BANGKOK — With nine red roses and nine incense sticks in her hands, a woman stood still in front of the shrine while keeping her eyes closely on the watch.
“She’s waiting for the magic hour,” said her friend standing beside, referring to the time the god comes all the way down from heaven to listen to human wishes.
At 9.30pm every Thursday night, the Trimurti Shrine offers a unique scene with hundreds of people, some of the most desperately single, gather to pray not at a temple but in the shadow of one of the capital city’s biggest shopping malls, CentralWorld. And more than the ritual and prayer, it’s clear from size of the crowd gathered a few days before Valentine’s Day that another thing getting lost in the modern world is Bangkok’s dating culture itself.
“It’s not difficult at all if you’re just looking for a fling or an infatuation,” said Mai, a young woman in her early 20s. “But if you want a serious relationship, it is extremely hard.”
While some number of young women and men may be embracing a proud and single status, large swaths of Bangkok are looking (and not finding) love. Mai was at the shrine with a group of six single friends of different ages and genders who fall into the latter.
They all agreed that after the golden time of university life passed, there’s been little hope since they took up their careers in the urban workplace.
“We stay inside the office all day, and our male colleagues are either gay or already married,” said another woman, Ying. “The only chance to meet new people is to hang out after work. By that way you get to meet friends of friends, but you know, I’m usually too tired after the long day at the office and just want to go home.”
The only gay guy in the group said another factor is when you are forced to leave your hometown and join the workforce in the capital.
“I didn’t study in Bangkok, so when I moved to work here, my social circle was gone,” Em said.
The story is the same for a lot of people. Leave home to study in university, then move for good to work in Bangkok where they are cut off from the traditional social mechanisms that bring people together.
While a lot of women can be heard blaming what seems an ever-growing population of gay men for their single status, Em insisted it’s even more difficult for gay men to find sustainable relationships. From his experience in his early 20s, gay men in Bangkok just want short-term fun.
And in the very future-forward sounding year of 2016, these women – educated, self-sufficient and financially independent – are puzzled by Thai men they say are stuck in a past when submissive types were preferred.
“Look at Mai, she is beautiful and smart. She is a great cook, and she does a good job at work. It is unbelievable she’s still single,” said Bow, in her 40s. “Because in the end, that’s not what guys want.”
All five women said in the mainstream appetite of Thai men, nothing else – not intellect, wit, talents or fidelity – matters except for “being cute.”
“They don’t want someone who is smarter or are onto their tricks,” Mai said. “When we form the family, they just want to be the leader.”
Want to be a powerhouse in the workplace and find romance there? Forget it. Showing brains and ambition might not be a smartest thing to do.
“For a woman who is excellent at work, men will perceive you as a competitor instead,” Bow said. “They will no longer look at you in a romantic way.”
Yet these women, despite adapting their lives to contemporary realities, are still expected to conform to dated social expectations.
“And Thai society also tends to dislike if women make the first move,” said Aor, a fresh university graduate.
Ple and some of the other women reinforced the same thought. Ple said working women have less time to find partners, and their chances diminish when women reach a magic number.
“That’s the moment when I raised my head from the computer and realized I was already 30,” she said with a laugh.
While they faulted Thai men for carrying outdated concepts of women, the women also seem distrustful of modernity in the form of dating tech.
None of the 10 female love-supplicants at the temple interviewed said they have online dating profiles. Some had no idea what Tinder is.
“The face you see can’t tell the heart,” Bow said. “There are also some bad news about online dating that makes it look scary.”
In contrast, Em said 99 percent of “people like him” have dating apps on their phone. But their profiles often mention nothing more than a fling.
“The purpose of online dating in Thailand is different from in other countries,” he said. “The chance to find a real relationship is one in a million. I only found something serious once.”
Though it was the last magic time before Valentine’s, all of the lovelorn interviewed said they can afford to be single, no matter how long it is, rather than being with someone just for the sake of relationship.
As Bangkok’s singles still seek a middle ground between the old dating practices and the modern concepts of gender role expectations, the only one thing can be sure: God will continue to have his hands full.