Monday, December 8, 2008

Thai Wedding

Riem and I got into her truck and headed off to Kevin Johnson’s wedding. Kevin was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand two groups (Group 117) before me and after fours years of dating his Thai girlfriend they decided to consecrate their relationship through marriage in the Isaan province of Sakornnakorn. While Kevin was a PCV I didn’t actually have the pleasure of personally meeting him. Every volunteer from his group, who were in their final months of service, were invited to our auspicious swearing in given that is was Peace Corps Thailand’s 45th Anniversary and a Thai princess would also be in attendance. Kevin is a hard person not to remember. I remember seeing him in this grand ballroom with his brown suit and his long, curly, blond hair totally out of control. That image was indelibly etched in my mind that when I saw that same hair nearly eight months later in the check-in counter at the Taipei airport I was certain he was a fellow PCV. It was December and I was heading back to the US for a visit and apparently Kevin was as well. He flew China Air from Bangkok to Taipei and I flew from Chiang Mai and we both ran into each other there. I went up to him and said, “hey you’re a 117 PCV.” Being of the same PCV nature the only logical thing to do at that point was to go have some tasty Taiwanese beers. After all that is what PCVs do well, drink beer. We had several of the overpriced cans of bubbly, boarded the plane, and thoroughly enjoyed the next eleven hours in the comfort of coach class. Now not only did we have the same flight back to the States, on my way back I ran into him again at the SFO airport and he was on my same flight once again. What are the chances!

Now we were on the first leg of our adventure to Sakornnakorn, the Thai capital of dog eaters. When I say “dog eater” I literally mean dog eater. Sakornnakorn is known as the Thai province that has a particular taste for man’s best friend. Well I had a somewhat different notion of good food and since we would be passing through the provincial capital I was adamant that we would find one of the ubiquitous Thai Pizza Companies. I had had enough fermented fish laced food for at least a couple days and I wanted some excellently unhealthy Western goodness. We got somewhat lost in the city but my fears were assuaged when we asked directions and were assured that this bustling Thai city did indeed have a Pizza Company. As we approached the shopping mall I saw the Pizza Company and my mouth started watering, but as we drew nearer my heart sank. Apparently due to lack of demand for their famous seafood and corn pizza, this branch of Pizza Company had closed its doors. I was devastated, but one must persevere in trying times. Riem had to do some shopping, I know hard to imagine, but soon we were on our way out of town to the small village that Goi called home and where the wedding would take place.

We arrived at Goi’s family’s house in the early afternoon and the neighborhood was quite similar to Riem’s family’s neighborhood. The same Isaan culture abounded and I think Riem felt right at home. For the auspicious occasion Goi’s family’s house had been newly remodeled with new tile floors and two new bathrooms strategically situated right next to each other. It was interesting how they decided to mix Western and Thai into the construction of those bathrooms. One had a fancy new Western style toilet with the very Thai garbage can with small buckets that when put together constitutes a shower. The other had a fancy hot water shower along with a Thai style squat toilet. I guess you can’t have your fermented fish and eat it too! The upstairs was the traditional wooden style and every available floor space was reserved for all the PCVs to occupy during their Thai-American cultural encounter.

I was one of the first volunteers to show up but soon the house was overwhelmed with them. Before the sun set, PCVs from four groups accounting for nearly six years of American volunteer experience in Thailand had occupied the grounds. The way Thai culture had rubbed off on them was immediately apparent. Of course there was the reverent “wai’ing,” departing with your shoes at the door without a second thought, and the deftness of the way the sticky rice was consumed, but there was something that I think is somewhat more telling of the acculturation. As soon as a new PCV arrived they were greeted with a glass of whiskey and soda. Furthermore, to accompany the whiskey and soda there was soon a card game in full swing. I don’t need hands or fingers to count the number of times I have ever seen an American drinking 100 Pipers Scotch whiskey with soda water, but it one of the aspects of Thailand that I think I will never forget. Kind of like the smell of spilled Bud Light beer during undergraduate.

While my PCV friends and I were deeply involved in our Pasoey Dos card game and our whiskey drinking a Thai woman entered the scene with some pretty tasty looking pieces of grilled meat. She was eagerly greeted by Kevin and in a hush manner the meat was placed on the table next to Riem and I and the mysterious woman exited the scene. I’m not sure if Riem overheard Kevin and the mystery woman’s conversation or has an innate ability to recognize a companion but as soon as that meat hit the table Riem proclaimed that the mystery meat was in fact dog. Furthermore, I was forbidden from it. Riem is a dog lover and there was no way that she was going to let me eat one of the animals she loves most. Also, Riem, being from the province next door, informed me that the people from Sakornnakorn would actually come to her province to buy the stray and diseased dogs which would eventually end up as tasty appetizers. After hearing that I was quite happy I wasn’t curiously munching away on the fried Fido like many of my friends. After Lassie had been thoroughly consumed, copious amounts of soda and whiskey had been drunk, and many Thai baht traded hands in cards, everyone decided to call it a night.

Given that we were camped out in the middle house, we volunteers awoke with the Thais. I don’t think I have explained the Thai sleeping patters too thoroughly so I will give it a shot. Actually I will just describe how they wake. They wake with the roosters. If you are an American reading this you may be nostalgically thinking that it would be amazing to get awoken everyday at the cusp of daylight by a crowing rooster instead of traffic or a buzzing alarm. The only thing is that roosters don’t conform to that popular myth of crowing at sunrise. I don’t know if roosters in Thailand have some imbalance but they crow usually at least two or three hours before the sun comes up. Some just randomly crow all day and all night. I have grown to hate roosters. If the roosters don’t wake you up the local community speaker at 6:00 a.m. blasting the day’s news or just screechy Thai music sure will. I have been very fortunate in Thailand because my Karen people very rarely use the community speaker, usually only to announce daily mass in the evening, and I have become quite adept at sleeping right through the rooster wake up calls. Needless to say the wait for a chance at entering the bathroom were quite long once everyone was awake.

After everyone had prepared themselves properly the groom’s party gathered a few blocks away from house for the procession which marked the official start of the wedding. These Thai processions always include a traditional Thai band seated in the back of a truck with giant speakers. The twangy Thai music accompanies dancing and hoopla and inevitably there are a few Thai men that have found time to get drunk and really add to the experience although it is only 9:00 a.m. The group approached Goi’s house and Kevin then had to participate in the Thai marriage custom of passing through gates. Two women hold a string and a third asks many questions and tells the groom that in order to see his bride he must pay his dues. These dues are actual money. It has become a fun custom where before money is given many things are offered such as the random farang or bottles of whiskey. Finally money is offered in sufficient quantity and the groom is allowed to pass. He has to do this several more times until he finally reaches his bride. Once in the house everyone gathers around the village elders and the rest of the ceremony is played out. Lots of chanting is done and pictures are taken. A tray full of cash is presented to the bride’s family as a dowry. This dowry can be up to several million baht. In many weddings between foreigners and Thais the dowry is only for show and after everyone in the village has seen it is quietly returned to the new couple. Finally everyone attending the wedding ties a white string around both the bride and groom’s wrist while wishing them well in their new lives. This whole ceremony is over before noon and the people attending the ceremony are then promptly fed. It isn’t until later that evening that the whole village is invited to the fancy dinner and music and dancing.

As the night approached the oversized stage was erected and the tables were set. The tables were in a dirt lot adorned with Thai flowers, spotless table cloths, and of course copious amounts of booze. In fact, each table had its own bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label. Kevin’s wedding party’s table was overflowing with Absinth, Tequila, American whiskey, and vodka and before the night was over it had all disappeared. At around seven in the evening we passed through the line where we took photos with the bride and groom and then took our places at a table. Plates of Thai food arrived at our table for hours and the whiskey flowed freely. The boisterous Peace Corps volunteers and other Americans were complemented by the Thai chatter. When everyone was thoroughly full and quite liquored up the music began. To my surprise, only American music was being played. With reckless abandon the Americans stormed the stage and were dancing away like they hadn’t heard Gun N Roses for two years. We soon noticed that the Thais were quickly disappearing. Apparently rural Thais aren’t all that in to Gun N Roses, or Western music in general for that matter. Someone asked Kevin if some traditional Thai wedding music could be played to get the Thais out in their full chicken dancing grandeur, but Kevin firmly refused. I think the American music was the one thing he was not budging on after conceding to all the other Thai wedding traditions. I have to say the Americans were not completely disappointed and danced until late into the night.

The following day everyone groggily woke and made their respective destinations. Riem and I had a car full of people that we took to several various destinations and then headed back to her house in Galasin. We spent one last night there and then made our marathon trip back to Chiang Mai.