Buddhist marriage in Thailand
Thailand, being the socially complex and richly traditional country that it is, would be shamed if weddings here were anything but complex and richly traditional. Gone are the simple days when a man could sneak into a woman’s room at night and in the morning announce in a loud voice to the household that they were now married. Two types of marriage are recognized by most Thai people, civil and traditional/pseudo-religious, dowries are given to the women’s families not the men’s, and the party usually starts first thing in the morning so guests can sleep it off in the afternoon. Despite heavy doses of tradition, fun and confusion reign at Thai weddings!
As marriage leads to babies, so does marriage spring forth from engagements, which are also a part of Thai tradition. Rather than an engagement or promise ring typical in the Western world, Thai couples are betrothed in a thong mun ceremony by which a potential groom makes his vow to wed his sweetheart with an offer of gold, usually 2 baht in weight (a baht weighing 15.2 g). In practice, parents of the bride and groom would meet even before this ceremony to discuss the fitness of the couple and to start with dowry and wedding plans, ad in fact in modern times this formal engagement is often skipped with couples simply asking for their parents’ blessings.
With divorce rates rising across Asia, and more money flowing through Thai pockets, many couples now opt for prenups which are binding by Thai law and can be used to spell out rights and ownership in case of divorce. It’s just like lawyers to spoil the romance! Though they are still uncommon in the general population, prenups are fast becoming a new tradition for Thai-foreigner couples, most likely due to concerns about imbalance in economic resources and the difficulties of language. However, a Buddhist marriage is not a legal marriage in Thailand and prenuptial agreements are only used for the legal registration, which is the legal marriage. (See our other article).
Traditional / Civil Marriage
To confuse matters altogether, there are 2 types of marriage in Thailand and only one is legally binding, the other being socially enforced. The state requires couples to register or long thabian in order to have their marriages recognized by the Thai courts, and this is particularly important when it comes to finances and custody of children. Registration can be done through a very simple process by simply bringing the appropriate paperwork to the local district office (Amphoe or Khet in BKK) and having an officer draw up a marriage certificate. These civil marriages are respected internationally and may even be enough for the couple’s local community to recognize their union.
However, in every part of the world marriage is also a traditional act within the couple’s community which affords them a certain social status and acceptance in-line with that community’s values. Thus in Thailand it’s perfectly ordinary to have a traditional wedding ceremony in conjunction with a civil marriage, or even simply in place of the legal act.
Interestingly, same-sex marriage is widely accepted in Thailand and traditional ceremonies are somewhat common, though such unions are not legally recognized. Another quirk is that monks are not allowed to be married but many events in a man’s life may lead him to take the robe for a short period, such as the death of a parent, atonement for sins, or to fulfill promises to spirits. In such cases, a man’s marriage is technically seen as dissolved by his ordination and many Thai couples would indeed choose to re-marry, albeit in a tiny ceremony, once the man has returned to the lay world. This does not affect the legal standing of the marriage, however. Confusing!
The rest of this article will deal with the traditional Thai wedding - we’ll leave the civil unions to the bureaucrats!
Preparations for weddings in Thailand are in some ways similar to those in the rest of the globe. Who to invite, what food to prepare, times, locations, and the other standard questions unite couples worldwide. However, there are some unique differences for Thais, the most obvious of which being a trip to fortune teller, or maw doo, to determine the most auspicious (lucky) date for the ceremony. Generally couples will decide to marry and then ask for dates within a few months, so that things get over and done with quickly.
Another oddity is wedding photography, with studios currently cropping up like weeds across the country. Wedding pictures are nothing new, but the modern thing to do is to pose in full wedding costume for portraits well in advance of the actual day. These pictures are then usually on display on invitations and at the wedding hall, just like movie posters advertising hot features coming soon. Portraits generally run between $3000-5000 US, so it’s even an idea to buy yourself a nice camera and a few online Photoshop tutorials!
Dowry is perhaps the biggest part of preparation, for the groom at least, is never taken lightly. The amount is decided on by the couple’s parents, and is considered both a valuation of the woman’s worth and the man’s commitment to the marriage. This can be as little as 20,000THB in a poor family up to 100 million THB for the uber-rich! These days, the middle class seem to hit upon roughly 200,00THB which may be given as cash or gold (usually as jewellery) or any combination thereof. The justification for this tradition is that the dowry is a token of appreciation to the bride’s family for raising her from a child, though this likely stems from a past where working sons were their parents’ retirement plans, while daughters had little other way to thank and support their parents. In modern times, it’s becoming very common for the bride’s family to keep a piece of gold jewellery and return the rest of the dowry to the young couple to help them start off their married life.
Finally, costume, one of the highlights of the Thai wedding. Thai bridal dresses usually range from white to gold and are beautifully flattering 1-shoulder dresses down to the ankle. The groom will usually wear a lightly embroidered Thai-style jacket and trousers matching the bride’s colour, and the best part is that the outfits are generally rented at the same time from the same shop! The ever-practical and hardly nostalgic Thais have realized that you’re never going to wear the costume again, not even if you end up trying marriage for the second time around, and have tossed out the “dress in a box in the attic that you’ll never again fit into” blues!
The Standard Traditional Thai Wedding
Traditional Thai weddings follow a general pattern that we’ll try to outline here, but it also seems that each and every village does things a little bit differently, ensuring that you won’t get bored with your first dozen or so ceremonies!
Get Up Early to Feed the Monks
Bride and groom to be will make merit by feeding a lavish meal to monks on the morning of their wedding day. The bride will usually have been up for hours having her make-up and hair done, while the groom usually rolls out of bed slightly hung-over and into his suit, then ends up playing the main role in feeding the monks as women are not able to touch monks or hand things to them directly. Male relatives also help with setting out the meal. Monks are invited in odd numbers, usually not less than 3 and not more than 9. Before they eat, the monks with the help of a male village elder will pray and chant, then offer blessings to the couple. Symbols of beauty are also given by the monks, including designs drawn on the couple’s foreheads with white paste, flower garlands draped around their necks, and crowns of white cotton string placed on their heads. Following the blessings, the monks eat their meal in silence, bringing merit to the couple for their donation. Monks also receive money in envelopes (as they’re not supposed to touch money directly) as thanks for their role.
Here Comes the Groom
Traditionally, Thai weddings take place at the bride’s family home. Whether or not she still lives with mom and dad, this represents the family and place she comes from while the groom’s family essentially comes to take her away to a new life. Today, more and more Thais especially in cities are choosing to have their weddings at hotels for their good prices, convenience and organization. Even in the case of the hotel though, the hall is given over at first to the bride’s family, while the groom’s clan has to parade in.
And parade in they do! The kabun mak or betel nut procession is one of the most fun parts of the wedding ceremony, as the groom is danced (sometimes carried on shoulders or even on the back of an elephant!) to the bride’s locale by his friends and family. The procession includes drummers and wailers (Oh-e-oh-e-oh-e-oh-e-ohhhhhhhhhh! Whew!), and possibly a whole band. Family and friends carry presents of fruit, candy, liquor, and always banana trees and sugar cane cuttings to be planted at the couple’s new home. In the past, fancy betel nut processing sets were the centerpiece gifts, giving the procession its common name. Be warned, the procession can take some time if participants are having fun – Thais often call this party train “walking forward 2 steps and back 3”!
When he arrives at the threshold to the bride’s family home, the groom will meet his bride’s family members holding ceremonial thin chains to bar his path but will buy his way past with envelopes of money (usually 100 baht) tucked into his jacket. Depending on local traditions there may be a lot of bribing to do for the determined groom.
Once inside the bride’s home, the gifts are arranged in front of the bride’s family and all assemble for the confusion to begin.
The Actual Ceremony
We say confusion because no 2 weddings ever seem to be the same, and the only person who seems to know what to do and in what order is the male elder who is invited in to run the show. The bride and groom also each have a family member to be their helpers, and these are told to scurry this way and that to help the couple through an array of Buddhist prayers, spirit-appeasing animistic rites, bowing and scraping to parents and grandparents, and more confusing activities. This part usually sees the couple kneeling for up to 30 minutes in front of parents and elders who may be seated on the floor or on chairs.
The part that everyone watches carefully though is the presentation of the dowry, sin sot, which the groom pays to the bride’s family. This is laid out nicely with a fan of stacks of cash and velvety bags of gold jewellery. The bride’s mother makes big show of accepting the dowry and then carrying it away hunching under such a heavy burden.
Blessings are given and respects paid, and somewhere along the way the couple become married, though no one seems to know when exactly!
Into the Bedroom!
If the wedding takes place at the bride’s home, a ceremonial bridal chamber is usually set up and decorated, and towards the end of the ceremony the couple is ushered in to lay down on the bed and receive advice from older women on how husbands and wives should behave in the union. Nothing too racy though! The couple is made to lay down and close their eyes (the man first, while the woman is supposed to stay up later caring for the household) while money is hidden throughout the bed, in coins up to one 1000-baht bill. When instructed to open their eyes, the couple races to collect the money and the partner who finds the biggest bill is apt to be the one who will hold the purse strings in the years to come.
And the entire ceremonial part of the wedding ends with gifts and thanks to guests, especially elders, for making joining in the festivities.
Example of a Buddhist ceremony found on Youtube.
The typical Thai reception starts from the we hours of the morning and will last through the ceremony and onwards into the afternoon. Lately a separate evening reception has become more common, but it’s more usual to have guests show up around 8am and plunk themselves down at tables under the house and in the yard and begin to drink whisky and beer. To connect these guests to the ceremony, which is usually attended by family and close friends, several extra activities are performed. Speeches are usually given to the full audience post-ceremony, guests are invited to tie lucky cotton strings around the couple’s wrists or else pour water over their hands while they wai and offer them words of blessing (usually the couple’s cotton string crowns are tied together during this part to symbolize their bond), and the couple will travel from table to table to greet guests and have their photos taken together.
Lots of food and karaoke are the characteristic party closers, and guests will tend to drift off home in the mid-afternoon.
The rest of the day involves clearing up, but the married couple is allowed to sneak off to enjoy each other’s company and to pass out.
As a Guest - Your Presence, Appearance, and Presents
The best way to learn about Thai weddings is of course to attend one, and if your own isn’t imminent, consider taking up the invitations that you’ll likely receive in abundance, especially for the October-May dry season.
In fact it’s poor form to turn down an invitation unless you really have a good excuse, like out of town business. This doesn’t mean that you have to go for very long however. Even if you pop in and show your face, this counts as having attended. Otherwise you can stay for a longer time but you can stay with the partying, eating, and drinking guests and don’t have to sit through the ceremonial parts if you’re not keen.
As a guest, you’re expected not to outshine the bride and groom, and what you wear is determined by where the wedding is. Hotels usually mean you have to dress up a bit, while at a home wedding you can get away with jeans and a clean shirt. Older guests still wear their finest, usually Thai silk shirts for men and dress suits for women, plus gold jewellery.
It’s normal to bring a present to a wedding anywhere in the world, but in Thailand most guests these days will choose to sai song, or put money into an envelope for the new couple. In small towns neighbours will toss in 20-100THB while more ‘high-so’ guests, especially at hotel weddings, will give 500-1000THB. This is such a common practice that most weddings include a large, heart-shaped paper box to slip the envelopes into and the presents table is usually a wasteland.
And just in case being entertained, wined, and dined isn’t enough for you, guests are given a small thank you present, a souvenir when they leave. These are normally small and useless collectables to be kept in a showcase memorial to all those good times.
So that’s the Thai wedding in a nutshell! Unless you’re a spurned ex-, these weddings are joyous occasions full of revelry and fun, with just enough ceremony to remind everyone of the importance of the bond being created. Wish your friends happy and healthy lives together, or try a marriage yourself, but just be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into!
- Also information about Buddhist marriage here