Two of our most defining experiences in Laos were the two traditional weddings we got to attend. Never before had we had the chance to get to know a foreign culture and their customs in such a closely immediate and authentic way. We greatly anticipated this day as we had heard such exciting stories from the previous teams who had been invited to weddings as well (read Anika’s and Silja’s article here).
As the invitations for Mr Keovilayphone’s (electrician at the Lao-German Technical College) wedding party had been written in Lao, our Laotian teacher-students at the LGTC told us about and explained the upcoming events and a few days later we sat in Mr Khamsavay’s (one of our teacher-students and Deputy Director of the LGTC) van together with Ms Dalavone, Ms Ba, and Ms Soununthalee (also our teacher-students). It was the first day for us to actually wear the traditional Sinhs that Ket (another teacher-student) had sewn for us, and we were very proud to “inaugurate” them at such a special event.
On our way through the center of Vientane our teacher-student-friends explained to us what a typical Lao wedding looked like and did not get tired of answering all our questions. Not only we two Germans were interested in the others’ tradition – a bride dressed completely in white throwing a bouquet of flowers behind her back awakened the interest of our Lao friends, too.
When we arrived at the venue, the Baci ceremony was in its final phase – only closest family and friends take part in it. Nevertheless, we still got the chance to tie one of the wristbands around the bride’s and groom’s wrists and wish them all the best for their life together.
After having had a few pictures taken of us with our Lao teacher-students the wedding party started. Accompanied by the typical loud Lao songs – at this point we could already sing along to some of the lines – the wedding guests sat at their tables and enjoyed the buffet. As usual, it included sticky rice, noodle soup, different meats and vegetables. Then, an entertainer started the program with some jokes we did not understand and then went over to a tradition we were told was typical: The Lao wedding kiss. First it is announced, then everybody counts down together and the couple exchanges a kiss on each other’s cheeks – definitely a special promise since open physical expression of affection is something you normally never get to see in public. This was also the introduction for the wedding dance, for which we were specifically summoned through the microphone. We experienced it to be typical for women to dance by themselves, first, and then to be asked for a dance by the men afterwards.
With our second wedding invitation, the one of Mr Sichan (teacher-student in our Beginners class), we were lucky in a different way since we got to take part in the traditional wedding march as well as in the whole official Baci ceremony. As our tandem-teacher-friend Ms Ba and her husband Noy – who was the photographer at the party – were so kind as to take us to the venue we were amongst the first guests and hence could witness the complete procedure. Particularly the groom’s walk to the bride’s family’s house (hae keuy) is a memory we enjoy thinking back to a lot. Together with his family and friends and accompanied by musical instruments the groom made his way to the house, singing, drinking, and cheering along the way.
Once arrived at the entrance the groom had to ask the bride’s relatives for permission to enter. It was only granted after he answered some questions and drank some glasses of Lao Whiskey or Beerlao. Typical questions are “what are you here for?” or “what did you bring with you?” Now that the groom was in the bride’s house it was time for the Baci ceremony which of course included the traditional pha khoun (marigold pyramid out of banana leaves) with a lot of food and gifts under it.
We got to see every single step of the ritualized procedure such as throwing rice up in the air (and on every participant), the bridal couple feeding each other an egg and the tying of white strings around the wrists of the bride and the groom. Luckily for us, Ba managed to translate some of what the master of ceremony chanted and even though we only understood a fraction of the process we enjoyed it very much anyway. We learned that the rice symbolizes prosperity and the egg stands for fertility. After the subsequent procedure of somma (in which the couple asks their elder relatives for forgiveness and thanks them for everything) it was then time for the couple to sit on their bed and have their photos taken together with their guests (including us!).
This was the end of the official procedures and now the wedding party started – the traditional dances, a Lao buffet and loud music being a part of it again.
For a proper Lao ceremony amongst the newly established Lao middle-class and well-to-do, inviting foreigners seems to be part of a new etiquette, even if the bridal couple is not personally acquainted with them. The list of guests is huge anyway, and each guest is expected to help pay towards the expense of the ceremony by handing over a pre-prepared envelope with money inside. Traditional Lao weddings held in this way are very expensive, and from a Western perspective one would not be able to guess how a couple normally lives in their quotidian life just by how they celebrated their wedding ceremony.
Another observation from a Western perspective: Divorce is frowned upon but also occurs in Laos, albeit rarely. It means the husband and wife have to then live with their parents again if they cannot afford a living on their own.
For us it was a big honor to be part of two authentic Lao celebrations. It is something you cannot easily access when visiting a foreign country and the two of us will always be happy to think back to these experiences. Particularly the omnipresent, loud Lao music and the memories of an authentic Baci ceremony will stay in our heads for a very long time.
Text by A. Reiling & S. Schulz
Photos and videos by Ba’s husband Mr Noy and A.Reiling