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Thai dowries change with the times  

BANGKOK – One evening I asked my mother how much she would ask for a dowry if I were to get married. (A friend of mine is going to tie the knot this year and it made me curious about what my "bride price" would be.)

"Maybe a million Baht," she said after a pause. A million Baht, or roughly $32,000, should cover a down payment for a 500-square foot condominium in Bangkok or buy me a brand new Toyota Camry.

Unlike India, where the bride's family pays a dowry to the groom to recognize that he will provide for his wife, in Thailand it's the other way round. The Thai groom pays "Sin Sod" (or dowry) to prove to the bride's family that he will be a good provider.

Image: A Thai woman looks at wedding dresses
AFP - Getty Images file
A Thai woman looks at bride dresses during a Wedding Fair in Bangkok. 

The dowry usually comprises cash, jewelry, gold or property. The rate varies according to the social status of the two families. For lower-to-middle-class families the dowry can range from $2,000-$50,000, but in a marriage between two more affluent families, the dowry may reach as high as $100,000-$500,000. 

When a famous Thai pop singer got engaged to a son of a millionaire late last year, her dowry – cash, diamond rings, and a posh Audi sport car – was worth $3 million.

In Thailand, a dowry is sometimes called a "breastfeeding fee" – a symbolic payment for raising a good daughter who hopefully will also become a good wife. A more accomplished bride – such as Miss Thailand – is likely, though not always, expected to be pricier

Times have changed

Some Thais loathe the dowry system and many foreign suitors are shocked at it. The usual criticism is that it's dehumanizing and the ultimate rip off. Some parents tend to use the money for their own gain – paying debts, drinking and partying, or buying a new car.

I don't think the dowry would be necessary for my marriage (if I were to ever walk down the aisle). If love alone isn't enough, my marriage should be sustained by my groom's decent character and his full-time job. Still, I can see why we've had the dowry system for so long in Thailand.

One of my theories is that many young Thais in the past did not have the luxury to date and spend much time together. A marriage, even if not necessarily an arranged one, was often the decision of the bride's parents. The dowry, therefore, was a way for the suitor to present himself to the woman's family. And since he was going to be the breadwinner, the dowry was important to prove that he would be a good one.

Modern-day courtship has obviously changed, and so has the idea of a dowry. Young couples now spend years seeing each other and learning about their families. Together they decide and plan the marriage. More and more parents waive or return the dowry to their daughter after the wedding as a gift. Still, some parents like to demand a costly dowry purely to save face or to show off.  

My cousin's marriage to his girlfriend a few years ago was a good example of a modern-day courtship that combined old and new.

Having just spent a lump sum of money on his master's degree and being left with little else, my 30-something-year-old cousin proposed anyway. He had known the family so well, for so long, he felt right to expect a reasonable dowry request or some sort of discount.

But her parents wanted a dowry equal to three years of his salary and he was flabbergasted. The wedding took place as planned – only because he got some help from his family and his bride, who had given him all her savings. 

Of all people at the wedding, her parents were probably the happiest. They never got tired of telling their guests how much their daughter was worth. But it was all symbolic – every cent of the dowry was returned to the newlyweds that very evening and everyone was emotional and teary-eyed because of it.

 "I will give the dowry back to you," my mother assured me when I was quiet in my thoughts. "All of that one million."

Of course I'm grateful for that. But just a million Baht? My mother can be too modest sometimes.