t raised to assert themselves with the opposite sex. Add that to the idea that Thai men tend to think poorly of aggressive and straightforward women, and you end up with a lot of Thai women who don’t even bother trying.

Ying, 30, said she had had a crush on her current boyfriend long before they went out. Even though he was Korean — and so, perhaps, not so judgmental — she waited for him to make the first move.

“I texted my friend the first day I saw him in class that I liked this guy, but I didn’t even think about speaking to him until he asked me out,” Ying said.

“It’s not that I try to be a traditional Thai lady. Thai women don’t care about what society thinks of them — they just care about what the guy they like thinks of them. I feel that men value the women they ask out more [than the women who ask them out].”

Two days later, Belle updated the chat group that she had failed to talk to the guy in the candid photo and didn’t know if she’d ever see him again.

So, while chatting and giggling to friends about guys you like may be hilarious, the sad truth is that many Thai women seem to put themselves in the relatively hopeless position of playing the waiting game — just praying that the men they like will like them back and take the initiative.

Comic strip “honesty sandwich,” by young Thai female artist Tuna Dunn, hilariously illustrates what it’s like to be a Thai woman, who hopes for a sign about a guy rather than confess her attraction to him. Photo: Courtesy of Tuna Dunn

Traditional train wreck

For many Thai women, it’s not as simple as “getting out there and meeting people.”

Tuna Dunn, a Thai illustrator famous for her dark comics about relationships, has previously said she thinks relationships aren’t happening often enough because of Thai people’s reserved nature.

“A lot of my friends have never really had a boyfriend or girlfriend. Thai culture is really traditional. Women don’t approach men and men aren’t that confident. So, it’s basically not happening. The couples I know started as friends and were in the same social circle,” she told Vice’s Creators.

Thailand is a society where people generally don’t stray far from their own social class and many have an eye firmly toward marriage. Because of this, Thais may approach relationships more seriously than Westerners, who are comfortable chatting up complete strangers as well as with the phenomena of “friends with benefits,” “seeing each other,” and “not labeling things.” It might be due to this that most Bangkok women find themselves dating the people they come across in their social circle — and only those of the same or higher social class to boot.

Call it having standards, call it ticking off a checklist, but they tend to go out with someone they already know to have the qualities they want, rather than “wasting time” learning about a complete stranger.

“Women want someone with a profile that they already know. It’s more than just attraction,” said Ann, a 28-year-old in a relationship.

In fact, approaching someone in public is not common — and even frowned upon — in a culture where people are not expected to engage with strangers and can now keep their noses glued to their smartphones in public. But by avoiding that kind of small talk, the chances of finding love outside their social circles is very slim and leaves them with a tiny dating pool.

“It’s tough for women to approach someone they’re interested in in public,” Ann said.

Belle added, “I wouldn’t approach a guy sitting across the bar. Even if he stared at me and seemed interested, I still wouldn’t go. I’d just hope he would come talk to me. Maybe that might work out,” she said, unsurely.

Nicha, 29, has also never been on a date, a situation that is not uncommon in Thailand. While she has completed an MBA, bought a house for her parents, and built a stable career in a male-dominated field, she still suffers from the drawbacks of a small dating pool — most of the men she’d consider dating in her circle are already taken.

“I don’t have anyone coming on to me, at least not the ones I like. I’m picky,” she said casually.

Asked if the possibility of remaining single all her life bothers her, she said: “I’m happy…I spend time with my family and friends; I don’t bother looking for a man. If I don’t come across a good one, I’d rather be alone.”

Appearances matter

Asian culture is widely known for ridiculously high beauty standards that most can’t achieve without the benefit of plastic surgery. Advertising, TV, and media in general dictate that, for a Thai woman to be beautiful, she must have light skin, a pointy nose, and a petite body (yet with extremely large breasts).

Belle looks traditionally Thai — petite and tan-skinned. She thinks that her appearance doesn’t live up to society’s definition of beauty, making it even more difficult for her to date.

“I know I’m not Thai men’s type. The fact that I realize this makes me limit myself from going after someone,” she said.

Pang, 28, works in the Thai military, is taller than most Thai men, and of a medium build.

She didn’t date at all during her four years in college, but when she was shipped off to military training in the US, where people are generally more open about appearances, she finally clicked with someone — actually, more than one.

“When I lived abroad, even men who were shorter than me asked me out because they had very high self-esteem, opposite to Asian or Thai men,” she said.

“Asian men are more specific when it comes to women’s body types. Most of them see a woman who’s taller than them and they don’t ever consider dating her. Few of them would.”

Going global for love

For Thai women who don’t fit conventional beauty standards or try to step out of cultural expectations, they may find expat men a more sensible choice.

But although farangs have a broader interpretation of beauty, Bangkok women face another dilemma — the “sweet Thai girlfriend” stereotype. When they date Westerners, they often find the men treat Thai women far differently than they would women in their home countries.

Given how many Western men relish the more “traditional” (read: pre-feminist revolution) concept of male-female relationships they sometimes encounter here, that’s perhaps not surprising. Even for those not indulging in retrograde Orientalist fantasies about submissive Asian housewives, it’s all too easy for them to not respect their Thai partner as a true equal.

Gaew, 28, graduated from a university in the UK. She said of Western men: “People from Western society tend to be more respectful towards one another than towards Asians. I think it’s just the norms and values of the society and primary institutions that shape them.”

“But when those respectful souls come to Thailand and get used to living here… being surrounded by Thai women who spoil them and treat them like god-like creatures, their respectful etiquette standard lowers because, no matter how they treat Thais, Thais are gonna be nice to them — to the baby blue-eyed farangs.”

As someone who speaks fluent English, it’s all too common to be talked down to in broken English by foreign men who can’t seem to drop the “krub” that follows every English sentence. “But you’re Thai,” they say. It’s all very confusing for them.

While some Thai women hope to escape Thai men’s expectations in the arms of a foreign man, they find that dating foreigners in Bangkok comes with its own set of problems — that they must become the sweet Thai girlfriend, not treated as an intellectual equal. They will likely have to get used to being told that speaking up is not “narak”or cute, having their homekeeping skills questioned, or suddenly coming off as threatening when they make more money than an English teacher’s salary.

Don’t get me wrong, lots of Thai women I know are in happy relationships, just not that many in Bangkok.

*All names have been changed for privacy.

Like this story? Read the rest of the series here:


Dating Despair: Why finding love is hard in Bangkok for Thai men

Dating Despair: Why finding love in Bangkok is hard for foreign women

Dating Despair: Why finding love in Bangkok is hard for foreign men

The 13 girls you’ll date in Bangkok

The 14 Guys You’ll Date in Bangkok