Saturday, January 15, 2011

Another Isaan Wedding - Perk and Puii


Perk and Puii -Bai Sii Ritual, Their Wedding Ceremony
 During my stay here in Thailand over the past five years I have had the privilege and honor of attending several weddings.  Most of the weddings have been in Isaan and almost all of them have been Animist rituals.  Yesterday was a special wedding - Duang's son and my stepson, Perk, and his girlfriend, Puii, were married.


Shamans Prepare for Perk's Bai Sii

The afternoon before yesterday's wedding in Puii's home village, there was a gathering, party, and Bai Sii ritual in Duang's home village for her son.  It was an opportunity for the Groom's family, neighbors and friends to gather to wish him the best in his upcoming marriage.  It was also an opportunity to raise some money to help with the expenses associated in getting married here in Isaan.  As part of the Bai Sii ritual in Tahsang Village for Perk, people made monetary offerings.  Small plastic bags of raw beef were given to the people who made offerings.  As I sat inside of my mother-in-law's  market editing photographs from the past month and tending to our grandson, Peelawat, I witnessed a steady stream of people leaving the property with a small bag of beef or beef products.  Here in Isaan, very little of a cow is wasted.  Large bones were stacked on a plastic tarp most likely to be used for soup at a later date.  A section of small ribs completely stripped of meat was being eaten off to the side by two of the village dogs.  They were eating the ribs but not necessarily sharing the ribs.  There were several growls and bearing of canines as they devoured their "share" of the ribs.

As is typical for these celebrations, Duang's family had blocked off the street in front of their house with pavilions, tables, and chairs.  In the backyard, many men were busy cutting up beef and preparing meat for cooking.  The men had started drinking early in the morning as they started preparing the beef. Many Aunts were busy cooking over an assortment of charcoal and gas fired burners.  Duang, as Mother of the Groom had to be at the village early and supervise the preparations for the afternoon Bai Sii and proceeding party.  I brought my computer along to keep me occupied while Peelawat slept.  I do not drink when I am driving.  When I am offered drinks I tell the people that I have to drive and that the "Police like falang (foreigner) too much".  They know exactly what I mean, laugh, and do not take my refusal as a social slight or affront.  I have been stopped several times by Police at roadblocks when I was driving alone but I have always been waved through the roadblocks when Duang has been with me.  One time I gave the Police every piece of documentation that I had in the truck and on me but there still seemed to be some sort of a problem.  I called Duang and gave the cellphone to the Policeman.  When I got back on the cellphone, Duang was laughing, the Policeman was asking or was it "wondering?" if I could "give" him some money to buy a drink (I assume it was for a soft drink!).  She said to give him 100 baht ($3) and we were all happy.  A "speeding ticket" is 200 Baht so I hoped that I had purchased some good will on my way back home.  Once I was stopped at a roadblock for speeding which I was certain that I was not.  I protested but after coming to my senses I realized that paying the 200 Baht ($6 USD) fine was a great deal cheaper than any trouble I could be buying in fighting the charges especially with my limited Thai communication skills.  However I would not want to be stopped for any "reason" and have alcohol my breadth - especially alone.


Three Year Old Kwan Seems to Know What to Do

Kwan Checks With Her Grandfather For Reassurance During the Ritual


Perk's Bai Sii Ritual


An Aunt Wishes Perk Good Luck and Fortune
 I left around 5:00 P.M. after the conclusion of the Bai Sii ritual and returned home.  Duang stayed until midnight before returning to our home.  I did not stay for her youngest brother's "Mahlam Lao" show but Duang had family responsibilities to take care of.  The show actually ended around 3:00 A.M.  These are very social events and often when I am not drinking along with the crowd, the noise and commotion get to me.  I don't believe that it is because I am getting old because I detect the same traits in our two year old grandson!  I think that it because we both don't understand what all the noise and commotion are about and there are too many people wanting to be "nice" to us which makes us uncomfortable.  At those times we seek each other's company and go off into as quiet a corner as we can find.
In Isaan weddings take place on the morning of a predetermined day and specified time after consultation with a Monk who has the reputation for if not the ability to determine the future through study of numbers and other things.  He can determine the most advantageous times for undertaking significant events or tasks.

Perk Assisted By His Cousin Walking to Puii's Home
The groom walks to the bride's home as part of a procession of his relatives and local villagers. Mahlam Lao (local Lao music with a driving beat and heavy guitar component) is played either from the community loudspeaker or from a pickup truck mounted sound system. Puii's family had music blaring from large loudspeakers at the home of her sister where the Bai Sii was held.  Members of the wedding groom's procession amuse themselves with copious drinking of local beer and a potent whiskey called "Lao". The groom is shielded from the sun by an umbrella that is carried by one of the procession participants, in Perk's situation - his cousin who was a sort of "best man" for the wedding ritual. The umbrella also is the traditional status symbol and an honor for the person walking under it. There is a great deal of energy and joy associated with the walk to the bride's house with everyone dancing as well as cheering.  The female relatives of the groom sang a nice lilting song as they lead the way to the wedding site.

Perk and Part of His Extended Family On Their Way to the Bai Sii Ritual
Upon arrival at the bride's house, the groom hands over the dowry (Sin Sod) to his future Mother-in-Law. The size of the dowry (sin sod) is negotiated prior to the wedding and is dependent upon the age of the bride, her education, previous marriage(s), if she has any children and also the social status of the groom - if he or his family can afford more he is expected to pay more. A Thai farmer to a Thai young woman will typically have a dowry of 50,000 baht ($1,500 USD).  Since this is Puii's first marriage, she has no children, she is a college graduate, and she is an only child the sin sod was higher.  I once attended a wedding of a college educated young woman to a falang (foreigner) where the sin sod was 3,000,000 baht ($90,900 USD!).

In many cases the dowry is used to finance the wedding reception with the remainder being returned to the bride by her parents. The payment of the dowry is a sign of respect and prestige as well as a financial aid to the bride's family. Saving face is a very important aspect of Thai culture.  Another consideration of the sin sod is the fact that the groom goes to live with the bride's family either in their home or on their property in the parent's village.  The new son-in-law will be responsible for taking care of the bride's parents and participating in the family's farming or other business.  If his bride is the only daughter or the youngest daughter the groom through his wife will inherit the house and larger part of the lands.
Upon receipt of the Sin Sod, the bride's mother disappears to count the money.  The Sin Sod is later publicly recounted with great fan fare as part of the wedding ritual.

Before the groom enters the bride's home he must cross two bridges or rather barriers. Each bridge is usually a  gold chain held across the doorway, or as much of the doorway as it will stretch across, usually by younger relatives.  If gold chain is not available any flexible barrier will serve the purpose.  Each bridge is removed by paying a price - 200 baht in plain envelopes.


Puii Washes Perk's Feet 
 Having paid to gain access to the door the groom removes his shoes. His wife - to - be awaits him in her wedding outfit wearing some of the gold that she has been given by her husband - to - be. The amount of gold, a component of the dowry, has been negotiated and agreed to prior to the ceremony. Again this is a symbol of respect and security for the Thai people. Often Thai brides will use their gold to pay off debts and then buy back the same gold shortly after obtaining the necessary cash to get their gold out of hock.


The bride greets her husband to be at the doorway and washes his feet. Washing his feet is a public demonstration of her allegiance, and commitment to her future husband.


Pahn Sii Khwan
 After washing the groom's feet, the couple enters the room where the ceremony will take place. Upon the tile floor, sahts, woven reed mats, have been placed. A low table or several rectangular brightly multi colored pillows are used as the focus of the ceremony. An elaborate banana leaf and jasmine floral centerpiece with cotton strings hanging from it called a "Pahn Sii Khwan" is an integral part of the ceremony called "Bai Sii".  The Pahn Sii Khwan are handcrafted by elder female relatives or neighbors.  They are a handicraft that is unique to the Lao Loum culture.  Small bananas, globs of sticky rice (kao knieow), and boiled egg are placed within the Pahn Sii Khwan.  These objects which are consumed during the wedding ritual are representative of good luck, wealth, good health, and prosperity.

The Buddhist religion does not have a sacrament of matrimony or a wedding ritual. The commitment of a man and a woman to each other is a pact between themselves with their community and sometimes as well as Monks wishing them happiness as well as good luck. Upon completion of their public commitment to each other and receiving the blessings of the community, the couple register their marriage at the local town hall to formalize their union.  Monks did not participate in Perk and Puii's  wedding ritual which is not all that unusual for a wedding ceremony here in Isaan.


The Shaman Ties Cotton String to Perk and Puii's Wrists to Bind the Spirits
The "Bai Sii" ceremony, lead by a Shaman, is performed to obtain health, wealth and best wishes for the bride and groom. The Bai Sii ceremony is not reserved exclusively for weddings. It is also used for welcoming guests, conducted prior to or after long voyages, as thanksgiving for recovery from an illness or to help cure someone, and a part of the ceremony where children are named.  The Bai Sii is an Animist ritual common in Isaan as well as in Laos.

Cotton Strings Are Tied Around Wrist of Bride and Groom As They each Hold a Banana and Lump of Sticky Rice
The origins of Bai Sii are in the Animist beliefs of the Lao people. They believe that 32 spirits (Khwan) live within us and protect us. The purpose of the Bai Sii ceremony is to bind the spirits within us to prevent them from escaping and thereby causing problems.

As part of the wedding Bai Sii ceremony well wishers crawl up to the Bride and Groom with a money offering.  The offering is placed in their hand as the well wisher ties a cotton string around the wrist of each of them.  When the well wishers have tied the strings, they go outside to enjoy the food and drink (soft drinks, beer, and whiskey) that have been set up.  After the last well wisher has wished the newlyweds well, the Bride and groom give presents to their parents, grandparents, and selected relatives.

During the ceremony an elder of the village or shaman leads the people through the ritual. The bride and groom kneel before the low table or pillows with the left hand resting on the improvised altar. Their right hands hold a glass of alcohol - either beer or whiskey. In his right hand the groom also holds a boiled egg while his bride holds a ball of sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf in her right hand.

The elder recites and chants from a book of prayers. Witnesses to the ceremony also recite some of the prayers. The prayers call all the spirits back into the body. The bride and groom light candles that are part of the ritual. A long string runs around the circle of the Bai Sii participants in the case of a wedding - the bride, the groom, and their immediate families - linking them together and with the spirit world.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the groom eats the egg and the bride eats the rice. The egg and rice are washed down with the alcohol to help nourish the 32 spirits.

The ceremony concludes with the shaman taking one of the cotton threads from the centerpiece and tying it around the right wrist of the groom and around the bride's left wrist. The new wife's family are next to tie strings around the wrist of the newlyweds. Everyone participates in removing a string from the centerpiece and binding the wrists of the groom and bride. The act of binding the wrists is also marked with personal wishes of good health and good luck for the couple.

After binding of the wrists, eventually the couple retire to the bride's bedroom where they sit together to receive blessings from their parents. They are now considered by the community to be man and wife now.


The couple then return to their guests and get down to some serious partying. Besides beer and whiskey, the guests are treated to special foods such as raw chopped up beef with chilies, cow's stomach, cow's veins, sticky rice, cooked pork, cooked liver, boiled pig skin, seafood dishes, fermented fish and vegetables.  It is a time of great celebration.

7 comments:

  1. think it's usually the bride's (younger?) sister who washes the groom's feet in Lao weddings? first time have ever heard of the bride doing it herself. guess this answers my question of what happens if the bride is the only daughter in the family :)

    - straycat

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  2. Straycat - As I am sure that you are aware - This Is Thailand. When I married my wife, the youngest of two daughters, she washed my feet. She had been married before so maybe that made the difference. Who knows? Personally I like the Bride doing it. That is one of the many things that I like about Isaan - people are free and they do pretty much as they please. As they also say "Up to You"

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  3. Great post Allen,could you please give me some more information about the groom eating the egg at the ceremony.I intend to marry my girlfriend who is from Ubon so,i'm researching more on the isaan wedding ceremony and what to expect.The only thing is,i can't stomach eating eggs.They make me vomit and i would not wish to embarrass myself or,even worse upset a whole family.Would i still have to eat the egg?Please help for a solution as all i get from my girlfriend is laughter.Thanks.

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  4. @Anonymous - You got me smiling this morning! I know of what you speak and I have felt your pain. I am just like you regarding eating eggs. Fortunately for me I was not aware of my "husbandly duty" to eat egg as part of the marriage ritual. I unexpectly had an egg popped into my mouth. I did not want to embarass my bride so I manafed to get it down. My wife was aware of my distress and quickly handed me a glass of beer to wash it down. I just checked with my expert, my wife of 6 years, she says that the husband must eat egg or it would not be good for the marriage. She did say that the husband did not have to eat all of it - a small piece would be OK. My advice to you would be for you to discuss this matter with your girlfriend and see what can be done to make it good for everyone and ensure that she has a glass of beer readily available to give to you. As for your girlfriend laughing - don't take that to heart. Many times when people are confronted with a situation where they don't know what to do or what to say ... they laugh.

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  5. Many thanks Allen for your information regarding the egg situation i'm very grateful.I'll tell you something,you're very brave eating the whole egg,i take my hat off to you.As for a glass of beer,i hope its cold and its a big bottle.Ha-ha.I will discuss this further with my girlfriend when i go back to Ubon at the end of September.I really meant to say,she laughs very much because she knows they make me sick.No wonder i did not see her brother smiling very much on their wedding photos.Thanks again,shame your in Udon Thani its a little far from where i am but who knows,you might get an invite.Good luck always.Cheers.

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  6. i just had an isaan wedding and there was no egg and sticky rice.but what an experience,the way they come together as a village and work through the night preparing for the day was amazing

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    1. Congratulations on your wedding. As is often said here in Thailand - "Same, Same - but different" in regards to having sticky rice and an egg. Just as in funerals there are great similarities in the ritual from village to village as well as family to family. But there are unique aspects to the rituals too. I don't believe that I have been to wedding here in the Udon area without an egg and sticky rice involved. Yes it is great to experience and become part of the family and community here.

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