Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai
My new friends Mark and Sa were getting married and I was thrilled for them. Even better, Sa shyly asked if I would be their wedding photographer. I’d never shot a wedding and carefully explained that I had no idea what I was doing but that I’d do my best. It didn’t matter — she was happy. I was ecstatic.
We all gathered at the restaurant at nine in the morning and walked about 100 feet to a nearby Buddhist wat from where we’d walk in a procession back to the wedding site. Guests were given bundles of fruit or flowers to carry as offerings to ensure that the new couple would have plenty food and beauty in their new life.
Mark soon arrived in his rented traditional silk outfit, complete with high-water pants — he could have walked across the English Channel and not gotten them wet. No one really seemed to know what was going on, so we all stood around chatting and laughing (mostly at the pants) while Lawan tried to get everyone lined up and in position.
She was a close friend, a kind of Godmother to Sa, it was explained and as the eldest wife in the group she would be leading the ceremony. “This is a Chiang Mai wedding,” she explained. “Weddings are very different throughout Thailand, but this will be like my parents’ and grandparents’ weddings.”
“She’s right on that,” Mark commented. “I’ve been to four weddings this year and no two have been alike.” Lawan did a great job of managing the event, speaking at each stage, first in Thai and then again in English so that we all had a rough idea of what was going on.
The first step was for us to all yell and let the bride know that we were coming. A roar went up from the guests and we all marched out of the wat and down the street calling out… well… something. The woman in the curly red wig was obviously the joker of the group and repeatedly shouted something off-color that had all of the ladies tittering. I’d have paid good money to know what she was saying.
At the restaurant, we were met by four women holding two elaborate chains between them barring the way. I missed the full significance of this, as I was too busy taking photos. They asked him questions and he apparently had to answer satisfactorily before they would allow him to enter.
After some bantering back and forth, Mark was allowed to progress into the building where he now had to convince Sa’s father that he was honest and trustworthy and would take good care of her. His first attempt fell a bit flat and earned him a blank stare from her father, so he had to redouble his efforts, proclaiming that he would clothe, feed, protect and love her for the rest of his life. That seemed to do the trick.
Having met this challenge, his feet were ritually cleansed with water from a bowl (despite the fact that he was wearing socks), he was stood in a pile of leaves for a few moments for purification, and then waved inside. The wedding was on.
After a few moments, Sa made her entrance and she looked gorgeous, dressed in gold and copper silk. Again, Lawan patiently steered everyone through the ceremony. Neither Mark nor his sister Yvette knew what was going on most of the time but smiled and laughed their way through things.
First, all of the immediate family met each other one at a time, wai’ing (a respectful greeting, bowing and making a praying gesture with the hands), clasping hands and swapping envelopes of baht as gifts. Then there was a more formal moment, where each person bowed low on their knees with their counterpart and wai’d again — Sa and Yvette nearly clunked heads, causing a good-natured laugh to make its way around the room.
And that was one of the lovely things about the wedding — everyone laughed. There was no pressure for things to be perfect or panic over the thought that someone might forget their lines. Bridezilla wasn’t Thai. It was wonderfully stress-free.
Then the monks showed up to bless the marriage. They were from the wat across the street (not the one next to the restaurant, mind you — Chiang Mai has a lot of wats) and five young men walked in silently and took up position against the wall. Mark would explain later that their participation came with a cost — when Sa asked if they would bless the marriage they agreed but asked if she would make sure to keep the music down at night — the restaurant was keeping the monks up at night.
A small altar with a Buddha statue sat to the side of the monks and the couple first prayed to it, then lit incense and candles. A long white cord was wrapped around the statue, then around a bowl of water and passed through the hands of the monks. The Buddha’s blessing would flow through this cord, blessing the water. As everyone raised their hands in prayer, the monks began to chant and let me tell you: those guys can chant.
It was a wonderful, harmonic drone that went on and on — just as you thought they were coming to an end, one of the monks would start fresh and they’d all join in. After half an hour, quiet conversation was flittering through the crowd and more than a few giggling bouts had broken out. I took the opportunity to sneak outdoors with some of the Thai guests, have a cigarette and swap jokes in pidgin English.
After they finished, the eldest monk further blessed the couple by placing three small dots of paint on their foreheads. This led to my embarrassing moment: Sa wanted me to photograph this happening but rather than wave me over, waved me away (or so it seemed to me). I didn’t want to walk in front of the seated monks so I kind of crab-walked past them, then stopped midway, kneeling, trying to figure out if she wanted me to come to her or go away. The monk’s expressions never changed but I know they were laughing.
The cord was careful wound up and two small lengths were cut from it. These were tied around Mark and Sa’s wrists by the head monk, a process which would be repeated by everyone at the wedding — they both looked like members of a heavy rock glam band by the time it was over. They’d wear the bands for three days for luck (and, I suspect, listen to a lot of Bon Jovi).
The monks were then presented with gifts, baskets of fruit and snacks and tall tins filled with food. After this was sorted out, the head monk dipped a small whisk of bamboo sticks into the holy water and proceeded to bless the guests. Yvette had no idea what was coming and he –of course– got her first, splashing her in the face with water. Her response was classic and she just managed to avoid squealing. One of the younger monks couldn’t help himself and broke into a wide grin.
After the monks left, I thought it was all over, but Lawan explained that there was one more step. This was my favorite part of the wedding (ok, not exactly true — the drinking, eating and dancing at the reception really took first place, but this was a close second). Traditionally, the eldest couple (and the wedding party) would go to the husband’s home and inspect it to make sure the new couple had everything they needed for a successful marriage. As Mark and Sa lived in the apartment above the restaurant and there wasn’t room for the entire group, only the immediate family (and the wedding photographer) would head upstairs.
Mark had no idea this was coming. “If I knew this was going to happen, I’d have picked up the place a bit,” he joked. Once we’d all gathered in their bedroom, Lawan placed offerings of flowers and herbs at the four corners of the bed and made a show of looking around the room. Then she and her husband laid down on the bed, holding hands and patting the mattress and saying “Oh, this is very nice. Yes, a very nice bed…”
After they declared it a happy and livable space, Mark and Sa were instructed to lay down and Lawan announced that they were now officially married. Everyone wanted their photo taken with the couple on their wedding bed, so I was busy for a bit. Then we all quickly filed out to give the newlyweds time alone in their room. As I closed the door behind me, Mark quipped “I’ll only need a couple of minutes.”
The whole ‘traditional’ portion of the wedding took about three hours, with everyone dispersing quickly after it was over. The reception was scheduled for 7pm at a nice hotel, and what a reception it was. There was amazingly good food, an open bar, a DJ (whose music choice was so bad that my friend Louise’s critique made him cry), the traditional throwing of the bouquet (which nearly started a riot), speeches, an ice sculpture and bubble machine, and a massive faux-wedding cake (symbolically cut with a giant sword, no less).
At some point, I ceased to be the official wedding photographer and transitioned into the guy who was more interested in drinking, eating and dancing with that nice lass I’d just met. Mark still hasn’t let me live that down, but hey… you get what you pay for.
They kicked us out of the ballroom at midnight and Mark thought it’d be a good idea to have an after-party of select friends back at their hotel room. Sa invited me but I was beat — it’d been a full day, so I begged off and headed home. It was the right choice, as they had one more surprise coming.
A half hour later, Mark heard a knock at the door and thought it was the first of the after-party crowd showing up. Instead it was Sa’s entire family, arriving to take photos of themselves posing with the couple on their wedding bed.
The after party never happened.