Perils fail to deter Thai bride boom

The case of Toby Charnaud, the Briton murdered on the orders of his Thai ex-wife, has highlighted the growing number of British men travelling to Thailand to find wives, often arranged over the internet.

The British Embassy in Bangkok is one of the busiest anywhere in the world.

More than 660,000 people from Britain came to Thailand last year, and the Embassy finds itself dealing with those who get into trouble.

It also deals with those who want to get married - it records around 70 couples a week coming in to get marriage documents processed, nearly all of them older British men marrying younger Thai women.

Never mind that the Thai "mail-order bride" has become a subject of ridicule in the UK, parodied in TV comedies like Little Britain and mocked in the tabloid press; never mind a number of recent cases of foreigners in Thailand who were murdered after their marriages to Thai women went wrong.

The number of Thai-British marriages keeps growing, many of them arranged through internet websites, which post pictures and videos of hundreds of would-be Thai brides, from which prospective British husbands can choose a potential partner.

Some of these sites have a dubious reputation but Lawrence Lynch, a British man from Kidderminster, in Worcestershire, is proud of the service he offers through a company called Thai Professional Introductions.

I met him in his office in Bangkok on a Sunday morning - his busiest time, he explained, because the women who want to put their faces on the website are free to come in then.

There were several waiting nervously in his lobby, all young.

They took turns to make themselves up, helped by Mr Lynch's Thai wife Tapanee, and then posed in front of a wall-length photograph of an idyllic Thai beach, complete with plastic palm tree.

"The girls pay just 400 baht ( £6; US$10) to join," he said, "but that's a lot of money to some of them."

His foreign clients pay a lot more - £1,650 (US$3,000) - but for that he offers 12 months membership, unlimited introductions to the women on the site, translation (crucial this, as many of the women speak little English) and help arranging hotels, travel, visas and marriage documents.

He showed me another wall plastered with photographs of satisfied customers and their smiling brides.

"We've arranged around 750 marriages over nine years and I can count the number that have gone wrong on two hands," Mr Lynch told me.

Culture differences

But there are yawning disparities that have to be bridged, in age, language and culture.

Most of the men know little about Thailand, perhaps only what they have experienced on a short holiday.

They are drawn by the prospect of a short and easy courtship with much younger and often strikingly attractive women.

The women seem drawn to the agency by a desire for financial stability and what they believe is a more caring attitude among Western men.

Nui, a 22 year-old hairdresser, was typical of the customers in Mr Lynch's office.

"I think Western men are more kind-hearted." she told me. "I don't want a relationship with a Thai man. They are not responsible in helping with children and they are not faithful."

John, a 43-year-old businessman from East Anglia, told me why he had flown out to Bangkok.

He wanted to meet a woman who was serious about marriage, he said, which is why he was using the agency.

He had been married before and described a number of unhappy relationships back in Britain.

"There's this 'lad' culture with the ladies in UK these days. I don't want to be messed about any more. What I'm looking for is how it used to be in Britain in the 40s and 50s, where the family unit supported each other."

Mr Lynch says he screens the women to make sure none has a background in bar work or prostitution.

The men he has less control over, although he believes most of his clients are sincere.

"Any guy can come out here and meet a girl in a go-go bar, because let's face it, a lot of the men who come to Thailand are sex tourists. But those are the marriages that end in disaster."

Some of the couples end up living in Thailand, like Jim, 58, from Nuneaton, and his wife Prapaporn, 30.

Was the age gap a problem, I asked?

"Not to me it isn't and it doesn't seem to be for her either. The only people who have a problem with it are those who aren't in the same boat."

Most of the couples, though, will end up living in Britain, where, warns Bangkok-based writer Christopher Moore, author of a book about emotional expression in Thailand, the culture and language gap could put severe strains on the relationship.

"All the building blocks of relationships - the idea of family, friends, love, work - are viewed in a very different way in Thailand. So one of the things the man is going to have to deal with is the importance of family to his Thai wife. It may be she will need to come back to Thailand three or four times a year."

John has spent two weeks meeting women on Lawrence Lynch's books but he is taking his time. He has gone back to Britain and plans to return later this year to renew his meetings with the women he liked, to decide if any would make a suitable wife.

Nui is now registered with the agency and must take her chances with the 1,600 other Thai women there looking for husbands. She says she would prefer an age gap of no more than 10 years but may in the end settle for a much older man.