Mom once told me that in the olden days, couples in Laos would be engaged in the morning and married by nightfall. If you consider this in light of arranged marriages, which were also more common back then, when does a gal ever have time to get cold feet? It’s either really smart or really terrifying.
How times have changed. My brother has been with his wife 9 years, and they just got married last weekend. I am not opposed to delaying marriage but I hope someone is still around who knows what they’re doing when the time comes. I wouldn’t attempt to plan any of this on my own.
What I love most is how our little Lao community comes together to help with preparations. Even family members who are slightly estranged show up to contribute. Things get tricky with bicultural weddings; traditions have to be adjusted. The ceremony is usually held at the bride’s home but since the bride was American and had an entire other wedding to plan, the responsibility of the Lao wedding obviously fell on my family’s side.
The outfits for the wedding ceremony were tailored in Laos under the direction of my godmother, who chose the fabrics. My sisters-in-law and the bride’s nieces all wore traditional sinh that belong to me, worn in previous weddings. Some minor alterations were needed, but the ladies all looked gorgeous.
Mom started making bakbeng almost a year ago and finished it the week of the wedding. It is an intricate ornament typically made with banana leaves. She constructed this version with brown parchment and green spray paint. It is adorned with small plastic flowers and woven threads for the blessing ceremony. On the day of the wedding, real flowers are added.
The paak kuan is built from bakbeng and becomes the centerpiece for the ceremony, which is why so much care is put into it. Fruits, boiled eggs, and kao tom are arranged around the paak kuan. These food items are shared after the ceremony, symbolizing unity and bringing luck to everyone who eats it.
In the time it took them to assemble the paak kuan, I only managed to finish hot glue-gunning the hearts that my SIL wanted in lieu of traditional flower boutonnières. It took me so long because I dipped into the wine supply and kept nodding off.
The parade is perhaps the most colorful event of a Lao wedding. It is the opposite of a processional in a traditional Western wedding. While the bride waits at the ceremony house, the groom and an entourage of all the village men march towards her, led by a male elder. Brother carries a sword, flowers, a burning candle, and envelopes of cash. He will need these to enter the bride’s home. While his best man holds an umbrella to protect him during his arduous journey, all the villagers make plenty of noise to announce his arrival.
At the first gate – the Silver Door – I stand with my younger cousin, blocking entry. An elder woman (Pa Boun) makes verbal exchanges with the elder man, negotiating the terms of marriage. Once Pa Boun is satisfied, she gives him a shot of Remy cognac. My brother pays some of the dowry to me and my cousin. Cha-ching!
He arrives at the second gate – the Golden Door – and must perform the same ritual for his bride’s older sister and her daughter. Then the bride’s younger sister washes his feet before he can finally enter.
Once inside the house, he can finally see his future wife. They are magnificent together in their matching gold and red outfits.
A priest presides over the marriage ceremony. He is not an ordained monk but a holy man. Earlier in the week, we received blessings at the temple; this is the extent of a monk’s involvement in weddings.
In the paak kuan are 2 sacrificial chickens, a juvenile hen and rooster. (I opted to miss the sacrifice ritual.) After the wedding ceremony, an elder pulls off the chicken heads to “read” the fine cartilage that is attached underneath. If the cartilage curves in a particular manner, this is an auspicious sign. My brother and his wife turn out to be a perfect match. (Side note: When someone has a blessing ceremony before traveling, the chicken head can determine whether or not one should cancel the trip.)
After the holy man completes the ceremony, guests are invited to tie blessed threads on the couple and wish them good luck.
Once the official business is over, the band (led by my very own cousin, Lao Britney Spears) starts up the party with their covers of famous Thai songs. The bride changes into her reception sinh, my brother into a casual outfit, and I follow the two of them around with a collection bowl while they pass out shots. The women carry out trays of food from the kitchen and arrange them on the buffet table: sticky rice, sliced bamboo and chicken in red curry, salads served with my mom’s special dressing, spicy jaew bong (dipping sauce), stir fried rice, vegetable lo mein, shrimp spring rolls, samosas, mom’s homemade sausages, gapoon, deer jerky… and more. For dessert, Pa Thom carved beautiful fruit sculptures, and there were also different flavored custards.
Most of the food was gone by the time I got around to eating, so I’m glad I ate extra helpings leading up to the wedding. As the party dwindled, we tucked into gummy bears and popcorn left over from the American wedding. They go surprisingly well with wine.
It’s times like these that I look around the Shire, seeing all the smiling faces of friends and new family as they partake in a ceremony they don’t fully understand, and I think to myself: where exactly am I? We celebrated that day in a place where the hearts and minds of vastly different generations came together and created a beautiful new world.