Friday, January 18, 2008

A Seven-Pig Wedding in Surin

"Be prepared to eat a lot of pork," Jerry said, when he invited me to a four-day celebration of the marriage of his wife's son Paithoon in the province of Surin, a day's journey by train from Bangkok, where he and Lamyai have a home. I didn't know what to expect and neither, it turns out, did he. Lamyai's English is elliptical and her explanations can often raise more questions than provide answers. No one else in her extended family of nearly thirty in the small village of Nong Thekean speaks more than rudimentary English. So Jerry, his friend George, who has just retired after nine years as a lawyer in Cambodia where he worked on land and human rights issues, and I, gave up our needs to understand and control and settled in for an exciting tutorial in Khmer culture (Surin borders Cambodia, the ancestral home of Khmer people, but their influence travels far into Isan, the northeast provinces of Thailand).

Bom, Paithoon's betrothed, comes from another Khmer family in a village nearly an hour north of Nong Thekean. The festivities, which involved more than 300 people, took place at both locations. There were tents, tables and chairs, mats on the ground inside and out for the complex wedding rituals, and elaborate sound systems outside both homes. Outdoor kitchens, staffed by family and neighbors, served up delicious non-stop meals of rice, vegetables and -- you guessed it -- pork, washed down with sodas, beer and whiskey (more like rum, made from sugar cane). I saw at least two pigs at the bride's house on Saturday morning and Lamyai reported that seven pigs gave their lives for the party. I only saw one butchered (thankfully missing the coup de grace) and presume that the rest were killed far away from the party. The meat was then roasted, boiled, stir-fried and barbecued into a variety of spicy dishes. I particularly liked the knuckle but not the intestines (one boy blew up a section of it for an improvised soccer ball).

But the pigs were more than just tasty eating. Their heads played an important role in at least three of the rituals, in each case accompanied by candles, incense and a cornucopia of culinary gifts. However, in the absence of a detailed anthropological explanation of Khmer wedding rituals, the heads' function, beyond being a questionably attractive centerpiece, must remain a mystery. The business transaction of a "bride price" several months before the wedding, and the exchange of gifts and symbols at the bride's house on Saturday, before the wedding there on Tuesday morning, and afterwards at Jerry and Lamyai's house, lead me to believe that, as in all indigenous ceremonies, potlach, or the display and exchange of wealth, is at play here. One gift was a mystery box that included such prosaic items as lip balm. As the family of the bride opened it and went through its contents, there was much ohhhing and ahhhing as if each found object was priceless. I think the gesture in this case was more important than the choice of trinkets inside the box. Jerry said that his marriage to Lamyai seven years ago was much simpler, and shorter, and he suspects that rather than follow traditional rules, the ceremonies are improvised according to the creativity of the families and the ajahns, the village elders who conduct the rituals (there were two for Paithoon's wedding, one at each house). Missing at this wedding, for example, were Buddhist monks who chanted for Jerry and Lamyai.

After the meeting of the families on Saturday at the bride's house, and what I think was the bachelor's party on Monday night, the wedding began early Tuesday morning with a caravan of trucks carrying Lamyai's family back to the bride's house where the groom and his two best men processed under pink umbrellas from the parking area to a tent in the front yard. After more rituals and exchanges in the house, the bride and her young attendant emerged under blue umbrellas. The moment of lifting this disguise was strangely moving. It was followed by the presentation by the bride of a glass of whiskey and two cigarettes to distinguished participants (which included myself and George, the two farang guests). Before entering the house, the bride and groom each extended a foot to be washed on the doorstep. Inside, they were seated on a miniature bed with pillow, and the ajahn proceeded to intone an elaborate prayer (my interpretation) over the pair which included incense and sprinkled water. One particularly strange moment (the whole service, however, was strange to this westerner) occurred when he placed their hands over the the money and gold which was paid by the groom's family to, in effect, buy the bride. Always subject to intense negotiation, in this case the "bride price" was 100,000 baht in cash and 70,000 baht in gold, or a total of about $5,000. No doubt that large amount had something to do with the fact that the groom's step-father was a farang who had built his wife a large and expensive house. George wondered why in some cultures the dowry is paid by the groom and in others the bride. Wai Wai, one of Lamyai's sisters is living with a lovely man named Chat who was unable to pay the agreed-upon price. Face was lost all around by this failure.

The wedding ended with a ceremonial tying of string. Here I am tying a thousand-baht note on Paithoon's wrist with some string. The necessary inclusion of money was a surprise for which I was not well prepared. I also was expected to contribute to the marriage pot after drinking the ceremonial whiskey earlier. Tying string on someone brings good luck, chok dee. Note the strings on my left wrist applied the night before by village woman (the yellow cumin rubbed off on my clothes). At the conclusion of the wedding, everyone in the room reached out to touch the married couple. Then yellow string blessed by the ajahn was passed around and all had a chance to wish the newlyweds good fortune in a very material way. The gifts of money included contributions to the cost of the wedding party at Jerry and Lamyai's house later that day. Lamyai's brother collected nearly a third of the party's estimated $3,000 cost (big ticket items included the pigs and booze).

There was yet another ritual held back at the groom's house that included a different ajahn, a gentle man with the palsy, more incense and sprinkled water, and another pig's head (or am I now just seeing them in my imagination?). Then the bride and groom distributed gifts -- bottles of beer, candles, and towels (a couple with the Spiderman imprint -- to family and villagers who helped with the preparations. Other gifts included silk sarongs, futons and pillows (one with a strange inscription in English that read: "The maple leaf is refined and styie in good taste...." (sic). Everyone seemed to get something, even the farang (for whom pork and copious quantities of beer were certainly gift enough). Finally, when the chants were concluded, the incense snuffed and the gifts distributed, the partying began.

Huge speakers big enough for Woodstuck propelled Isan folk music (mor lam and luk thung) and Thai pop tunes over the countryside (beginning as early as 4:45 am). An occasional hip hop tune would enter the mix, causing Jerry to grimace. During breaks in the recorded music, Paithoon and his friends played gentle ballads on a guitar. I was asked to sing the words to "Hotel California" and failed the test. While much beer and whiskey was consumed by the revelers, it seemed to have little effect on the quiet and gentle behavior of the Thai guests who seemed more interested in eating than in dancing and raising hell. The only drunk seemed to be an old man named Maitree, seen here with Jerry, a distant relative of indeterminate age, who had once been a championship muay Thai boxer for the police force. Now he carries on conversations that only he can understand, although he insisted on being front and center at all of the wedding events (Lamyai's sister Muapan had to drag him away from one involving only the immediate family). At the bride's house there was a man sleeping off t0o much beer in a pile of hay, and it was explained that every family in Surin has one such character.

The week in Surin gave George the opportunity to deprogram and recover from important but very stressful work in Cambodia where he went to court under the aegis of a German NGO to defend the poor and the powerless from a very corrupt government. It's a wonder that he survived without being killed for his efforts, Jerry said. George struggled with nightmares most nights and during the day while walking in the countryside said that he found himself on the lookout for land mines, common 50 miles to the south but not in peaceful Thailand (at least north of Surat Thani). During our walks in the country we saw women and men cutting sugar cane, villagers gathering firewood and herding cattle, and everywhere there were young eucalyptus trees edging the rice paddies. These trees have become the new fall-back crop. And the day before the wedding celebration began and the day after, we had an opportunity to relax and enjoy the country where Jerry greets the rural scene daily from a second floor balcony. From there we watched the cows go out in the morning and return in the evening, saw chickens and their chicks scratching food out of the dry remains of the rice harvest (one day a hawk kept them on their guard), and watched the many small children of Lamyai's two sisters and brother (who live on the compound) play on the new driveway installed since my last visit four years ago. Jerry, George and I discussed the problems of the world over coffee, tea and beer, our diminishing interest in the U.S., and, in passing, religion. George is a cradle Catholic who went to Catholic schools, but left his religion behind years ago (though his work for social justice would thrill my left religious friends). Jerry has no love for organized religion. I tried to remember my insights in Shantivanam but they seemed irrelevant here. What was I thinking in the shadow of India? Who was that masked man?

Jerry and Lamyai met in the bars of Bangkok. The eldest of nine children, she wanted to become a rice farmer like her father, but he told her it was no work for a woman. Now that he is dead, she has become the matriarch of a large extended family (and Jerry, by marriage, Papa the Patriarch) and the CEO of a large agricultural operation. She has two sugar cane fields and recently planted corn and peanuts at one end. She raises catfish from fingerlings and they thrive in several ponds. Besides the ubiquitous chickens underfoot, she raises frogs that live in a large walled compound to protect them from cats and snakes and has built for them pools and "condominiums" made out of old tires. Since my last tour of the farm, Lamyai has purchased cattle which now forage in the fields each day along with the cows of her siblings. There are new fences with barbed wire protecting her property. Tuk-tick, a young man from Ubon with dyed red hair, is her second in command. Jerry says she buys magazines on agriculture and livestock and the yard around the house is immaculately gardened and filled with new and unusual plants. Four puppies and three or four older dogs, unwanted strays in the neighborhood that she adopted, play or sleep underfoot. With all this to manage, Lamyai spends less time at their apartment in Bangkok. Local government officials gave every household in the village two large cement vats to raise fish along with free bags of food and so far only Lamyai has turned hers into productive aquariums (photo above). Everywhere we saw them unused or turned into trash receptacles. In some cases they became swimming pools for small children, like Michael and Helen shown here. The twins are the children of Pen and Graham, a retired butcher from England forced to leave the country when his disability pension (he cut off a finger) fell through because of his move to Thailand. Unable to support her children without help from their distant father, their mother, like many women in this small village, has chosen to return to work in a bar, this time in Rayong south of Bangkok.

It was a wonderful week, although I will abstain from pork for a while. And though I'm happy to be back in Bangkok, the memory of peacefully sipping beer on the balcony in Surin with Jerry and George, listening to the yelps of kids and puppies below, keeps me sane amidst the hurly burly of Sukhumvit Soi 4. George is off to Vietnam next week on the first leg of a globe-trotting adventure that will hopefully clear his head of the fear of stepping on a land mine. I've learned that marriage can be an expensive proposition in Thailand and, given my dwindling resources, is probably out of reach. But I was welcomed home with dozens of roses that my friend bought at the flower market this morning. And her smile stoked the fires of my hope.

Below is my wedding photo of the family:

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