Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Recent Wedding Here In Isaan


A Home Wedding In Isaan

This month has really flown by.  May is just about over and only now am I getting around to writing about a wedding that we attended on 4 May.  This month has been filled with trips to attend a wedding, a housewarming, two multi-day rocket festivals, a Wai Khru ritual, a Mahlam Show, most importantly of all - renewing my Long Stay Visa for another year along with obtaining a Multiple Re-Entry Permit for a year.

I have also undertaken a new challenge.  I purchased and installed Lightroom 5 on my computer.  Lightroom 5 is a computer program that is used for organizing and to a certain extent post processing of digital photographs.  One aspect of Lightroom that I have been completely obsessed with this month is its ability to read GPS data for each photograph and to interface with Google Maps to show those coordinates on traditional road maps, satellite imagery for the location or a hybrid of the two.  My cameras have never had the capability to directly determine the GPS coordinates.  There are separate devices available now that will determine the coordinates and automatically write it to the metadata in the camera for each shot as it is taken.

Even without the GPS capability of my cameras or with a separate device, I still can determine the GPS location of my over 59,000 shots, digital and scanned slides, through the Google Maps interface.  I can look at a location anywhere in the world and in many locations zoom down to where 10 meters (30 feet) is about 1/2 inch long on the Google map image.  In the case of my wife's home village I can differentiate the different houses.

So for much of this month, I am been in a time machine to sort of speak.  I have been going through the electronic photo files and determining where they were taken and recording that data in Lightroom.  I have been transported in time and space over the course of the past 42 years.  Reviewing each photo and assigning a location ...

"I'm going back in time
And it's a sweet dream" - Best of My Love, Don Henley & Glenn Frey

I am amazed at how much I remember from each individual shot - where I was, what time it was, who I was with and in many cases what my emotional state was at the time.  They say that every picture tells a story.  I have written that every picture tells more than one story with each story shaped, defined, and influenced by the viewers perspective, experiences , and perception.  With being able to see the exact location of the shot and see how it relates to other shots in time or space allows even more stories to be told.

So it was for me in attending and shooting another ethnic Lao wedding in Isaan earlier this month.

Just as with funeral rituals - weddings are "same, same but different"  There is no Theravada Buddhist marriage ritual.  If Monks do get involved with a wedding it is a typical and ordinary merit making ritual of offering food and feeding the Monks in the home - just as you would for moving into a new home, the birth of a child, the death of a family member, or for the memory of a departed person.  There are many common elements in all weddings but there are some large differences mainly attributable to the social and economic status of the bride.

In Northeast Thailand, a region called "Isaan", there is a custom and accepted practice of "Sin Sod". Sin Sod is essentially a dowry provided by the Groom and/or his family to the Bride's family. The payment is a complex and multifaceted act by the Groom.

First of all it demonstrates his ability to support his wife to be - sort of ironic in that many Grooms have to borrow in order to accumulate the required funds for the Sin Sod.

Secondly, payment of the Sin Sod is a display of commitment and respect of the Groom for the Bride as well as for her family.

Lastly, the Sin Sod is a form of financial support for the Bride's family. A large Sin Sod is also a sign of prestige for the parties involved - sort of bragging rights for both families. In Thailand as well as other Asian cultures, "face" is very important. A large Sin Sod buys a great deal of "face"

When a man and woman decide to get married, the man will have a close relative or trusted friend approach the woman's parents to determine the amount of the "Sin Sod" as well as the "Tong Mun" to be paid in order to have the marriage take place.

Tong Mun" is "gold engagement". In Thailand, "baht" besides being the name of the national currency, is also a measure for buying and selling gold. A "baht" of gold here is 15.244 grams in weight. Since gold in Thailand is 96.5% pure, approximately 23.2 Karat, a baht contains 15.16 grams of pure gold (0.528 ounces).

Groom Places "Tong Mun", a 3 baht necklace, around his bride's neck.
(She also received 2 baht in gold rings)

The "Tong Mun" is given directly to the Bride and remains her personal property. Here in Isaan there is a thriving business in selling as well as buying gold. Many women will sell their gold back for a short period of time to bridge over difficult financial times. The gold shops act as pawn shops to help people out financially - of course for a fee - 1%.  Gold shops are located in the malls, in the western style grocery "superstores", and as small shops in the towns.

Kumphawapi is a small town with approximately 26,000 people with at least 5 gold shops that I am aware of. Gold is mainly sold in the form of rings, necklaces, and bracelets. Necklaces run basically in whole numbers of bahts - 1, 2, 3, baht necklaces. The buyer pays for the gold content with a small premium for craftsmanship related to the ornate work of the piece.

The Tong Mun provides security to the woman. Security, for the Bride and her family, is a very important aspect of Lao Loum marriages.

The size of the dowry (sin sod) as well as the "Tong Mun" is negotiated prior to the wedding and is dependent upon  many factors including the age of the bride, her education, any 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 young ethnic Lao man marrying a young ethnic Lao woman will typically have a sin sod of 150,000 baht ($5,000 USD) and a Tong Mun of 5 baht ( roughly $3,125 USD).  This is a significant financial commitment for the groom in a land where farm labor makes roughly $10 a day and a mechanic at an auto dealership makes $670 USD a month.

We 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!) and the Tong Mun was 20 baht.

Procession of Groom, His Family, and Friends to his Bride's Home
In Isaan weddings take place on the morning of a predetermined day and at a 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.

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 often played either from the community loudspeaker or from a pickup truck mounted sound system. For this wedding there was loud recorded music from the village loudspeakers. In addition, the groom's "posse" were whooping and hollering as they walked along the narrow concrete village street towards the bride's house.

Members of the wedding groom's procession amuse themselves with copious drinking of local beer and a potent whiskey called "Lao Lao". or "Lao Kao" The groom is shielded from the sun by an umbrella that is carried by one of the procession participants,  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.

Entrance to Bride's Home
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 or barrier is removed by paying a price - 200 baht currency in plain envelopes.

Having paid to gain access to the door the groom removes his shoes. His wife-to-be waits for him in her wedding outfit.  Next to her is a container of water and a small cup.  Typically the water is contained in a pressed metal decorative bowl, either silver or gold colored that is used in merit making rituals involving Monks.  Typically a small pressed metal decorated cup which is often used in the transference or merit ritual is used with the larger bowl.  For this wedding, the water was contained in a plastic insulated water cooler, more like a jug, that is used out in the fields.

In front of the groom is a slightly raised wood or plastic foot stool covered with fresh banana plant leaves. Usually the wife-to-be, as part of the wedding ritual, washes her husband-to-be feet.  At this wedding, the young woman to be married commenced the ritual by first washing the feet of her future grandfather-in-law, and then her future father-in-law before her future husband.  This demonstrated her commitment to the family and respect for the family that she was about to become a member of.
A Young Woman Washes the Feet of Her Future Granfather-in-law

Bride Washing the Groom's Feet
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.

Pahn Sii Kwan Centerpiece
The Groom and his family positioned themselves on the sahts in front of the Pahn Si Khwan.  A Brahman, a village elder who is familiar with spiritual matters and rituals, kneels facing the families.

There was a pause - a definite pause for the cause.  No, it was not a bathroom break.  It was a pause for the bride's mother and her older sisters to count, verify and reconfirm the sin sod and tong mon.

The Sin Sod and Tong Mun were given to the Bride's Mother. With a couple elderly women, I suspect that they were sisters, she went off to the side of the assembled families to openly count the offerings.

Counting the Sin Sod and Tong Mun

Counting the Sin Sod and Tong Mun is more of a spectacle than a ritual. A cloth is placed on the saht and the stacks of money are placed on the cloth. The stacks are spread on the cloth and slid around sort of reminiscent of the Shell and Pea games.  Each of the women seems to have to handle each of the stacks of currency several times. The currency is then counted several times to ensure accuracy and to enhance the prestige of the ritual. The amount is then announced for everyone to hear. All the people smile in a demonstration of their acceptance and respect.

The Bride's Mother then bundles up the Sin Sod in the white cotton cloth, hoists the bundle above her head, places the bundle over her shoulder, and leaves the area to place the money  somewhere in the home.

The Sin Sod Is Correct. Let the Wedding Proceed!

After the financial arrangements were verified, the ritual could proceed.

The Groom and Bride lit candles on each side of the Pahn Sii Khwan that remained burning for the duration of the ritual. Around the Pahn Sii Khwan several plates and bottles were placed on the sahts. There were offerings of green leaves, small yellow candles similar to birthday cake candles, bottles of Lao Kao (moonshine whiskey, "White Lightening"). These are offerings to the spirits. There were also boiled eggs, sticky rice, small bananas, and a sweet concoction of sticky rice with banana wrapped in banana leaves. These were offerings used by the Bride and Groom. There was a bowl of water that the Brahman would later use to sprinkle on the families using a green leaf in order to transfer the merit making of the ritual to the witnesses.
Brahman Transferring Merit By Sprinkling Devotees With Water Using A Leaf
The wedding ritual is a sort of "supercharged" "Bai Sii" ceremony, lead by a Brahman, 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.

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. 
The Groom's Proud Mother

During the ceremony the Brahman leads the people through the ritual. The bride and groom kneel before the low table or a stack of 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 Brahman 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.

Bride and Groom Make Offerings to the 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 the last well wisher has wished the newlyweds well, the Bride and groom give presents to their parents, grandparents, and selected relatives.

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 are now married and recognized as husband and wife by their families, friends and community.  If they choose to have their married recognized and accepted by the government, they will go the district office and have their marriage recorded.  Recording the marriage with the government formalizes their union, and provides some legal protections.

The recent bride and groom have started making their sweet dream together.  I made a CD of these photos and gave it to them so that they hopefully, many years from now, can ... go back in time and enjoy their sweet dream.


  1. Really nice work. Just come across your web pages. Brilliant! I'm looking to learn more about the culture of Isaan. I had a very similar wedding a little earlier than this in the year. A village near Amnat Charoen. Very similar indeed. Albeit I didn't have the finances for any real sinsot. The money I was able to scrap together and put on show basically paid for the proceedings, feast and karaoke.


    1. Lovely couple! Looks like you did the Isaan wedding just right. Best wishes for a happy life and marriage.

  3. Thank you for the kind words Andrew. Living here in Isaan is very interesting with something different to experience and learn just about everyday.