As a foreigner who is not married and has no intention of ever marrying, unmarried Thai women are not happy with me, and neither is anyone else.
It seems to me that Thai society is composed of everyone knowing their own place and knowing everyone else’s place too. There actually is a place for a “man like me” – it’s the big pink bucket in the corner – but I don’t fit in there either.
Being unhappily divorced and hated by your children is just fine. Being a bullet-headed sex tourist is fine. Being a 73-year-old pervert with a 40-kilogram wife 55 years younger than him is Jim Dandy. Having no interest in marriage makes me (obviously) gay, subversive, a liar, abnormal, anti-Thai, insane, pitiful, tragic and in need of conversion therapy.
Goodness only knows what an unmarried Thai woman has to go through, let alone the shame her poor family must endure with a “lesbian” like her in their midst.
Thai PBS asks whether Thailand’s language is tailored to oppress unmarried Thai women’s reproductive freedom.
Do you have a boyfriend?
When are you getting married?
When will you come down off the kaan?
These are the most common questions heard in daily conversation among Thais during family gatherings. This reflects how Thai culture is still attached to long-standing cultural norms, expecting women to find a husband, as getting married is supposed to be a woman’s goal in life.
On the other hand, is there anything wrong with staying single? Most importantly, why do we need to stigmatise single women with the idioms, such as “keun-kaan”?
Sitting on the ramp
“Keun-kaan” (ขึ้นคาน) is a Thai idiom often heard in conversations about marriage.
Literally, it means “sitting on the wooden ramp.” It refers to unmarried women. This is quite similar to the English saying “to die an old maid,” which refers to women who are no longer young but are still not married nor in a sexual relationship with anyone.
“Kaan,” in this context, refers to a wooden ramp on which river boats are placed for repair, from which the workers will have to lift the boat down when it’s done. So, being on the “kaan” means that the person cannot find a partner, as if she is sitting on the boat ramp, waiting for a man to take her down.
Linguist, Kitmanoch “Kru Lilly” Rojanasupya explained…
“The boat that is placed on the wooden ramp when it isn’t been used, can be compared to women who are not yet married. Not being married is like they have not been ‘used’ yet, especially when women have to wait for men to make a marriage proposal.”
Considering how Thai people, in the old days, would often compare situations with surrounding objects, many Thai idioms, idioms and proverbs reflect the culture and people’s ways of thinking in certain eras.
As offensive as it may sound to some women today, this idiom reflects Thailand’s cultural norms, which are rooted in the patriarchy, where women had to remain modest and reserved, while men could flirt with many women. It also reflects how Thai society often tells women that getting married is one of the most important goals in life.
Kru Lilly explains…
“Men, in those days, would be the forelegs of an elephant (leader) while women would be the elephant’s hind legs (follower).
“All of the decision-making belongs to men, with men being allowed to have many wives. Women have been told not to ‘offer’ themselves, not to express their love to men first, and they have to remain humble and sweet, like neatly-folded silk.
“This reflects the patriarchal mindset in the old days and not necessarily in the present era.”
With the existence of such idioms, unmarried Thai women were made to feel embarrassed to reveal that they are single, whether they are searching for love or not.
More women nowadays do not, however, feel that there is anything wrong with being single and literally sitting on the ramp, as they believe that being happy as a single woman is better than being involved in a toxic relationship.
Stephanie is a woman who thinks this way and considers the Thai expression funny, but outdated.
“Life is so much more than just getting married. Many people think that single women are sad, lonely and crying at home but we’re very busy because we have so many things to do every day.”
Taeng-Tai thinks the same…
“I’m not that scared of being single. I think staying single is not that bad. Not having enough money is much worse.”
Stephanie believes there are many positive sides to unmarried Thai women. Those who are single have the most “freedom” to do things as they wish, she believes, without the necessity of reporting to their partners.
“In my opinion, it’s better to be lonely than to be waiting anxiously for someone’s message.
“I have reached a point where I don’t feel that I need a boyfriend or that I want flowers on Valentine’s Day. Though I might make jokes about it, I’m not desperately seeking anyone.”
Single is the trend?
Nowadays, women from a younger generation are no longer afraid of being single and are also proud to stay single, which has become a real trend.
According to the National Statistical Office, those born between 1980 and 2000, millennials, prefer to stay single. around 45% of millennials were reportedly single in 2021, which is a big increase from 2017 when the number was 39%.
The average age of people getting married is also increasing. In 1990 it was 24, 28 in 2010 and may already be beyond the 30 mark.
The reasons why people do not want to get married are that they do not want to have children and don’t see any other reason to get married. The economic recession, cost of living and minimum wage mean people feel that they cannot afford to raise their children.
What they feel is not far from reality. Parents have to spend up to 2 million baht (US$60,000) to raise a child, while the average household income across the country is 26,000-28,000 baht per month. If you want to send your children to an international school or a school with English programs, you will have to spend much more than that.
Apart from the economic situation, which doesn’t encourage people to have children, most unmarried Thai women have the ultimate goal of having a successful career, which has meant delaying their decision to get married and start their own family.
At the same time, women are getting higher and higher educational degrees and this means that they will have better opportunities and career advancements in life, compared to getting married and being a stay-at-home mother.
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