Blue smoke curls languidly above the huts as though from an opium pipe – until not long ago the preferred nightcap around these parts. Pigs squeal, spooked, catching a whiff on the wind not of poppy but fried pork. An odd little band – on oboe, drum, gong and cymbal – dins and whines its way between the huts of Khun Haeng village. And I am trying to read an invitation card written in curlicue Thai script.
A quick translation by my anthropologist friend, Chob, confirms that we are welcomed to a wedding. “This is a tom chin ca, the major wedding of the year for the village.” says Chob. “It’ll last three days.”
A marigold-robed monk drifts amid the teak houses of this northern Thailand hill town, but it’s still a pig slaughter morning. Here in Khun Haeng – population 336 – almost everyone is down at the communal pump, lathering and chattering, or sluicing pig intestines to form sausage skins. Gold-capped grins to remind the visitor of how important portable wealth is to this Yao, or Mien, hill tribe. Gossip has it that the groom’s family has paid 15 silver ingots in bride price – over 5.6 kilos.
Someone calls, “She’s here!” The bride, from a Yao clan 200 kilometres away, has arrived at the village. This serious, pretty 19-year old will now be installed in one of the most extraordinary head-dresses on earth. Attendants first coat her long hair with beeswax then pass it through a hole in a semicircular wooden board that sits atop her head. This “mortar board”, Chob assures me, is just the beginning.
A triangular wooden frame with sides almost a metre long is taped to her mortar board then draped with embroidered cloths. Next, her glossy black skirt and jacket are all but obscured by sashes, tassels and various wraps. Heirloom jewelry follows. Four necklaces, giant croissants of pure silver, are hung around her neck. This, we are told, is her bride price from the groom’s family.
The completed head-dress is now a prowed canopy obscuring the bride’s face. In all, it weighs three kilograms and she may not remove it for the next two days. Miss Saejow is helped to her feet and steps out demurely on her penultimate walk as a single woman.
The oboe and cymbals go into overdrive as the bridal procession enters the village centre. The drummer and the gong man struggle to keep up as the quartet weaves in and out of the crush of satin and boa-bedecked bridesmaids. Village men sit on benches below a shade tree while the mother-in-law-to-be serves them whisky, tea and cigarettes. The women stand in the sun and watch and wilt.
The bride progresses to a small bamboo hut where she will spend the whole night sitting up, for her head-dress must remain on. Meanwhile, all night a party roisters in the house of the groom’s family, although the man himself is nowhere to be seen. The oboist seems to have achieved astonishing feats of hyperventilation, playing non-stop for eight hours – until I spot substitute musicians rotating into the band.
Pork trotters, entrails and corn whisky. Sticky rice, cheroots and chatter. In the kitchen, huge pots on wood fires render a succession of pigs, chickens and sacks of rice into party fuel. We toast endlessly in Mekhong whisky shots. Yao guests have poured in from surrounding villages, the regal elegance of the women in their fine geometric embroidery contrasting with the nondescript Western clothing of the males.
“The Yao men gave up their traditional garments when they moved into the cash economy,” explains Chob. “When they go down to market, they feel uncomfortable among the lowland Thai people in such conspicuous clothing.”
I awake to dawn’s dysrhythmia of pigs, gongs and pipes. It strikes me that I should give the couple a gift. A battery clock within a framed portrait of the Thai Royal Family would be both practical and patriotic – and surely original. No plaster ducks from this guest. The regal clock-portrait is procured from the store in a not-too-distant village, is signed with my best wishes and delivered to the family.
After what certainly must have been a sleepless night, the bride – fully adorned in her tent-like carapace – emerges in procession to the groom’s house. Since dawn, the village medium has been explaining to the family ancestors that a new person is coming to live in the house. He blesses offerings of rice and wine, chants from Taoist texts, then decapitates a chicken. It weaves blind circles in the dust, the meanderings of which are interpreted as favorable. The bride mounts the stairs to cross the threshold of her new home. And still no groom in sight.
The party strikes up again. Food is served from sizzling, metre-wide woks full of all parts porcine. The band strays on. I retire to catch up on some sleep. There’s just so much whisky, tea and trotter that one can take before the sun hits the yard-arm.
Come nightfall, the celebration enters a new phase, focusing on the main room of the groom’s house. Children peer in at the windows, then crush in through the door, until there are over 100 people in the room. The floor struts crack, but props are rushed in. Cushions appear before the main table and the house altar.
“There he is!” announces Chob, pointing to a dazed looking youth in a blue business suit. “The bridegroom.”
“He doesn’t look too happy,” I comment.
“Nor would you. He’s got a very tiring night coming up,” Chob adds, without innuendo. “You’ll see.”
Attendants dress the groom in a beautiful blue silk Chinese gown, silver brocaded apron and red turban, plus various sashes and silver ornaments. At last, a man of Yao in his traditional livery. Guests of honour and wedding officials take their places at a long table adorned with plastic roses and fresh pork.
The bride emerges and the brand new couple stand together for the first time, resplendent in their tribal finery. They begin to kowtow towards the official table. For the groom, a single kowtow involves three bows from the waist and then, dropping to the cushions, three more from a kneeling position. The bride simply kneels once each time the groom drops to his knees. They rise and repeat the procedure several times.
“This is just the start,” says Chob. “Those first kowtows were to the ancestors. Next, there’s six to each of the four wedding officials, then six to each of the parents, and three to each of the dozen guests of honor. Then some more to the wedding officials.”
My rough estimate brings the groom’s total to almost 100 kowtows of six bows each. Six hundred bows! Instead of a night of connubial bliss, he’s in for one of non-stop, slo-mo step aerobics.
By dawn, even the eight musicians of the Khun Haeng ‘quartet’ have expired. The exhausted young couple concludes their final bows to the guests and officials, perhaps regretting that that so many had honored them. But the knot is tied, the boon conferred. The ceremony indeed has been a tom chin ca, a major wedding, and great honor has been accorded.
It’s then that I notice the wall behind the altar. Overnight, the wedding gifts have been displayed. Mounted upon the wall are no fewer than seven framed portraits of the Thai Royals, along with four battery-operated clocks. However, my offering is one of only three which combines both clock and portrait. Next time, I’ll give the plaster ducks.
©2014 John Borthwick. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.