Returning to Bangkok mid March we were scheduled for a week long stay at the St James Hotel located just off Sukhumvit on Soi 26. Here we would experience Thai wedding rituals during the preparation, ceremony and follow up of my husband’s cousin’s marriage to his Thai bride.
Arriving in country in early February we had rendezvoused with the bride on a sunny Bangkok afternoon and gone to the tailor to be fitted for our wedding garb. The Chut Thai was of traditional brocade cloth and was elegant, but of course foreign to us. Our children got a good laugh when we shared pictures later in the day. I was excited, the sense of adventure and learning/participating in something new in this culture we have grown to admire is exactly what I look to experience. Sinking deep into the day to day lives of the places we travel to and it’s people is what gives our adventures real meaning.
We met with the bride and groom that first evening back in Bangkok over dinner to discuss what would transpire during the week of the festivities. While many Thai traditions would be honored some would be varied as is the case in many Thai/Farang marriages.
The following morning we were picked up by the couple to travel by taxi to honor the monks and make merit at the temple and ask for their blessings on the union. Wan Phra (Monk Day) was completely new to us but we were game to participate in all aspects of the marriage rituals. Wat Mahabut was our host for this initiation of blessings to be showered on the bridal couple.
The Thai Buddhist culture is very intriguing and the practices very foreign to a Christian American, yet similar in ways as well. Wan Phra is a day of worship not set aside to Sunday’s but determined by phases of the moon. Attendees bring food and drink for the monks because on this day they only eat once and do not leave the temple as is typical in the collection of daily alms. In my understanding, giving to the monks is a way to make merit and receive blessings for a good life. (Please note that all information here is merely my personal interpretation.)
We were joined on this day by several members of the brides family. We removed our shoes and entered the open air worship hall, all of us carrying the food we had brought. We were escorted by a man, whom I will call an Elder, to the back of the hall where we sorted and placed the food on large round trays. These were taken by women workers to a table at the rear of the temple. The bride conferred with the Elder explaining wedding plans and location. One of the women workers handed us each back a bag of rice which was part of what we had brought in. We were escorted to a table where 18 wooden bowls were arranged in three rows of six. We followed suit as other parishioners placed small amounts of rice from their own bags in each bowl.
We were then escorted to the central area of the worship hall to join others sitting cross legged in a haphazard seating arrangement on the floor. In front of us on a dais were 18 monks. Another man, (I will also describe as an Elder), prepared a microphone and began a 40 minute recitation which at some points the parishioners bowed their heads and placed their hands wai style at their hearts or forehead and chanted along or chanted response. I have been reading quite a bit on the Buddhist faith and practices and believe all this was recitation about the precepts.
Monks then received their bowls of rice and each person/couple or family were given back a tray or packs of water or juice to present to a monk of their choosing. We participated and were blessed by the monk as well for our giving. The monks ate to their fill as social hour happened amongst the attendees. We were greeted and welcomed by many and made to feel quite comfortable and accepted. An offering plate was carried past all attendees by one of the elders and the collection was meant for the upkeep of the temple. The feeling of peace and contentment over the entire gathering was quite astounding.
When the monks completed their meal the remaining food on the trays was retrieved and set amongst the parishioners who in turn shared with one another and enjoyed more “communion”. The bride explained to us that these foods being blessed by the monks were meant to insure that as we consumed we would be blessed in the afterlife and that symbolically we were insuring our ancestors if they had not made merit in their own lifetime were blessed as well to insure sustenance and hydration.
With the meal complete, the bride and groom were called to the front and asked to kneel before the monks. Water was poured into a basin and passed before each monk who instilled a blessing. The water was given back to the Elder who then took a small whisk style broom, dipped it into the water and as the bride and groom continued to kneel with their heads down in their folded hands splattered their heads with the water as he invoked, with chanted words, the blessings of the monks on their Union. He then poured the remaining water into a bottle and presented it to the brides oldest brother for use in the marriage ceremony. A small amount that did not fit in the bottle was presented to the bride who left the worship hall and went to a tree nearby and poured the water at its roots. She explained to me later that this was to insure that anyone who had not made enough merit in life could attach its spirit to this tree to insure hydration in the afterlife. The symbolism in the Thai culture is amazing and Animism and the power of spirits is interspersed heavily into their belief system as well. (Please note that I only took the one picture inside the worship hall as I did not want to be disrespectful.)
Following the services, the family escorted us to the shrine of this temple dedicated to a woman named Mae Nak. It also had a beautifully eerie feel. Take the time to read her story in this link. http://siamandbeyond.com/mae-nak-shrine-home-thailands-famous-ghost/
Pampering was in order for the remainder of the day and the bride and I headed off for cream oil massage, facial, manicure and pedicure. We drank hot Thai teas and frozen mango juice and were waited on by the giggling staff as the bride described her online meeting, courtship and proposal to my husband’s cousin, the farang. She told the tales in both Thai and English and we all teased her about her excitement. She bragged about her fortune of finding a good man who understood her very conservative Thai nature. This was no “mail order” arrangement for designs on sex only and she related the stories of making this quite clear to the groom during their first meeting. That was four years ago. I admire them for overcoming the challenge of diverse backgrounds; great distance and language barriers to follow their hearts. Their home will be in Thailand but the groom will work to his full retirement which is a long eight years from now. In the meantime they will have 6-8 weeks a year together. I will keep them close in my heart with the hopes they can meet all their goals. That evening we treated the bride and groom to a night out on the town bachelor/bachelorette style with dinner followed by drinks and live music.
The day before the ceremony was similar to all weddings with final preparations and banquet room set up to be completed. The ceremony and reception would both take place at the St James. We ran through the day’s events which would start at 3pm and go to midnight. The tailor was also the master of ceremonies. She would arrive at 11am with the wedding garb. We were set to rendezvous at the bridal suite at noon to prepare for the wedding. My husband and I would play the role of the grooms parents as we were the only Americans to be in attendance.
The wedding day arrived, sun shining as was its custom during this time of year. At noon precisely I made my way to the bridal suite where the brides mom, brothers wives, and bridesmaids were gathering. A lady boy was in tow with the emcee. (S)He attended to our hair and makeup. The men arrived about a 1/2 hour before the celebration was set to begin and some pre ceremony pictures were taken. There is no custom as in the US that dictates the bride is not seen by the groom and they end up walking down the aisle together.
3pm arrived and all of the wedding party but the bride gathered in the lobby. A few people had not arrived yet and we waited. The photographer taking impromptu pictures and everyone partaking of coffee, tea, finger sandwiches and cakes that had been laid out by the hotel staff. Once all the guests were present we headed outside the hotel and at the entrance to the parking. It was time for the Khan Maak (Sin Sod) procession and the Gates ceremony. We waited until the clock struck 3:36.
I will sidestep a moment to explain that the number three (and its multiples) is considered to be very lucky in Thailand. Therefore you will note that many features that I point out about the tradition indeed include these numbers.
Sin Sod is basically the money paid to the parents to marry the bride but read the link associated with the word Sin Sod to more fully understand this Thai tradition. Thais have quite the sense of humor and the Gates definitely show this. For this ceremony my husband carried 12 envelopes with money tucked inside. The brides family held the ends of the Gates, each represented by a chain of flowers. At each gate the groom was presented with a challenge. If he could pass the challenge satisfactorily and present the family members with an envelope he could continue on to meet his bride. This procession is also known as the engagement ceremony where the groom, by these achievements, must impress his bride (via the family) so that she will join him to walk down the aisle. This American groom was impressive. He shouted out his love to his bride at the top of his lungs, he preformed break dancing, he serenaded with a love song, he did push ups, he described the moment he knew he wanted her for his bride and other feats to prove his love to the family who would convince the bride to join him. Finally he broke through the twelfth challenge and the third chain and we arrived in the ceremony room.
The brides mom was seated in a place of honor at the front of the room along with the oldest brother’s wife’s mother who acted in the place of the bride’s father. We were escorted to join them in our seats of honor in the front and we were followed by other members of the family and then the guests who sat in rows before us. The bride appeared and joined her groom to walk down the aisle and take their places at the front of the room in chairs facing one another with the “altar” where the Sin Sod had been placed between them.
The Emcee began to speak with much hand waiving and voice inflection and we were called forward (a hotel manager acted as interpreter when we needed to follow instruction) She directed us to join our “son” in opening and displaying the Sin Sod. It consisted of large stacks of 1000 baht bills and gold jewelry. The Emcee made a flamboyant show fanning out the bills and hitting them against the Sin Sod tray and picking up each piece of jewelry and exclaiming at its beauty, even walking it out to show it off to family members. All the time she spoke in Thai. Some times there was laughter, sometimes ovation. Alas, she had the interpreter ask us in English to present the tray to the bride’s mom for approval. She shook her head yes and gave us an emphatic thumbs up. She then presented a basket of chrysanthemum petals and took a small amount and sprinkled them over the Sin Sod speaking blessings for the couples bounty to stay strong and grow. Each of us in the places of honor followed suit as did the brothers and their wives. The marriage was fully approved. We returned to seats reserved for us in the front row, the moms remained at their places of honor.
The wedding rings were part of the Sin Sod. The bride and groom were called to kneel facing one another at the “altar”. They presented the rings to one another and were instructed by the Emcee to prove their love and proclaim their plans for the future. Attendees were invited to ask questions of each of them as well. Once again, evidence of Thai humor emitted laughter from the crowd. The couple was pronounced as man and wife and kissed.
Rod Nam Sang is the name of the traditional Thai marriage ritual where a series of things happen to bestow blessings on the union. The Emcee asked the bride and groom to now kneel together at the altar facing the attendees. She then called the mother of the bride as the most senior person in the room to encircle their heads with the floral lei. She placed them individually on each of their heads as if being crowned. Blessings were then bestowed for a long and harmonious joining of their lives via this circle forming the crowns.
The eldest brother was called forward to present the blessed water from the monks which was then poured into a porcelain conch shell by the Emcee who bestowed her blessings onto the water as well. First the elder brother and his wife then the mothers, then us followed by all attendees were invited to pour water over the cupped hands of the bride and groom as we expressed our well wishes for the future of this couple. Their hands were held over a floral plant so that no blessed water would be wasted and the blessings would carry through to the afterlife. The finale of the Rod Nam Sang was the tying of cotton strings around each of the bride and grooms extended wrists. These strings were from a skein that had been blessed by the monks. With each tying, advice for achieving good fortune was spoken. Soft Thai ballads were played by the DJ throughout the ceremony. All blessings were spoken in hushed voices for the bride and groom alone and you could watch the seriousness of their faces as they took in what was being said to them. This is where the ceremony took a surprise turn when the Emcee announced our 23rd anniversary was the following day. She explained the bride had shared this with the monks and asked for blessings of continued longevity, health and happiness for us as well. Our hearts swelled and the tears rolled from our eyes as each of the attendees tied strings to each of our wrists and spoke either in true Thai or broken English their sentiments and blessings for us. We were truly touched and our Anniversary was made even more special with the memories of these wonderful people. Later we found out that for extra good luck the stringshould remained tied to our wrists for three days and should not be cut but untied lest we sever the wish of good fortune. We followed through with our part as did the bride and groom and we are grateful for the opportunity to not only learn the Thai Buddhism rituals but feel so welcomed and included in them.
The Emcee presented the bride and groom to the attendees and announced refreshments were available in the lobby for all to adjourn to there until 7pm when dinner, dancing and celebration would begin.
This break was an opportunity for the staff to turn the room and set round tables for dinner but more importantly for the bride and groom to change into their alternate wedding suits, a more western style. The groom wore a beautiful suit of cream and silvery grey and the bride a traditional off the shoulder sequined white gown. Other members of the wedding party also changed but to more comfortable attire than the traditional dress allowed.
From here on out the reception portion was extremely similar to western weddings. Buffet dinner, cake cutting ceremony, drinking, toasts, dancing, drinking,, you get the idea 😉 One piece of this that varied was the “cake cutting” (no pun intended 😉 It was only symbolic as the cake was not real but hand made of paper and lace by the bride. Symbolic, but not edible.
I highly advise partaking of this Thai camaraderie should ever the chance present itself. Regardless of nationality we all share the similarity of times to celebrate! #comelivelifewithme #cometravelwithme
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