By Peter Janssen Oct 28, 2009, 5:04 GMT
Khon Kaen, Thailand - Isaan, as Thailand's 19 north-eastern provinces are called, is the country's poorest region.
Degraded soil, a lack of irrigation and dense population have combined to make Isaan the country's fountainhead for factory workers, housemaids, bus boys and bar girls.
But the region is not without its attractions, as an estimated 100,000 foreign husbands will testify.
'When I came up here 17 years ago, I thought, this place is brilliant,' said Briton Martin Wheeler, 47.
'In terms of social infrastructure, everyone has a house, everyone has land, and the lifestyle is unbelievable,' he said, describing his adopted home in Kam Pla Lai village in Khon Kaen, 350 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.
A former construction worker from London, Wheeler married his Thai wife Rojana in Bangkok and moved to her home town in Khon Kaen when she became pregnant with their first child.
'My wife warned me about Isaan being the poorest place in Thailand, but I thought, 'If this is poor, I'll have some of it,'' Wheeler said.
A London University graduate with distinction in Latin, Wheeler started out as a labourer and farmer, learned the Isaan dialect and eventually became an assistant to a rural-development project, working in community building and promoting self-sufficiency agriculture as an alternative to single-crop farming.
As Kam Pla Lai became known as a success story in rural development, Wheeler has become a popular figure and is often recruited by the Thai government to talk to farmers and civil servants, using Isaan slang, about the benefits of diversifying crops, self-sufficiency and wholesome country living.
'My primary point is you have to accept two truisms - most people are not going to get rich, and most will not get highly educated,' Wheeler said. 'If you accept these two truisms, the countryside has a lot of offer.'
Another message is closer to home.
'For the rural people now, the answer (to poverty) is to get your daughter married to a foreign husband,' Wheeler said. 'But a lot of the Westerners who come over here are like me - we're not the cream of the crop.'
Westerners have been marrying Isaan girls for decades, starting during the Vietnam War when more than 100,000 US military men were stationed in Thailand, including three air bases in the North-East.
The bases attracted bars and bar girls. Some local women became 'rented wives' for the servicemen.
After the war, the GIs were replaced by European and American tourists, for whom Thai ladies remained a major attraction.
Although the Thai government has few statistics on the number of cross-culture marriages, there is plenty of evidence that they are on the rise, especially in Isaan.
Increasingly, academics and economists have studied the social phenomenon.
According to a study carried out by the government's National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), as of 2003 there were 19,594 women in north-east Thailand married to Westerners.
The migration of these mostly elderly, retired men to the region had generated 10.5 billion baht (308 million dollars) in spending and created 578,609 jobs, according to the NESDB's estimates.
Buapan Promphakping, an associate professor in humanities at Khon Kaen University, estimates the actual number of cross-culture couples in the 19 north-eastern provinces as closer to 100,000, or about 3 per cent of the region's households.
The influx of comparatively wealthy Westerners, sometimes amounting to 100 foreigners in one small village, has had an obvious impact on Isaan society - creating a huge income gap between cross- culture couples and villagers and fueling more materialism and consumerism, according to Buapan's studies.
And the trend hasn't been good for Thai men.
'Nowadays in the villages, parents will say to their daughters:
If your Thai husband is no good you can divorce him and find a farang (foreign) husband,' Buapan said. 'So you have to behave now.'
For Western men, especially elderly ones retiring on modest pensions, Isaan women have won a reputation as good housewives and nurses, while the local economy offers them a standard of living their incomes couldn't buy them in the West.
'It's a win-win situation, but it's not a love story,' Wheeler said. 'It's finance, and it's sex. It's a mirror of what's wrong with the West, not what's wrong with Thailand.'