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Thai marriage and wedding ceremony experience

4th April 2006

On November 21, 2004 I married my Thai sweetheart, Nat. Despite our cultural differences, I am an American who grew up in the South; we found it easy to be with each other. We were both older though she was 15 years my junior. She had never married. I was divorced with an adult daughter and grandchildren. She is Buddhist. I am Catholic though not practicing. I am Caucasian. She is Asian. We are both vegetarian though for different reasons. I had spent almost a year in Thailand in 2001-2. I knew a little about her culture.  She had never traveled outside Thailand.

We met online, a taboo which is a fast fading in Thailand. The vegetarian diet was our initial common interest. We soon found that despite the differences in our religion and culture we had common ground on a variety of issues. We both like children. She was a language teacher in an elementary school and would often use a portion of her small salary to buy meals for poor children who had no lunch. When I practiced homecare nursing I would buy food for needy clients who had none. While a certain level of material possessions are desirable, we can both be happy with a modest existence. She taught me about Buddhism. I taught her about Catholicism. While we still have our own beliefs, we respect the beliefs of the other.

Being separated half a world apart during the early phase of our romance was probably good.  It allowed us time to know one another. We sent emails and talked using a phone card several times a week. I finally met Nat for the first time in April 2004 during the Thai Buddhist Songkran Festival. On this trip she was not allowed to meet me at the airport in Bangkok. Since my flight got in at midnight local time it would be another day before I would finally see her in person. I arrived in Chiang Mai the next afternoon. It was the beginning of Songkran.

 Songkran marks the Thai Buddhist New Year. A national holiday, Songkran is probably the world’s biggest water fight. For several days most of the country stops work. During the heat of the day merry makers throughout the country throw water at one another. The water symbolizes the washing away of bad luck. There are private ceremonies at home where children pour saffron water over the hands of their elders. We followed tradition and performed the ceremony for her mother and grandmother.

During the next two weeks we were inseparable. We toured Chiang Mai. I made videos of the Songkran parade and the old city walls. We visited the OTOP market where I admired the wood carvings and other crafts sold by the local merchants. We also visited several temples including the beautiful temple on the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. It was there I finally had the nerve to ask her mother for permission to marry. Her mother agreed if I agreed to follow Thai marriage tradition.

In most of Thailand, the groom is expected to give dowry money to the bride’s parents. In my wife’s case her father was deceased and it was Nat’s mother and one of her older brothers I negotiated with. After the ceremony, the bride’s parents usually but not always give half the money back to the newly wed couple. The groom is also expected to buy gold jewelry for the bride. It’s not just one ring set but rings, a bracelet, necklace and ear rings. They must be of nearly pure gold. The gold of my wedding band is much softer than the alloyed gold in the US because of this degree of purity.

After the two weeks had ended I returned to my home in Florida. On the return trip Nat was allowed to accompany me to Bangkok to see me off. But, we had to bring an older relative to act as chaperone.  Even though Nat was in her mid thirties at the time, the relative was required. She gave me a tearful goodbye and I returned to the US.

For the next several months we talked daily by telephone. Phone cards are truly a wonderful invention! As the date approached I had the nervous flutters one would expect of someone going half way around the world to marry into a different culture. The flight across the Pacific was uneventful. This time Nat was allowed to meet me when the plane arrived at midnight. But again, we had the chaperone.

When we arrived in Chiang Mai the next day I met relatives who had begun arriving from several provinces and Malaysia. Unfortunately my father was in poor health and my parents were unable to attend. A relative from Malaysia acted as the family spokesman. She spoke flawless English. My wife is of Chinese ancestry and I discovered additional requirements that had not been mentioned previously. It from our Malaysian relative I would learn of the additional requirements. I was to buy a new suit, new shoes. I was told if we were to buy a house I would need to buy new furniture. It was quite a shopping list. Since we were renting I had to buy linens, a new rice cooker and new dishes.  I was grilled about our plans and my fitness as a husband. At times it felt like the Spanish inquisition.

When the day of the wedding arrived we went to a temple early in the morning with gifts of food for the monks. Later that day we went to Holy House, the temple of the Maitreya Buddhist sect of which Nat and her mother are members. Maitreya Buddha is usually known in the west as Happy Buddha. It was there the first ceremony was performed. This ceremony was in Chinese. The physical activity, the kneeling, standing and kneeling again in rapid succession was physically taxing since I was not used to the ceremony.  After this we returned to my Nat’s mother’s home.

In the early afternoon we went to this beautiful antique Thai building. In the evening it was a restaurant. The next two ceremonies would take place at this location. The building must have been an old meeting house. It was massive. It was originally in another location. They disassembled it, moved it into Chiang Mai and rebuilt it in the present location. It was made of hand hewn teak. Some of the boards of the second floor were eighteen inches wide. Teak logs two feet in diameter formed the frame. The roof was made of tile. The tiles were laid like shingles though they were not attached by fasteners. I dressed in a Thai costume that was provided by the owner of the restaurant.

At the appointed time I was escorted to a 1939 Morris convertible parked nearby. One of my wife’s relatives and her Canadian husband were escorted to pony drawn coach. They would follow me in the procession. The crowd of guests gathered and the procession began. Cries from the guests who would accompany me to the building pierced the air. Two of the women in the parade carried symbolic plants; sugarcane and a small banana tree. Our parade noisily made its way a half block to the building with the crowd crying out and small gongs crashing as we proceeded.

Upon arrival I was to climb the stairs and find my future wife. Two young children held a silk cord at the bottom of the stairs. Two more were at the top. In order to pass I was obliged to give each child a red envelope containing 100 Thai Baht or about two dollars fifty cents.  I crossed the large room of the second floor, met my future wife and escorted her to the area where the first ceremony would be held.

After the guests had climbed the stairs and were seated, a traditional northern Thai ceremony began. The room where this ceremony was held was ornately decorated. Four full size ceramic elephant tusks were on either side of what I called the altar. There were dozens of bouquets of fresh flowers. Nat and I knelt on the floor. Her mother was seated in front of us. The owner of the restaurant acted as the leader of the ceremony. He was also in costume began the ceremony.  The ceremony started with the leader speaking in Thai to the guests. I must confess I didn’t understand a word he said. Following his opening remarks, two women began negotiations with the women holding the sugarcane and banana plant. The sugarcane was meant to provide luck for a happy marriage. The banana plant was for fertility. The negotiations were carried on as if it were a serious affair. I had to pay after the negotiations were complete.

After a bargain had been struck for the plants, I was to present my future mother-in-law with the dowry. The currency had been taken from the bank a day earlier. It was in small bills to make it appear to be a fabulous fortune. Sometimes Thai families will add their own savings to the pile to impress the guests. The money and the gold jewelry were placed in separate bowls adorned with flowers for presentation to Nat’s mother.

It was at this point in the ceremony I made my first mistake. I stood and presented my mother-in-law with the dowry. I was supposed to approach on my knees. The guests ignored my lack of cultural knowledge and the ceremony continued. The bowls containing the dowry were returned to me. I nervously took  Nat’s wedding band from the bowl and tried to place it on her finger. It didn’t want to go. After what seemed like an eternity, actually less than five seconds, it slipped on her finger. My wife then put my wedding band on my left ring finger. She didn’t have as much trouble.

I again approached my mother-in-law who was seated in front of me.  This time I did it right, on my knees. She presented me with a sword. In ancient times the sword was used by a man to defend his wife and family. The sword presentation symbolized my duty to protect my wife. The next event wasn’t a reenactment of an ancient ceremony. Photographs were taken of my wife and me with relatives and guests. The entire process took several minutes.

We moved to another location in the building for the Chiang Mai ceremony. Before the late middle 1700s Siam consisted of several separate kingdoms in much the same way as Britain once did. Chiang Mai was one of those kingdoms.  These kingdoms were unified by King Taksin the Great into the Kingdom of Siam. Siam would later become known as Thailand.  “Thai” means free.

The Chiang Mai ceremony began with my mother-in-law tying a silk cord around my right wrist. She did the same thing to my wife. At the time she did this she blessed for our future happiness. Our grandmother repeated the tying of a silk cord around our wrists. We then moved behind the altar. The leader passed a long silk cord that was connected to a flower arrangement across the altar placing it between he thumb and forefinger of our praying hands.

We remained in this position for what sometimes seemed like an hour. A Thai women sang a song she ad-libbed telling the story of our relationship. I didn’t understand what she said at the time but I could tell she was good at this. She sang about me coming from far across the ocean to marry my wife. She told the story of my wife’s birth and a mother’s love as she raised her child. I looked at my wife. Tears were streaming down her face. Mom and Grandma were crying too as were most of the Women. Just before the song ended the leader took the long silk cord from our hands. Then guests came forward two by two to tie silk cords around our wrists and give us their blessing.

When the last guest has completed tying the silk cord, we moved to the floor. My wife and I were given a ceramic bottle containing water. We poured this water into another ceramic vessel in the shape of a boat.  My wife tells me this is to ask forgiveness for our sins in the past life and he present. After the boat shaped container was moved away, we began what can be best described as the Thai version of the husband and wife feeding each other cake. There was a tray of different confections and small plate of garlic. Each of these confections had symbolized a different aspect of our future life together. The garlic was supposed to be an aphrodisiac. Nat did not take the garlic because her religion’s dietary laws forbid it.

Next we moved to another room. In this room was an antique canopy bed. Nat and I kneeled in the center of the bed. The guests then wished us luck and happiness. There was another round of picture taking and then we left for the reception below. We were led by a creature that can be best described as the body of a goat and the head of a cow with deer antlers. The Burmese Hill Tribe girl who was employed as a caregiver for grandma became excited when she saw the creature. It was from her culture’s mythology. She told us his name which I no longer remember and was delighted to see he was part of our ceremony.  The actors who operated this creature were very talented. He could even wag his tail. He was also very good at taking twenty baht bank notes in his mouth and swallowing them with a loud clack, clack, clack. How the actors could remain in the cramped position needed to operate the creature is beyond me.

The guests were seated for the reception dinner and floor show. When Nat and I had eaten, we made rounds to every table. Each guest was presented with a copy of a book about our wedding. This book is somewhat similar to a program that guests might receive at a church. Some guests presented us with red envelopes containing money. In Thailand money gifts in red envelopes are usually given in lieu of wedding presents. A relative accompanied us carrying the box with the wedding books. Another carried a large silver bowl to collect the red envelopes.

The reception floor show lasted several hours. We were treated to Thai dancing, a traditional knife dance and acts from Thai history and culture. At the end of the show my Nat and I waited by the exit to thank the guests for their attendance and see them off.

At the end of the evening one of my wife’s cousins drove us to our apartment. He assisted us in moving my wife’s clothing into our new home. Before he left, he did something that made me feel, despite the differences in our religion and culture, I was accepted. He reached for my hand, looked me in the eyes and warmly said in fluent English, “You have married a wonderful girl. I want you to know you are now our family too.”

One Response to “Thai marriage and wedding ceremony experience”

  1. willam124 Says:

    Thank you for this story, I have a Thai girlfriend that I meet online and I get to meet her in 326 days, I showed this article to her and she was amazed to see how it was similar to our life, I live right no in Florida.
    Even though we have not meet yet, I know that she is my soul mate.

    Thank you again for this article, and maybe my story will end up the same as yours. korp kun