So things have progressed between you and your girlfriend to the point where you want to get married. Congratulations! Marriage is a wonderful thing. You will have many issues that other couples do not have, due to the cross-cultural nature of your relationship. The best way to avoid these issues is to prepare and research Thai customs so you don’t face any surprises as you get closer to that cherished and long-anticipated wedding day.
One of these customs is known as “sin sod,” which is, basically, a dowry system. This ancient custom is embedded in the Thai culture and has caused many bitter misunderstandings between men and their potential brides. Some men accuse Thai women of being gold diggers because of the dowry system, but there are deep-rooted cultural circumstances behind it. We will spend some time offering some explanations as to why the system exists in this blog post, in order to make you more familiar and comfortable with it.
There is also a similar but somewhat separate tradition known as “tong mun,” which means gold engagement. The name is pretty self-explanatory; it is 24 karat gold that you give to your bride-to-be and her family. Naturally, the higher the amount of the gold, the better. This shouldn’t be unfamiliar to you, the tradition is similar to the giving an engagement ring in the West. Some things transcend all cultures.
Sin sod has been the subject of endless posts on various expat internet message boards and forums and deserves to be addressed in this blog post. We felt it was necessary because searching on your own, you will find hundreds of thousands of words written on the subject, most of it rife with misleading information about sin sod. There isn’t just misinformation, but conflicting and controversial experiences (including stories of extortion plots and other scams) and outright lies.
Therefore, when a foreigner wants to marry his Thai girlfriend and the topic of the dowry comes up (as it always does) it is no shock that the poor sod (in this case, you, mate) becomes confused. Western men don’t know how much they should be paying or whom it should be paid to; this is one of the cross-cultural conflicts that is bound to come up in any such marriage. You must address this issue before proceeding with your engagement, as it may lead to resentments later if it is not taken care of. You want to get your marriage off to a good start.
The problem isn’t entirely yours, however; Thai people don’t explain the concept and traditions of sin sod very well sometimes. This is because it is just a natural, longstanding aspect of their culture. As in the West, the Thai have traditions that some people simply participate in and go along with, without understanding or questioning them. That is the beauty of culture.
And, like many things in this rapidly modernizing world, the sin sod tradition is changing. We will explore how at the end of the blog post.
Basic Concepts and Reasons for the Sin Sod.
Sin sod is deeply rooted in Thai culture. Many cultures have a dowry system and the reasons for this are, generally, pretty similar across cultures. Dowries, sin sod included, are a way of honoring your bride’s parents for raising their daughter well. We will spend more time on that important point later. As you are bargaining for your wife, don’t lowball too much, if you do, it lets your in-laws think that their daughter isn’t worth very much money, was poorly raised and that you don’t have much respect for her or her potential.
Furthermore, sin sod, like dowries in most cultures, is a way of showing that you are financially capable of taking care of your bride. Especially for traditional families and those living deep in the countryside, parents tend to consider financial security as the number one reason for marriage; financial security is the foundation of a successful relationship.
You will need to negotiate with your bride’s parents regarding the amounts of the Sin Sod and Tong Mun. You should know this already, most things in Thailand are subject to negotiation and bargaining. And, of course, because you are a Westerner, the cost will be higher for you, at least in the initial stages of bargaining.
Sure, in a perfect world, the cost of the dowry for foreigners who marry their dream Thai women would be the same as that of a Thai man, but we all know that that isn’t how things work. Remember, the mere fact that you are a foreigner in Thailand means you are rich.
Are you tired of all of this talk of money? Again, you shouldn’t be, you should be used to it now. You know how materially focused Thai culture can be, at least on the surface, and you should know how to deal with it. While you may not like it, you are certainly going to have to learn to live with it. If not, you should reconsider your marriage.
Longtime readers of this blog will recognize the words and concept that come next. Like nearly everything in Thailand, sin sod is largely about face, establishing face through raising social status and avoiding losing face by not getting a big enough dowry.
And you have learned, saving face is everything.
I am sure it still feels weird, like you are “purchasing your wife” and that Thailand, as it so often does, is treating you like a cash machine. You’ve heard your fellow expats bemoaning being “a white ATM” or “white Santa Claus,” probably over beers at the local. Sometimes you probably feel that way yourself. If you find yourself doing so often, you might need to reconsider your relationship.
However, if you believe that you are in a genuine and committed relationship, pay no mind to the malignant and often misogynistic expats well into their fifth pint say during happy hour and take a moment to think about your fiancé and your new culture.
“But what about my culture?” I hear you asking. And I empathize. But, as we always ask you, pause for a moment and think about things from her perspective: your beautiful new fiancée has already accepted many things from your culture and let go of many of her own cultural perceptions and traditions to accommodate you in her Thai life.
For example: She probably hasn’t spoken of it, but surely she has been the subject of much gossip amongst her friends and family for dating a foreign man in the first place. If the sexual aspect of your relationship is known, that will compound the gossip. If she has been living with you, that has caused greater scandal.
Think about things from her perspective for a moment. In the West, girls dream of having a white wedding in a big church and making her father proud as he walks her down the aisle. In Thailand, girls grow up dreaming of getting married in her home village and making their parents proud because they have earned a large sin sod and have made the family proud and earned them status and face. Think of how happy you will make your lovely new bride and her family when you respect their tradition and pay a proper sin sod.
Because you are a foreigner and her best chance at elevating the family status and gaining face, the bargaining price will, at least initially, be higher for you. If you aren’t comfortable with negotiations like this than you need to re-examine your relationship. This is a basic fact of life in your new country and if you can’t or won’t accept that, you are in for a very rocky road in your upcoming life.
Thai girls are revered within the family and the sin sod is seen as a reward for that reverie. This is why Thai parents are often very protective of their girls; a daughter who isn’t well educated, isn’t respectful, doesn’t have the potential for a successful girl is a girl who is worth nothing. If you love your bride, you will certainly value her and her abilities and will be looking to pay a respectful price for her.
If your girlfriend comes from a poorer family, there are other factors that you must consider when thinking about sin sod. Think of how much her family has sacrificed to get her to the position in life that she is now. Sin Sod is a repayment for all of the times that they have gone without in order to provide for her. Life in the Thai countryside is a subsistence level existence for many families.
Desperate and desperately loving families will borrow money, slowly parcel out and sell their land, and live a hardscrabble life to send their daughters to school and give them a chance in life. Sin sod is the traditional reward for such parental devotion. There are other reasons for the tradition of sin sod as well, reasons that have nothing to do with her upbringing or her social status, nor with the beliefs and security of her parents.
For example, children. Now, I know you are just getting married and may not be thinking about children yet. Well, trust me, she is. And divorce. Now, you certainly aren’t thinking about divorce! But trust me, it is worrying her. And the sin sod system helps protect her in both cases.
The culture in Thailand, especially in the countryside, is stubbornly and persistently conservative. Women have some societal disadvantages, as they do in most cultures, but the problems can be more pronounced in Thailand. For example, once a woman has been divorced the structure of Thai society makes it very hard for her to find another husband of appropriate social status. The difficulty is profoundly compounded if she has one or more children.
Sin sod, then, acts as a kind prenuptial agreement. In the devastating happenstance that sees her husband abandoning her and not offering financial assistance for the family and children, sin sod can be that safety net. There isn’t much legal help available for divorced women in Thailand and they aren’t guaranteed anything from the courts, so sin sod might be all she has left.
Upon her divorce, it is most likely that the woman will find herself back living with her parents as a single mother, a situation that is very difficult to climb out of in Thailand. She will feel romantically doomed, and without her sin sod dowry, she would be financially doomed, as well. It isn’t just the divorce or the children that would taint her. This is because the structure of Thai society also dictates that the older a Thai woman gets the harder it becomes for her to find a job, let alone a well-paid one. So again, should she find herself alone in the future, at least the family will have some money put by for some inevitably rainy years ahead.
Lets Get Down to Brass Tacks. What is the Price?
Interestingly, sin sod doesn’t always refer only to cash, but usually, it is about the money. In India, electronics and other household goods are part of the dowry and there is the above-mentioned tong mun in Thailand, which is the portion of gold you should give your bride to be and her parents, but cash is king.
Initially, especially if you are a foreigner, dowry negotiations will begin at a very high price. You may get asked for as much as a million baht.
Settle down. You won’t pay that much. A million baht is for highly educated girls from wealthy business and governmental families. That is the sort of money movie stars and pop singers command.
Most foreigners pay in dowry between two hundred thousand to four hundred thousand Baths, but even that is high if your wife is older (say, in her thirties or forties), uneducated, or from a very, very modern, cosmopolitan family.
Enlist the help of your wife, as she will probably have a good say in the negotiations, and she will probably have her father’s ear. Furthermore, she may be able to help you negotiate your sin sod money back after the expenses of the wedding, but we will speak more on that later.
And remember, the dowry is nothing more than a cultural tradition, albeit an ancient one, and it is not legally binding in any way. It does not have any legal standing. I will repeat that for clarity and for emphasis. Sin Sod in no way means that you are actually married. Furthermore, when you register your marriage with the local authorities (more on that in an upcoming blog post) nothing is ever asked about sin sod or how much you paid.
Think of it this way: as soon as the money has left your hands and is into the parents of the bride, it is a gift. And as such, beware. Although scams aren’t common, they exist, especially for men who fall in love in days, with the first girl they’ve met, usually at a bar with a dodgy reputation and even dodgier girls.
Thailand has a functioning legal system and you are advised to consult a lawyer who can walk you through the intricacies of the marriage laws, but again, remember, sin sod is a tradition and falls outside of the realm of the law. Naturally, there are many stories of men falling in love in Thailand, participating in the ritual of sin sod, and never seeing their bride or money again. The veracity of some of these stories cannot be verified, however, and many sound like the tall tales of men who were thinking with their little heads and not their big ones.
But Wait- What is This I Have Heard About Getting the Money Back?
In recent years, and especially for wealthy families, sin sod has largely become a ceremonial tradition. The money is presented to the family as a show of good faith and, often, as a party of a pre-marriage party. Then it is shown at the wedding as part of the festivities and to earn the family some honor, as well as lend some tradition to the ceremony.
In a situation where the couple will be receiving their money back, it will still be presented at the wedding and then be returned to the couple after the wedding, in order to help the couple start their new life. This is how it was done at the author of this blog post’s wedding.
However, don’t be crass and ask to have the money back; if you are making the offer of sin sod, you should make it in good faith. If the dowry will be returned to you, your in-laws will tell you beforehand.
Once you have settled your sin sod price, after a few days of negotiation and hopefully not unpleasant bargaining, enjoy the rest of the wedding planning! Thai weddings are beautiful, extravagant affairs with all sorts of cultural traditions for you to investigate and participate in.
Enjoy yourself, enjoy your bride, and enjoy your wedding, and remember the important role sin sod playing in getting you there.