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Monogamy and the Mia Noi in Thailand

In Thailand, the practice of married men having a “mia noi” (เมียน้อย), or “minor wife,” is a tradition which has its roots in the culture of old Siam. The kings of the Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin periods had many wives, classified in different categories, the highest level being that of “Pharaya Luang” (ภรรยาหลวง) or “Royal Wife”.

Wealthy Chinese immigrants and Siamese merchants also had several wives. While one might attribute this to simply the desire of men to have regular sex with multiple women, there was a moral and ethical component.

Because single women often had few options to support themselves, Thai society believed it was selfish for a wealthy man to support only one wife. By taking on another spouse, the man was seen as saving a woman from a life of drudgery or prostitution — prostitutes at the time being referred to as “Ying Khom Khiao” (หญิงโคมเขียว) or “Green Lantern Women,” due to the green lanterns that once were hung outside of brothels.

It was this ethical/moral component of polygamy that allowed the ruling class of Siam (already a devout Buddhist kingdom) to view these relationships as not in violation of the Buddhism’s 3rd Precept: “Though shalt refrain from sexual misconduct.”

Krom Phraya Vajirananavarorasa (กรมพระยาวชิรญาณวโรรส), who was Thailand’s 10th Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism from 1910 to 1921, defended multiple wives by stating that if a man did not try to seduce or steal away another man’s wife, he had not violated the 3rd precept.

During the reign of King Chulalongkorn the Great (1868 – 1910), there was increasing pressure on Siam to embrace the monogamy of the “civilized countries” of the West, whose influence already had inspired the King to abolish antiquated practices, such as Siamese women walking around topless, and citizens being compelled by law to prostrate themselves in front of the King.

However, King Chulalongkorn still feared the negative impact a monogamy law might have on the lives of single women in the Kingdom, and the potential for increased sex trafficking. His fear was undoubtedly genuine (and not one of self-interest), as he had only one beloved wife, Her Majesty Queen Ramphai Phanni, throughout his reign as King of Siam.

It wasn’t until 1935 that Thailand’s first monogamy law was passed. It was then that the practice of polygamy was replaced by the more secret, unofficial, “mia noi” relationship. In the past, there always was a certain pecking order among a man’s wives. But now, a second wife always held a lower position than the man’s first (official) wife — and often he kept the relationship secret, or (at the very least) in a manner which would not publicly embarrass his wife.


Holding Hands in Thailand
Mia Noi relationships have been on the decline in Thailand, but they are still a part of Thai culture.

The Mia Noi in Thailand Today

As Thailand has continued to develop through the 21st century, and the middle class has grown dramatically, monogamy has been embraced as a virtue and “mia noi” relationships have declined. But they are still very much a part of Thai culture. While there are no statistics on such relationships, there are likely 10s of thousands of “mia nois” in Thailand today, and I have known several personally.

On Thai television dramas, the modern “mia noi” is often depicted as a devious mistress, with bright red lipstick and high heels, trying to seduce a man away from his good and loving wife. Thai researchers have repeatedly debunked this myth.

While salacious mistresses undoubtedly exist in some of Bangkok’s high society, the usual “mia noi” is the average Thai women (often no different from her peers), who for one reason or another unexpectedly finds herself becoming a man’s mistress.

In many instances, the relationship starts without the Thai woman knowing the man is married. And then when she does find out, it is too late. She has fallen in love with him, and decides to become his “mia noi” instead of losing him entirely.

In other instances, the woman may believe she is just having a fleeting, no-strings-attached, affair with a married man. In Thai lingo, she is merely a “gik” (กิ๊ก), rather than a “mia noi”. She may also already have a young child, and been abandoned by a boyfriend. Before she knows it, she too has fallen in love.

Rather than trying to seduce the man away from his wife, these “mia nois” live in constant fear that the man’s wife will find out and force him to leave her. They are rarely under any illusions that they can steal the man away from his first wife.

While Thai society increasingly frowns on the “mia noi,” some wealthy Thai men still view such relationships as not being immoral, but one that helps a single woman or mother with few good employment options, live a better life.

In addition, the man often will have one child with his “mia noi,” so that she can experience the joys of motherhood, and have another means of support when she gets old (as children in Thailand financially support their aged parents).

His official wife often does find out eventually. But as long as the “mia noi” relationship is established far enough away from their home, where it doesn’t become public knowledge (and cause her to lose face), and the money given to the “mia noi” doesn’t impact the lifestyle of their own family, she usually will stay with him — even though Thai women do get 50% of the assets in a divorce.

The main reason for this is that many women in Thailand place the highest value on maintaining the Thai family unit, irrespective of their husband’s lack of fidelity.

Pharaya vs. Mia vs. Fan in the Thai Language

There are three words for “wife” in the Thai language. The word “pharaya” (ภรรยา) is the most polite term, and the one you should use when referring to your own wife or someone else’s wife in formal situations.

The word “mia” (เมีย) is the more colloquial term for “wife” in the Thai language, and one which some Thais (especially women) consider mildly rude, due to its association with the “mia noi”. Thus Thai men often will use this term only when talking with their male friends.

The word “fan” (แฟน) is a unisex term that can refer to someone’s wife/husband or their boyfriend/girlfriend. In casual situations, it is perfectly fine to use the word “fan” to refer to your wife in Thailand, especially when the other person knows that you are married and are referring to your wife.

David Alan