The token farang at a Thai wedding

by Jocelyn Pollak
The Wedding Party

One day, while scrolling through Facebook, you get an event invite for your Thai friend’s wedding. No save the date fridge magnet a year in advance. No beautifully calligraphed invitation in the mail with an RSVP required and a little mini card asking you to make the ubiquitous decision between beef, chicken or vegetarian. Just a simple Facebook invite for a wedding in perhaps three weeks, or maybe three months. So… what is going on here? Are you actually invited for real, or is this like other invites you get and reply “going” with no intention of ever showing up? What should you expect?

Like weddings in any culture, they come in all shapes and sizes but as an early 30s woman living in Thailand for the last six years, I am at the ripe age to have attended lots of Thai weddings so I’m going to try to give you an idea of what to expect (and not expect) from before the nuptials right up until the last glass of Sangsom is chugged down by the after parties. These are some general tips and things to be aware of but these are by no means what every Thai couple chooses to do.

Phan khan Mak
Gate barrier-gold gate

After a couple decides to get married, there are many wheels set in motion. One of the first things the couple will traditionally do is negotiate a bride price known as a dowry – “sin sod”. In Thai culture, the man’s family is expected to offer a sum of money, gold or goods to compensate the woman’s family for taking her away from them. While largely a symbolic gesture nowadays, it’s still a very important part of the pre-wedding logistics. A prime aged, more  accomplished, more beautiful bride from an upper class family typically commands a much higher price than one without any pedigree.

Different families will negotiate this to varying degrees of seriousness. I have Thai friends who literally can not marry their girlfriends because they can’t (or won’t, ouch) pay the “sin sod” of 500,000B so they just sit in limbo until one side or the other caves in. Other friends of mine have eliminated this practice, seeing it as archaic and demeaning to the woman. But nine times out of ten, there will be some kind of financial negotiation. Pro tip: when a drunk Thai man proposes to me, I tell him my sin sod is one hundred buffalos and three white tigers. No takers yet!

The wedding-ceremony

The next step is to choose a venue and date. Usually they will go to a fortune teller or a monk to choose an auspicious date based on their birthdays and a bunch of other variables that I’m not totally sure of. As for the venue, it’s very common for Thai people to do a standard hotel wedding as is common in many cultures now. If you’re lucky you may get invited back to your friend’s hometown where the wedding will be in their traditional stilted Thai house in the middle of a rice paddy, and they will offer you a plate of ground field rat as a welcome treat, that’s if you’re lucky. I am.

After a venue is selected, they will start to invite people and this is  when you’ll likely get your mass invite via Facebook. Thai weddings aretypically a community event unlike Western weddings where there is a strict headcount that must be adhered to. Somehow they know approximately how many people to expect whether it’s ten or a thousand and they prepare food and seating accordingly. I don’t know how they do

this, but they do. Pay very close attention to this invite because it will usually tell you the theme of the wedding. Usually it’s a colour, but I attended a wedding for a trainer at my gym with a fun theme of pretty dresses and sneakers and I’ve attended others with no theme at all. Definitely don’t be ignorant of the theme and show up in a lime coloured cocktail dress in a sea of 500+ Thai people dressed in casual pink and tan who have had almost no sight of a real live foreigner. Yeah, don’t do that…

 If you see photos on Facebook of your Thai friend in a full white wedding dress weeks before the wedding, don’t panic, you did not miss the wedding. They rent several wedding dresses and take full wedding photos weeks or months before the actual wedding. They are usually surprised when I tell them it is really bad luck in our culture to see the bride in her dress before the wedding but that I hope they will have a long, happy marriage.

I never said I was socially capable, just that I’ve been to a lot of weddings.

When the big day arrives, you can usually expect two events: a traditional Thai morning ceremony and a Western style afternoon or evening party. The morning part is attended by all of the family and close friends while the afternoon/evening is the big party. The bride and her girls wake up at 3am to start the preparations for her morning ceremony. Full costuming, hair and makeup in traditional Thai style is the look. The bride usually waits for the groom in her house or in a special room

Jocelyn Pollak with bride
Friends of bridal pair

at the hotel. Then the fun begins. All of the guests, besides her very closest family, join in a parade to introduce the arrival of the groom.

There is an old guy (think town crier) who announces the approaching fanfare by yelling oh-e-ohhhhh-eeohhhh, the closest thing I can equate it to is the sound Tarzan makes.

Friends of the groom carry banana tree leaves, plates of cookies, food, pig’s heads, flowers, gold and other trinkets to offer to the woman’s family as payment for allowing him to approach. When he arrives at the bride’s quarters, her best girls block his entry by holding a series of gold chains across his path. These lady guards will only let him pass if he pays them.

After paying off all of her friends to show his worth, he may enter the wedding chamber where she and her family await.

The next step is the presentation of the “sin sod”, which was negotiated back before all of this started. The groom’s family will lay out plates of food, money and gold to display that he can properly care for her. While largely symbolic now, this is an important part of the traditional ceremony. The parents of the bride will typically return a large portion of this, if not all, to the newlyweds so that they can start their lives together.

Some Scrooge McDuck families will keep all the of money, but it’s rare. Monks then bless the union and the couple will sit at the feet of their parents and grandparents and exchange vows.

The bride will bow down to the lap of the groom to show her submission to him. This part of the ceremony always seems to get a good laugh from the crowd as they know who the real boss is. They will then be bound together in linked flower head wreaths with a string connecting them to signify their union. Guests will then be invited to approach the couple to bless them by pouring holy water over their hands out of a shell.

After morning festivities are completed, it’s time for the reception and for you to get out your wallet. Rather than giving wedding gifts, guests are supposed to give cash, which really makes a lot of sense, who needs four gravy boats and a one year subscription to the decorative pillow club? There is a box set up at the entrance to the reception where you can drop your money with a note. Your Thai friends can advise you on how much you should be offering based on your relationship to the couple, your financial standing, etc. But don’t fret, Thai people get that foreigners don’t fully understand this process so if you give the wrong amount, they are forgiving.

The photo after party's

The bride will do a costume change into a full white wedding dress for this part of the wedding. There is a receiving line where you can take photos with the couple before lunch/ dinner. Find a seat and feast! Don’t be totally surprised if you are in a three-piece suit or cocktail dress sitting next to a guy in an Angry Birds T-shirt, shorts and crocs; not everyone adheres to the theme, the locals are just there for some free food and booze. Sometimes there will be entertainment, but there is always food and lots of it. Not a fan of Thai or Chinese hotel cuisine, but you see the big 3-tiered wedding cake waiting to be cut? Now is the time to panic, that cake is fake. There is a small piece of real cake in the back for the bride and groom to cut and eat, but no cake for you. You may be eating Sangsom and rice for dinner if you don’t like what’s being served.

An emcee will present the couple up on a stage and they will cut the cake, pour Champagne down a tower of glasses and throw the bouquet all in one swoop. I have to admit, it’s kind of weird for an American to go to a Thai wedding and see all of our customs done so wrong, but everyone is having fun so whatever.

Don’t expect any kisses when you tap your spoon against a glass or for the groom to go hunting up the bride’s wedding dress for her garter. Thai weddings are still fairly conservative and any public display of affection in front of granny, or anyone for that matter, is frowned upon. You’ll see the groom put his lips to the bride’s cheek and sniff.

Wedding -photo with concept

It’s a Thai kiss. I was really confused the first time my Thai boyfriend did this to me. What the heck is going on here…?  If bottles of Thai whisky aren’t set up on every table for self-service, you can expect waiters to keep it flowing. But just as you finish eating and the party gets started, it’s time to go home. There is no father daughter dance, no crying maid of honour, no best man telling stories of his buddy’s stupidest college moments, but don’t worry, there are usually at least a few crazy drunk uncles roaming around with bottle in hand. Find those guys if you want to make a night of it. Otherwise, that’s it. Game over, time to go home. Enjoy your first Thai wedding! And always remember the theme…

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