by Thomas Sturrock
When it comes to Thai weddings, traditions are kept more fiercely in some parts than others – and will vary between regions. A Thai wedding in Chiang Mai, for example, may not go off quite the same as a wedding in Phuket. Equally, a ceremony up-country may adhere more closely to tradition than if it’s a couple of city kids tying the knot.
That said, there are a few staples that are likely to feature in most Thai weddings.
To begin with, the wedding will have been planned on an “auspicious day.” This basically means that the astrologers have been asked and a day chosen that ensures compatibility.
Making merit is important to Buddhists in everyday life but it takes on heightened significance when couples are getting married. Merit is the accumulation of good deeds that eventually enables “spiritual liberation” and the couple may make merit by freeing an animal – this is why Thai weddings often feature birds being released from their cages. Donations will also be made to a local wat – if the groom has deep pockets and makes a generous donation, it shows greater respect to the bride and her family.
Monks may also be invited to the ceremony to give their blessing. This does not make the marriage legal—again, it is about making merit. The monks will arrive early and light a candle held in a bowl of water, which is then used to carry out the blessing. They will then be offered food, and no one else will eat until the monks have finished.
After the meals, the monks will pray and chant before the senior monk uses a white powder to make three dots on the groom’s forehead, and then taking his hand to make the same dots on the bride’s forehead.
The wedding will likely begin with the Khan Maak Procession, in which the groom is accompanied by his entourage on his walk to the bride’s house – or wherever she is staying. It’s a ritual full of music, dancing and color, and is an adaptation of the traditional protocol for paying dowries. The process of getting engaged would involve the bride and the groom’s family walking to the bride’s house, carrying their offerings to the bride’s family.
On arrival, the groom may find himself confronted by a series of locked doors or gates. To show that he is worthy of the bride’s hand in marriage, he must show that he is able to open the gates. This is carried out with a sense of theatre and with tongue in cheek. The “key” to the gates comes in the form of envelopes with money inside, and the groom may have to endure taunts from both the bride’s family and his own that he doesn’t have enough cash to open the gates. However, the opening of each gate is cheered by the crowd.
After the last of the gates has been opened, the procession will offer food to the bride’s family and also set aside some of the food in tribute to deceased ancestors.
An elder will then take white thread, or sai monkhon, and loop it around the couple’s heads, linking them but also keeping them in two separate circles. These “Circles of Luck” (Saii Monkol) symbolize the fact that the couple are now united, although their individual identities remain intact. The elder will then conduct the Rod Nam Sang, or Shell Ceremony, taking water from a conch and pouring it over the couple’s hands.
Relatives will also tie white strings around the couple’s wrists – it is considered good luck to leave the thread in place for at least three days.
At the evening party, the master of ceremonies will invite the family of the groom to present the newlywed couple with a wedding flower. There are often special guests at a Thai wedding and they will often be asked to make a speech as well.
When the wedding cake is cut, the couple must show respect by serving their parents and senior relatives first. Thai weddings are full of light-hearted frivolity, which the Thais call sanuk, and a long night of drinking and dancing follows.
There is one more old-fashioned ritual: preparing the bridal bed. When the couple eventually retire to bed, they may be welcomed by an older Thai couple. This is meant to act as an example of a long and successful marriage. There will be rice and coins placed on the bed, as well as other symbols of fertility and prosperity.
A cockerel represents diligence; a cat represents the family; a stone mortar represents the strength of the couple; a cane represents long life; a gourd represents equanimity. The older partner will lie down on the bed and pretend to sleep. Tradition states that the couple are meant to stay in bed for three nights before waking to a fruitful marriage that produces many children.