CHIANG RAI – It may not be an official public holiday in Thailand, but over the years Valentine’s Day has firmly captured the Thai imagination.
This much to the chagrin of many a western male expat who had hoped to escape the nagging pressures of this sentimental soiree by their move eastwards. Undoubtedly, petrol station forecourts worldwide will see a run on limp carnations by forgetful men of diverse ages heading homewards this coming Saturday. And perhaps that is as it should be. A little tradition surviving in this changeable age.
But what of other courtship traditions -is romance dead on its feet in Chiang Rai or does love live on here in languid Lanna?
In times gone by the most common way to meet a partner has usually been through friends, family, or through work. Option number one is often not an option for the expat, especially those who are recent arrivals or retired. In this digital age too, with more and more people working from home, work doesn’t provide the opportunities for water cooler hookups it once did.
Yet love manages to live on. Last week I found it thriving at the end of a dusty dirt track about 10km southwest of Chiang Rai City. I was looking, as I suppose we all are in one way or the other, for a home.
In this case in the form of a house rental. It seems Piet, a Dutch retiree, has already found his home. Potentially my new neighbour, he invited me onto to his verandah while I waited for the landlord. His wife,a graphic designer, was inside working on the computer, the very same computer where she met the man who was pouring me a dangerous-looking mug of muddy brown coffee.
In the wake of a divorce, a messy end to a business partnership in Indonesia, disillusionment with his profession and subsequent retirement, a single Piet landed on Thai soil. A new country can be hard to start out in, especially when you don’t speak the language and you have neither a local partner or local friends. Not to worry, the numerous internet dating sites provided ample opportunities. Eventually leading to Piet and his partner Noi getting to know each other, dating and eventually moving in together. Three years in, it seems to be working out just fine.
Internet dating is now worth $4 billion per year, and is increasing rapidly. It also appears to be a highly successful means of meeting a suitable partner. In the US alone recent surveys suggest 1 in 3 couples who marry initially ‘meet’ in cyberspace. Many parents can look forward to explaining the peculiarities of dating profile composition after the inevitable childhood question, “So, how did you and daddy meet then?”
Internet dating is, according to a broad-ranging 2012 study by the University of Rochester, now the 2nd most common way to meet a partner worldwide. And Thailand is no exception with a plethora of homegrown dating sites, including: Thai Cupid, Thai Love Lines and Thai Friendly among others. The stigma of the early days of internet dating as the last chance saloon of the aesthetically challenged have largely gone. Since the first online dating website was launched in 1995 the image of mail-ordering brides from impoverished Eastern European or Asian countries has changed to a much more socially accepted method of meeting a suitable partner for both sexes.
Andrew is not what you would call classically handsome. More Piltdown than Vitruvian. But, don’t let his appearance fool you. Andrew is an old school romantic. At least he was when it came to wooing his current, and, he assures me optimistically, his forever squeeze. Divorced, 3 years into his alcohol recovery and starting a new career in English language teaching, Andrew fell in love.
It happens the best of us at times. And no amount of rationalisation or rubbing of old battle scars can override the lure of that Siren call once heard. “I had never done anything like that before.” Andrew explains. “I’m not usually what you’d call romantic. But everyday I would go into work and bring her something.
Flowers or some fruit. I’d walk past all her friends in the staffroom, my face beaming bloody beetroot red and give her whatever little gift I had for her. I couldn’t even look at her.” ‘Her’ is Ploy, Andrew’s Chinese partner of the past 2 years. They now live together. Ploy tells me how she hadn’t even considered dating
Andrew in the beginning, even though “he seemed to be a very nice guy.” She had never had a serious boyfriend before. Twenty-two at the time they met, Ploy is 20 years and change younger than Andrew. But Andrew persevered. “I don’t know what came over me, like I say, I never did anything like that before for a girl. I just knew she was, you know, special.” Ploy reaches over and touches his arm gently, her bright face beaming. “We were friends at the start.” says Tammy, “He taught me to ride a motorcycle at the end of the day after we finished teaching.” Now it is Andrew’s turn to beam. Old school indeed.
Whether keeping it real like Andrew, or virtual like Piet, love seems to find its way. Enjoy a romantic time this Saturday with your loved one. And if you do find yourself alone this Valentine’s day, remember you could be a mere login or motorcycle lesson away from the man or woman of your dreams.