Phrakhun is a traditional Thai system of patronage.
The king of Thailand is often described as the “father of the nation” and provided assistance for those less fortunate. The late king was revered and loved for his many good works helping the poorest in the nation. Men of wealth in Thailand are expected to follow the example of the king in providing money, shelter and food. The late king was adored by his subjects and I have to admit to being touched by their love for him. He was clearly a rather wonderful person who held dear his spiritual links with Thai people. He should be our model.
However, when you ask Thai people to explain Phrakhun you may find that they have different interpretation or may not ever have heard of Phrakhun. There is an enormously wide educational gap between the classes in Thailand and perhaps the more archaic elements of culture are not widely taught just as not many Thai people are able to name all the letters of the Thai alphabet.
Bunkhun is the bond of indebted goodness towards a person who out of kindness and sincerity gave what was needed at an important time. It’s a formal way of recognising that one owes another for their help. It’s a kind of loyalty and fealty.
So both are forms of obligation; the former, the obligation to “give back” to society often in the form of charity or in personal life, helping and supporting one’s family, wife, girlfriend and relatives. The latter, the obligation to reciprocate the kindness and material goods given.
Bunkhun is sometimes misinterpreted even by Thai people. While in the ideal world such obligation may have no limit, in the real world it often does. Perhaps you raised your wife’s child born of another father. Ideally that bunkhun would be limitless as the advantages the child received by having a benevolent father supporting them can be priceless. One the other hand, it could be argued that the “debt” has been paid of by the love, sex and care you received from the child’s mother and or the work undertaken by the child in your household.
In ideal circumstances the child would never forget the care and support he or she received from their step-parent and the step-father would be rewarded by the love and graciousness of both the child and mother.
Let’s think about a real life application and interpretation of bunkhun as it may affect a relationship between a farang and a Thai ladyboy or girl.
Bunkhun is really only possible when the motivation behind offering help is pure or altruistic. Giving a ladyboy money because you want sex with her is transactional rather than an event that will trigger bunkhun. Remember bunkuhn is the bond created not the act of giving.
Like every other social interaction between a foreign man and a Thai girl, the offer of help can occupy a grey area between altruism and convenient transaction.
A ladyboy I used to know and with whom I had enjoyed “hotness” with a few times in the past asked me for money. It had been at least 4 months since I had seen her last and I had no plans to see her in the future. The last time I had seen her I had also given her a couple of hundred baht. On this occasion she was crying and depressed because she had no money and had lived on very little money for a long time. She asked me for 200 baht, a pathetic amount. I thought about it and gave her 500 baht. I will never forget her response. She touched her head on and kissed my hand. It was a little embarrassing. She told me, “Love You, thank you for never leave me” This is revealing as although I knew her, I had not seen her for some time and had no particularly strong bond with her. There was no sense in which I expected to take out the debt on her body either then or in the future even though it’s possible she wanted that.
I was being altruistic, although neither she nor anyone reading this is compelled to believe that. In my estimation this is an example of bunkhun. She tried to repay my kindness by inviting me to her place several times over the next year or so.
More recently, since I have known Annie, in fact, I have expected her to take care of our apartment in terms of cleaning and cooking. I expect this because I earn the money and Annie does not work. I take care of her and she is indebted to me because of the rule of bunkhun!
In real life bunkhun is rarely activated either in Thailand or the west. Our western children are rarely bound by bunkhun to revere their parents or take care of them when they are grown up. Possibly due to the kind of people foreign men associate with especially when first arriving in Thailand, bunkhun is not often something that is triggered in local Thai people.
Can bunkhun exist between a farang and his girlfriend of a few weeks or months? If he has altruistically helped her family or supported her beyond the usual food, shopping and shelter then, I believe it should.
The point is that you should expect your girlfriend to want to repay kindnesses you offer. Changing her life for the better and raising her status in her society are pretty big kindnesses. One could argue and certain types certainly would, that the intentions of the farang are not pure and/or altruistic but then what act is? Altruism is its own reward in that a selfless act makes the giver feel like a good person. Christians are sometimes so full of their own “selflessness” that they feel they are in a position to judge others.
An erstwhile acquaintance supported his ladyboy girlfriend through university, paying her fees and looking after her for 4 years. Although they parted soon after she completed her degree program, acrimoniously, I never saw a sense of any bunkhun, I never sensed that she even admitted how much he had helped her. The problem is, foreigners are not Thais! We don’t always understand Thai culture and lots of the kind of Thai people we meet probably don’t want us to know what may advantage us.
Phrakhun is very similar to bunkhun especially in the context of relationships. Helping a Thai partner’s family and/or helping their community are examples Phrakhun. Bunkuhn is the bond of indebtedness that one’s altruistic generosity should engender.
Bunkhun is not, I believe, something that takes place with a single act of giving but rather grows over an extended period of time and perhaps several acts.