Soon after the first surrogate mother from this remote village gave birth, neighbors noticed her new car and conspicuous home renovations, sending ripples of envy through the wooden houses beside rice paddies and tamarind groves.
"There was a lot of excitement, and many people were jealous," said Thongchan Inchan, 50, a shopkeeper here.
In the two years since, carrying babies for foreigners, mainly couples from wealthier Asian nations, quickly became a lucrative cottage industry in the farming communities around Pak Ok, a six-hour drive from Bangkok. Officials say at least 24 women out of a population of about 13,000 people have since become paid surrogate mothers.
"If I weren't this old, maybe I would have done it myself," Ms. Thongchan said. "This is a poor village. We make money by day and it's gone by evening."
The baby boom let here was just one of several bizarre and often ethically charged iterations of Thailand's freewheeling venture into what detractors call the womb rental business, an unguided experiment that the country's military government now says it is planning to end.
Commercial surrogacy has been available for at least a decade in Thailand, one of only a handful of countries where it is allowed, and one of only two in Asia, making it a prime destination for couples in the region from countries where the practice is banned.
Officials estimate that there are several hundred surrogate births here each year, a number that does not include foreign surrogates, including many hired by Chinese couples, who come to Thailand for the embryo implantation then return home to carry out the pregnancy.
But a pair of recent scandals have focused scrutiny on the largely unregulated industry, raising ethical questions and prompting the government's crackdown.
In late July, the Thai news media reported that an Australian couple who had paid a woman to carry twins returned home with only one of their children, leaving behind the other, who had Down syndrome. Pleas for assistance by the surrogate mother helped produce a sustained national outcry that was further stoked by comments by the boy's biological father that were deemed insensitive at best.
The father, David John Farnell, told an Australian television program that he would have preferred that the pregnancy had been terminated. "I don't think any parent wants a son with a disability," he said.
He also said that he and his wife had told the agency in Bangkok that served as an intermediary to "give us back our money."
The Australian news media raised questions about his fitness as a father after finding court records showing that he was convicted and imprisoned for 22 counts of child sex abuse in the 1990s.
More recently, police raids on surrogacy clinics in Bangkok uncovered the case of a Japanese man who had fathered around a dozen babies through surrogates — the exact number is not known — whose births were only weeks or months apart. Last week the global police agency, Interpol, said it had begun an investigation into the motives and background of the Japanese man.
Commentators have lamented that Thailand, which already had a reputation for prostitution,was now becoming, as one television anchor called it, the "womb of Asia."
Others described surrogacy as the exploitation of the weak and poor by wealthy couples from more developed nations.
"This is a symbol of moral erosion," said Kaysorn Vongmanee, the head of the public health department in Pak Ok. "It's a symbol that people are concerned above all with money."
Thai officials say surrogates are paid about $10,000 for a successful pregnancy,more for twins, in addition to a monthly allowance of around $450 and free lodging in Bangkok, where the women are either instructed or choose to carryout their pregnancies.