On visiting Thailand, I had images in my mind of subservient women who would see themselves as second-class citizens to men. My limited knowledge was that of 'Thai Brides' who could be purchased by mail order to accommodate the needs of men. I felt that their view of feminine would be deferential, accommodating, in service and self-sacrificing; rather than strong.
My journey began with a flight from London to Doha, Doha to Bangkok and finally Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The pilot (or captain) of this third flight was a woman; I was equally surprised and delighted when I heard her dulcet tones welcome us over the speaker system. Women in Thailand were not limited to being cabin crew, they could fly planes too!
I wondered whether this was a rare case, or were women empowered in Thailand to follow the career and life path of their choosing?
As we drove from Chiang Mai airport to our hotel I saw huge portraits of a woman on the streets, the portraits were adorned with floral garlands and sometimes framed in intricate ornate gold. These portraits were of Thailand's Queen Sirikit, widowed in October 2016. Mother's day is celebrated on her birthday in August. It seemed that the Queen was equally revered as her husband and even took over while her husband entered the Buddhist Monkhood for a period of time.
I then learned of their recent prime minister, also female: Yingluck Shinawatra a Thai businesswoman and politician, a member of the Pheu Thai Party who became the 28th Prime Minister of Thailand following the 2011 general election. Yingluck was Thailand's first female Prime Minister and it's youngest in over 60 years. Unfortunately her time is clouded as she was removed from office on 7 May 2014 by a Constitutional Court decision that found her guilty on a charge of abuse of power, which she still disputes.
So women can get the top roles in Thailand, running the country and piloting planes, my preconceived ideas were very wrong, but what about the women who were not at the highest echelons of society, how did they fare?
Well, there was Ploy, a taxi driver who was working twelve-hour shifts to make ends meet. She was a single parent; her husband passed away 13 years ago while renovating their home. Now her mum looks after her daughter while she works. "I am a strong single mum"; she says smiling, while driving me to dinner in town.
Then there was Aom who we met at the entrance to a temple, Aom is a Maechi, a Buddhist laywomen who has dedicated her life to religion, vowing celibacy. Maechi's occupy a position somewhere between that of an ordinary lay follower and an ordained Monk. Aom was dressed in white robes, unlike the Monks who dress in orange, she had a shaved head and a kind smile. She said that being a Maechi helped her, she had a broken heart after a long-term relationship in which she came home to find her partner in bed with someone else, and a difficult childhood in which her stepmother beat her so severely she had to have stitches, she showed us the scars. Yet she smiled and prayed and thanked Buddha while showing us around.
And then there was Nong, our male tour guide, who told us that he and his wife wanted another child but he would have to be a stay at home dad to make it happen. His wife's career meant that she earned more than him and they didn't have parents to help out with child care. He said that stay at home dads were still rare in Thailand, but increasing in numbers as women succeed in the corporate world. In 2016, the BBC reported that almost a third of business roles in Thailand were held by women.
From Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, I visited In Hua Hin a pretty beachside town, and then onto the city of Bangkok. Bangkok is well known for its vibrant street life and cultural landmarks, as well as its notorious red-light districts. Here I saw women earning money as street food stalls holders, hotels employees, shop assistants, office staff, tuk tuk drivers, masseurs and prostitutes. I cannot ignore the sex industry and the violence against women that exists within it. Thailand still has a problem with this, and although I personally didn't see it, it has been written about. Much like the instagram models that we always see fully made up, photo shopped and with perfect lighting, I never got to see the un made up, just woken up face of Thailand. If I had, I may have been saying that many women are victims rather than empowered view I have shared.
Thailand appears to be a very tolerant society, one that accepts you as you are. As a black person I obviously stood out as different, however I never felt anything but welcomed and accepted. I came across a number of 'lady boys' as the Thai people call them and no one batted an eyelid or treated them any differently.
Thailand really feels like an inclusive place. Yes there is poverty and there is wealth, but there also feels like opportunity. Most importantly there is acceptance, kindness and warmth, perhaps emanating from their faith and patriotism.
In the future, when I think of Thailand I won't think of Thai brides and subservient women, I will remember the female breadwinners, leaders and hard working women, helping the country, their families and themselves to thrive, however they can.
I will remember Thai women as feminine AND strong.