It’s wedding season in Laos. Dry air and hot heat, smoke from slashing and burning the fields making you choke. A perfect atmosphere for a white tent outside on the street in front of a bride and groom’s house with a 25-year old generator going and a high-decibel chug-chug spitting black smoke out.
The more people that come to your wedding, the more luck you have for happiness in your marriage…so the custom goes. A thousand people at a reception is not unheard of if you are rich by Laos standards (a whopping $10,000 USD) will give you all the best of everything….the white tent outside the bride’s house, special dried river kelp from Luang Prabang, bamboo shoot soup, papaya salads, “chicken part soup” (even the feet are boiled up),
plentiful Lao beer (the national beer) and of course Johnnie Walker (for some reason it’s revered here as the liquid of the Gods) and Lao Lao (the local, take your breath away moon shine that’s previously been poured out of an oil container into recycled plastic water bottles).
The “qualified professional photographer” is a hired gun that likes to take photographs with a Fuji point and shoot set on full automatic. When our guesthouse owners invited us to the wedding, an invitation to really see Laos culture, we gladly accepted. Of course Ted had to mention that I was a professional photographer next, so instantly I was told to bring my camera since “Laos photos not good.” Here’s a picture of the wedding photographer “in action”. She doesn’t even look through the viewfinder!
The guesthouse owner shared with his brother that a famous photographer from the USA was going to come and take pictures at his wedding. I was flattered and the groom was honored.
The ceremony begins at the groom’s house with the groom and his family. We were invited to be part of his family that day- what an honor! The family gathers around the bamboo leaf and flower arrangement set on a table with two chickens and two boiled eggs.
Evidently one is an unlucky number in Lao culture and two is much better. The groom’s makeup artist (the groom wears lipstick) finishes the final touches and many adornments are put over his shoulders.
The white socks with black shoes are a really nice touch. The bag the groom wears over his costume is for money. Throughout the day, the family gives the groom cashola. A generous contribution is from 20,000 to 40,000 kip, 40,000 kip being less than $5USD.
Following the family’s well wishes, the groom takes the bamboo flower piece out of the center of the arrangement on the table and prepares to leave to see his bride. In cases where the bride’s house is close, the family parades behind the groom
to they reach her house. In other cases, everyone caravans in available vehicles instead… assuming there are no flat tires.
The parade proceeds to her doorstep. The groom takes off his shoes to enter her house, and must cross over a threshold of chains and such. Once the family gathers together on the floor mats, the bride sneaks in behind the groom and joins him at the “altar”.
During the ceremony, it’s hard to hear what’s going on. People are passing money forward for the couple at the same time that special family members are reading special words (even though no one can hear them over all the talking).
It’s not a quiet, religious atmosphere for sure. Several other customs ensue.
Everyone ties strings around both of the bride and groom’s wrist with money attached.
You have to make sure to tie a string around both or it’s bad luck. It’s the one-two thing again. The ceremony officiant then ties the bride and groom together and then breaks the knot….repeat twice.
Finally, the bride and groom take shots of lao lao (moonshine), bite into the hard boiled eggs and the ceremony concludes. It’s very anticlimactic. There’s no fairy tale kiss at the end. The two virgins don’t run of to be alone. They are so innocent, that they don’t even hold hands. Family photos at “the altar” are followed by family photos in the new couple’s bedroom. It’s a tradition for family photos to be taken in the couple’s new home. Since the couple was going to be sharing the three story house with 12 other people, they took photos in their new bedroom…ON THE BED- blue sheets and all.
Everyone climbs on and smiles on top of the blue sheets and in front of the torn out magazine posters on the wall. Finally…the upper eschelon of all photos..the bride and groom on their bed with the matching mosquito net that has been hung by a relative. It was fun to observe the photographs being taken and the posing…I could laugh for hours. The photographer actually closed the windows so no light would come in for the pictures, when just the opposite was true. The natural light was so beautiful! The bride and groom didn’t have a moment to spare for me to work my magic, so I just accepted the situation and played the role of second photographer. I captured this photograph during the official photographers photo session on the bed.
The drinking and eating following the ceremony only lasts about an hour…followed by a short break.
Notice that most of the men aren’t eating? They are in the other room getting completely drunk. They sit around on a mat on the floor taking shots until their wives help them to their feet.
After eating some food (don’t ask me what all of it was) with the family following the ceremony, I had fun wandering around outside watching the preparations for the evening meal for 1500.
Pigs were being chopped up, chicken entrails being fried, sticky rice being stored in bamboo leaves and salads being prepared. If you ignore all the flies everywhere and the fact that it’s now noon and dinner is at 7pm, you know you can stomach dinner that evening.
The party resumes at 6pm. Over a thousand people flood through the “gate”- a welcoming committee consisting of the bride, groom and their respective families.
A monetary gift is dropped into a heart-shaped box and the bride offers you a shot of guess what- Johnnie Walker. What is the obsession with Johnnie Walker people?!!! Being a germaphobe, it took a lot to muster the courage to take a shot from the same little glass that many people before me had had a drink from. Throughout the whole reception, guests were offered more shots.
I politely took my shot, using my finger on the edge as a buffer, and proceed to bow and give thanks down the line. Inside, I was shocked to see the rows and rows of plastic tables and chairs covered with food and beer. The reception was in a basketball stadium, a very large one at that.
There was no cake, no real flowers and no stupid guest favors. They simply had a 5-tier design with fruit and silk flowers and additional silk flower arrangements throughout. Nice!
For hours, people poured in to be seated, immediately partaking in the communal food and beer and listening to the loud and obnoxious D.J. that talked more than he played. The dancing was extremely subdued, but Ted and I gave it shot. Ted broke out with a sprinkler move and made the crowd laugh.
All and all, as much as I’ve made fun of the experience, I really did enjoy it. The following day, our guesthouse owner approached us and thanked us for coming to the wedding. The families of the bride and groom were happy that we looked happy dancing at the wedding, which made them very happy….you get the idea. In fact, they assumed that having us at the wedding was good luck for the couple. I hope that’s true!