Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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).

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.”

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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).

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

 

Photo Essay: A Thai Wedding in Chiang Mai

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.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures July 20, 2011 at 7:22 pm

Love this! My parents got married at a Buddhist temple in Bangkok but it was much less extravagant than this.

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Andrea July 20, 2011 at 11:23 pm

I always enjoy reading about non-Western weddings. This one sounds so intimate and relaxed – and your photos are fabulous!

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Kevin July 21, 2011 at 1:29 am

Been there done that and you never took photo of ME in my Yul Brynner pants! Harumph! I see Mark sitting in those pants and leaning left to balance and it reminds me how dang tough it was to remain upright since they kinda connect at the knees.

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Casa de Hamilton Pool July 21, 2011 at 1:59 am

best.post.yet.

Awesome story, great shots, it made me smile. The bride is really beautiful, you weren’t kidding.

I would love to had know what the groom said in Thai to her dad the first time he asked for her hand!

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Maria July 21, 2011 at 4:23 am

Quite a celebration – as it should be. Some great photos too Wes, thanks!

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Matt July 21, 2011 at 5:52 am

Fantastic story and photos. Family photos on the wedding bed?! Not the visitors you’d want on this occasion!

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Michael July 21, 2011 at 8:15 am

man, that made me kinda misty
awesome story and photos, thanks!

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Lisa @chickybus July 21, 2011 at 10:17 am

Cool story and great photos! “Bridezilla wasn’t Thai”…hilarious! Awesome that people were so relaxed at a wedding, too. So different than in this culture.

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Mark July 21, 2011 at 10:52 am

A big thanks from me and Sa for the amazing photo’s of our special day. The write up is just perfect and it captures the mixture of relaxed and happy confusion! I’ve now forgiven you for the lack of evening photo’s because my dancing would have been terrible and I saw you as more of a guest than a photographer anyway. Thanks again matey!

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wes July 23, 2011 at 7:20 am

Thank you, Mark. I was thrilled be there in both capacities :)

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Alex July 21, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Weddings are SO FUN to shoot. I worked as a second shooter for a wedding photographer in Grand Cayman and contrary to the stereotype, I met not one bridezilla. Not sure if I’d be up to being responsible for all the photos, but you did great!

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wes July 23, 2011 at 7:21 am

Yeah, it’s the responsibility that terrifies me. I don’t think I’ll go pro ;)

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Rease July 22, 2011 at 3:00 am

The photos look great and this sounds like a really fun time. I would love to go to a wedding with different traditions!

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Randy July 22, 2011 at 7:46 am

Nice work! You did a great job of capturing all the little, but oh so important details, that make up the day. I assisted Beth with a few of her weddings last year, one was a traditional Chinese wedding in Boston–the bride had five dress changes, and I was amazed at how much work each wedding took to really capture properly.

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Gillian @OneGiantStep July 22, 2011 at 11:55 am

I think you did a great job as photographer! It looks like a lovely wedding.

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Dustin Main - Skinny Backpacker July 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Wow what a great job done with an amazing opportunity. Way to go Wes!

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Bluegreen Kirk July 23, 2011 at 2:44 am

For someone who never took photos at a wedding that came out great. Looks like everyone had a great time! Those things on the wrist wont be the clean in three days. I like the you get what you pay for…drinking and eating instead of taking photos!

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AJ - Fantastic Travels July 23, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Are you sure you haven’t taken Wedding Pics before? They look pretty wonderful and professional to me!

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wes July 24, 2011 at 10:26 am

Aw, thanks. You should see the ones that didn’t make in the post ;)

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Abby July 24, 2011 at 3:43 am

They’re adorable. What a wonderful, happy wedding. And awesome gig for you. ;-)

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wes July 24, 2011 at 10:26 am

Thanks, it was a blast.

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Don July 24, 2011 at 4:29 am

Great photos and article, Wes. Reminds me of the time I was invited to a wedding in a small village near Phonsavan, Laos. It was a fantastic experience to be involved in a Buddhist ceremony. So much different from a western wedding. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to be the official photographer and could just enjoy all the goings on.

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wes July 24, 2011 at 10:25 am

Oooh, that sounds like fun!

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Neale July 24, 2011 at 9:46 am

As always great photos and commentary. Looks like your settling well in Chiang Mai I’m surprised you have not found more permanent digs yet?

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wes July 24, 2011 at 10:25 am

Yeah, I should have got an apartment. I thought I’d be doing more touring around so I stayed at the hotel for awhile. Then work kept rolling in and the sidetrips kept getting put off. It was a cheap hotel and I got a good rate, so the money was the same. Would have been nice to have AC and a TV though :)

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Neale July 24, 2011 at 11:21 am

Would have your still in CM? If ever your up for it I can show you digs here for 3 – 3.5 a month am loving CR..

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Maggie from Destination Exploration July 24, 2011 at 11:13 am

very cool! Having just got married a couple of months ago, I love learning about others’ marriage ceremonies and receptions. Thank you for sharing, Wes!

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Maggie from Destination Exploration July 24, 2011 at 11:15 am

and congratulations to the happy couple! :)

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bethany July 27, 2011 at 7:13 am

Great job Wes! Shooting a wedding is no easy task and you did it well! I especially the like the detail photos of the leaves and the monks. It’s always such a pleasure when the bride & groom are relaxed and easy going. In all my years of shooting weddings I honestly only had one real bridezilla and it was years ago but I remember it very clearly – was a horrible day. Unfortunately also had one where the groom was a drunk and peed on the church before the ceremony – yup, i’m serious. Heard later they broke up.

You chose a really beautiful backdrop for the formal photos too! :)

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Mack Reynolds July 28, 2011 at 2:55 am

good job. i’m sure you made them proud to have chosen you. you were a part of the most important day of their lives. i especially liked that last photo of them lighting the candle. the wedding ceremony sounds very interesting as well as fun and unique. it sounds like it would have been quite fun to witness firsthand.

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Gifts Idea August 5, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Beautiful photos of a happy Thai wedding.

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Shanna August 7, 2011 at 3:36 am

Your camera is so clear and the shots are beautiful. I lived in Chiang Mai and miss it. Thank you for sharing these wedding photos. The strings tied around their wrists are prayers and someone else besides a monk has to tie them on women since the monks can’t touch women. Monks can tie them on men’s wrists. The white dots on the forehead are done not only by a monk but also can be done by someone in a higher respected status…also a blessing. Chiang Mai is full of stunning temples and unique customs. I know you enjoyed yourself and appreciate looking through your photos. Happy Travels!

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wes August 19, 2011 at 4:47 am

Thanks for the info :) Chiang Mai is lovely, isn’t it? I hope to go back for Songkran next year — that was too much fun.

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Metro DC Photography March 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Visited Thailand last November with my girlfriend, stayed with her parents. Mostly in Bangkok but went up to Chiang Mai also, it’s a really beautiful area.

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The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen) May 20, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Whoa, what a fun and symbolic ceremony! You did a great job as a wedding photographer. I like how the family shows up at the end to take pictures on the bed. That’s a bit awkward …

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wes June 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Tough start to a honeymoon, yes?

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Wallace yen solo July 7, 2012 at 9:49 am

Have they found the Thai husband yet?

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durgagurusamy August 16, 2014 at 3:52 am

minicab in se17 We love that Wes makes like a local on his travels, living low to the ground. His manner of documenting his experiences through beautiful photo essays and well-told narratives make this a collection of charming short stories of which we can easily dip in and out. We admire Wes’ unrivalled humorous twist to every tale, and his incessantly positive outlook.

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