Poor Thai girls marrying foreigners were once stigmatised but not any more, reports Sebastien Berger in Ban Jaan
The paddy fields around Ban Jaan, in Thailand's
impoverished north-east, are lush with green stalks of rice ready for harvest, yet the real secret to the village's wealth is contained within its houses.
It is the women of Ban Jaan and their foreign husbands who have paid for the new high-ceiling
villas and bought the gleaming four-wheel-drive vehicles to rest alongside the humble wood-panelled homes more typical of the region.
The 449 families of the village can count around 100 foreign sons-in-law between them, the vast majority Swiss, with
a scattering of Britons and Scandinavians. Virtually none of the foreigners lives in Ban Jaan, instead taking their wives to Europe.
The next generation is keen to follow in its elder sisters' footsteps. At Ban Jaan school yesterday more than half the
girls in Year 9 raised their hands when asked if they wanted to marry a foreigner. Foreigners love children and they care about Thai culture and traditions , said Wipaporn, 14, whose cousin has married a Briton, adding that she wants to build a
big house for her mother and grandmother.
Where the mixed marriages are kindled has long been a sensitive subject, and Wipaporn said she had "no idea" how she might meet a "farang" - a foreigner.
Ban Jaan's Swiss relations have
their origins with a local girl who moved to Switzerland in 1982, while the others stem from meetings in what are known as "places of entertainment".
North-eastern Thailand, known as Isaan, is the country's rice-basket but also the poorest
region, with average income only a tenth that of Bangkok. Its girls provide most of the human capital for the capital's sex trade.
A certain stigma has always been attached to poor Thai girls marrying foreigners, but now Nopporn Jantarathong, the
governor of Roi Et, the province which contains Ban Jaan, has decided to recognise their economic potential.
According to a survey by Thailand's national economic and social development board, there are 15,000 foreigners' wives, known as "mia
farangs", in the north-east, who bring in tens of millions of pounds in foreign currency every year.
The governor is recruiting the brides as "ambassadors" to promote tourism and trade. All the 679 mixed couples from the province are to
receive certificates of welcome, and membership of his United International Housewives' Association.
Those living overseas are being issued with promotional materials from home and asked to talk up the province's products and encourage visitors.
Before the women were not being honoured by Thai society, because when they went out with foreigners, for the Thai people, it was a kind of shame. But first there is money for the family, and then there is money for the community. This is a benefit
for the villages, not a loss.
He had no qualms about where the couples might have met. I will not look at the past of the woman he said. For women, the financial security provided by far wealthier foreign husbands is a major, but not the
Most of the "mia farang" had been married before and cited the "bad habits" of Thai men - principally adultery and drinking - as reasons to wed outsiders. Farangs live with only one lady. Not butterfly ,
said Wilawan Kuyper, 36, who held off marriage until meeting her Dutch husband Hans, 50, three years ago.
The couple met in Hong Kong, where both were working, and have now opened a restaurant, Elephant Milk, in Mrs Kuyper's village of Mahasarakhan,
in Roi Et. The restaurant employs several of Mrs Kuyper's family. If you are a European guy and you marry a woman in Asia there is always an expectation that you will help the family , said Mr Kuyper, pointing out that ties and obligations spread
further and deeper than in Western societies with their emphasis on the nuclear family. But if it's just about sex and money it won't last.