Guest contribution by Weerawat Somnuek / Photos by Krisada Phonchai
“I’m writing a letter to you, dear John,
In the flat where you used to lie,
Province: Udon, country: Thailand,
My broken heart you must understand,
John, oh, John, the dollars are gone,
Your second-hand wife is still waiting.”
The first verse of the song “A love letter from a rented wife,” penned by late Ajin Panjaphan, one of Thailand’s national artists. Its story is a reflection of Thai society from 1961 to 1976, during which Thailand–and in particular Isaan–saw a huge influx of American GIs here for the Vietnam War.
The Americans in Thailand weren’t about to fight a war on their lonesomes. An army of civilians mobilized themselves to provide myriad support to the military presence, and to benefit from the opportunity to provide goods and services to the well-heeled foreigners. All manner of service-industry enterprises and establishments mushroomed around the GI presence; Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, U-Tapao in Chonburi, and the air bases used by the United States Air Force in Nakhon Ratchasima, Nakhon Sawan, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Phanom, and Udon Thani.
Ban Non Sung, originally a village on the outskirts of Udon Thani city, became a western hotspot overnight. Western culture began to permeate the area via the pubs, bars, hotels, restaurants, cinemas, and taxis which serviced the men stationed at Camp Ramasun.
The presence of the US troops gave rise to the new phenomenon of the mia chao, or “rented wives,” women who agreed to temporarily perform the role of a wife for money.
Life as an Udon Thani bargirl
Banjong Boonkit, 69, is an Udon Thani native who worked as a bargirl while American servicemen occupied Camp Ramasun in Ban Non Sung. She grew up in the village that researcher Patcharin Lapanan calls “Ban Na Dok Mai” in the area that is now widely known as the “farang son-in-law subdistrict.”
After finishing her fourth grade education, Banjong went to work in the fields with the rest of her family. It was a time when water had to be physically carried, and rice had to be threshed if you were going to eat.
In 1969, at the age of 17, Banjong convinced a couple of her friends from the same village to venture into Udon Thani city to seek their fortunes. She wanted her family to eat but she was tired of farming. One of the friends who went with her was Khampun, who would later marry a GI and relocate to the United States.
After walking around asking for work, they happened to come across a restaurant that was hiring waitresses.
“So we started waitressing in that restaurant. The GIs were around at that time. Farang customers were better than Thai customers for tips. In Non Sung we split the rent for a house between three or four of us. In the evening we’d go to our customers and in the day we would sleep,” she says, giving a rough account of her work at that time.
A fistful of dollars
Those boom times have been etched into her memory forever. She tells of how when the Americans moved into Udon Thani, it precipitated a huge influx of people from other provinces, like some kind of gold rush. The place was buzzing, so much so that even neighboring districts such as Kumphawapi became more developed.
“In those days, the farang soldiers would rent their flats off-base. Us Thai girls would go and rent a house nearby because that’s where all the entertainment would be. Pubs, bars, hotels, cinemas, restaurants,” she recounted with a smile sneaking onto her lips.
Banjong and two of her friends worked in entertainment venues there for about five years. Only her friend Khampun would come to maintain a steady relationship with a GI. When the US pulled their military out of Udon Thani in 1975, Khampun left with her American husband. They later returned to build a home for her parents. Her husband only just passed away in 2017.
“I never had a farang husband. To tell the truth, I was actually more into Thai men at that time. I guess that’s why I never hit the jackpot like my friends did,” she says.
Rented wife or sex worker?
Back to 1969, Banjong and her friends were barely able to communicate with the American servicemen. They relied on hand signs and body language to get the point across. Even so, working in the bars, their income was not to sneeze at. At a time, when gold was selling for 800 baht per troy ounce, they were making thousands of baht a month, money that was eagerly spent with youthful enthusiasm.
“A farang wanting to go steady with a girl would make her pretty happy. And moving into a rented house together, that would make her really happy. Her life would completely change. That’s what the girls who really wanted something life-changing aimed for,” Banjong recounts. “At the time, I was just more into Thais. And I had a lot of farang coming after me. I’d make money from the farangs and then I’d go and give it to the Thais.”
Asking further about the relationships between Thai girls and GIs, Banjong speculated that because of their higher status, the GIs would rarely choose a village girl for a long-term relationship. They were more likely to get involved with “another class” of Thai women, such as civil servants, university graduates, or “Bangkok girls”– unless they really liked the village girl. Sometimes that would happen, and he would eventually find his way back to her and take care of her.
There were also instances where the American servicemen would go to Vietnam, never to return. The rented wives back in Thailand would often have to find a new temporary husband in order to survive. A good many GIs also went from one rented wife to another without ever really committing themselves.
“People in those days would call us gold diggers or whores. Sometimes, an expensive rental home would actually come with a rented wife. When the previous farang tenant died, the new farang tenant would take over both the house and the wife,” Banjong recounts. “But society back in those days was not really very accepting of us. We had a hard time finding landlords that would take us.”
Comparing the mia farang of today with the rented wives of those days, Banjong sees some big differences. In her eyes, mia farang tend to be a lot better off than the rented wives because the GIs were just looking for a good time. The girls certainly got paid but when it was time to leave, the GIs simply left.
“These days, the farang who marry come here and build a new house. They want to live comfortably,” Banjong says. “They’re more serious about their relationships with Thai women than the GIs who were mostly just out to party and spend money.”
But everything changed with the sudden disappearance of the US military in 1975 which turned Ban Non Sung into a ghost town.
“The GIs all left, and they were never coming back. Udon was full of luk khrueng children from GI fathers and Thai mothers. There they were, with their farang faces and reddish hair, speaking Lao,” Banjong recalls.
A reprise in Pattaya
After the Vietnam war ended in 1975, the Thai government began to promote tourism in earnest, starting with Pattaya in the province of Chonburi. A new influx of western tourists and their first-world spending rapidly fed Pattaya’s growth. Thai women who had experience working in Udon Thani’s bars flocked to Pattaya. Banjong was one of them.
“I didn’t get myself a farang husband that time, either. I made a lot of money though,” Banjong recalls. “There were some who did want to marry me but by that time I had already been married to a Thai man and I had two children, a boy and a girl. My relatives chided me for wasting my opportunities but I didn’t see it that way until it was too late.”
After spending over a decade in Pattaya, Bangjong and her family returned home to Ban Na Dok Mai with enough money to start over with a new livelihood. She opened a small village shop where she also served noodles. Three years ago she fell ill with bronchial cancer, and had to close her business.
The dream lives on in New Zealand
Banjong’s 30-year-old daughter appears to have picked up where her mother left off. She married a New Zealander and has been living in New Zealand for the past five years. She met her husband while working in a bar in Phuket and sends home 40,000 baht a month to support her parents–though she has yet to return to build a new house for them.
“I was really glad when my daughter married the New Zealander. She succeeded where I failed, even though I was quite a beauty back in those days. Thai men’s eyes would follow me wherever I went,” Banjong says smiling.
Though Banjong feels regret for not marrying a foreigner when she had the chance, she was at least true to her own preference for Thai men. Besides, society at the time would have looked down upon her as a “bad woman” for marrying a foreigner. Those are the factors which led her to the life she lives today.
“I never struck gold like Khampun who went to America after the war ended But in those days they said we were bad girls, they said we were up to no good,” Banjong says. “But they don’t say that anymore. Hardly anyone cares because when a girl makes a lot of money, she becomes rich and good. That’s all it takes for people to respect her.”
Translated and edited by The Isaan Record
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