Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Thai wedding

Before I start writing this post I must warn the reader that I am not finding it easy to accurately explain the odd experiences of the day and I'm wishing that I was a better writer and had the words to describe what has been a profoundly odd yet strangely rewarding experience.

After the Tuk Tuk incident we received a text message from Patrick and Noi telling us they'd arrived in Bangkok and arranging to meet at their hotel. We were early and feeling a little out of place waiting in the lobby as the Amari Watergate is quite a plush place and we, after a couple of months on the road, are even scruffier than normal, if such a thing can be believed. Thankfully when we caught up with him Patrick was quite nonplussed by the poshness of the place, so it wasn't just us. It is a bit strange to think that Gemma worked with Patrick for a year, we lived in the same town and the first place we meet is continents away. Patrick seems like a really nice bloke and his wife Noi is lovely, just totally sweet. They asked us to come to their third wedding, having been married by registrar in Bangkok, again at a church wedding in the UK, and this to be a traditional rural Thai wedding in Noi's parent's village. We said, 'Yeah, sure, when is it?' and were surprised when they replied, 'Tomorrow, you can get a plane, Noi's mate has the details.' A few calls, a taxi journey and Internet session later and we were booked on PB Air's 09:00 flight to Buri Ram. The booking confirmation stressed obtaining a proper ticket at the airport 90 minutes before the flight and the Rough Guide told us to leave an hour to get their by taxi so we grudgingly set the alarm for 05:30.

The taxi only took about 20 minutes so we were at the airport super early, also it looked like we only had to be there 40 minutes before the flight to sort the tickets out. I was a little grumpy and tired but also quite looking forward to it. We weren't sure what time Patrick, his parents and Noi would arrive at Noi's village as they were driving up from Bangkok in a hire car. The flight was speedy, in a small jet which reminded of a smarties tube with wings. I had to crouch to walk through it to my seat. We took off and I was struck by how big Bangkok is. The seatbelt light was on for about 2 minutes after which, the aircraft still in a steep ascent, the hostesses rushed down the plane with sandwiches and coffee. They just about managed to get the rubbish cleared before the plane tilted the other way and the pilot announced our descent. Noi's mate was on the plane with us and we walked through to the arrivals hall with her to be met by Noi's big brother. Loaded up in a pick up with extended cab we drove off to Noi's village, about 35km from the town of Surin, in the area of Thailand called Isaan. The Rough Guide calls Isaan the least visited, most traditionally Thai and poorest area of the country. It was little surprise that we didn't see another farang (foreigner) on the drive, just Thais working the rice paddies or driving waterbuffalo along the road.

I'm guessing that not many farang visit Noi's village as we were the centre of attention from the moment we stepped out of the pick up. A very few of the people in the village knew a tiny bit of English, as well as Noi's mate knowing some. To be honest it was a hell of a lot more than our knowledge of Thai, which until that point consisted of Hello/Goodbye and Thank You. A lot of random grinning and shrugging of shoulders ensued, as well as children running away scared from us and most people simply staring. We broke out Gemma's little photo album fairly early on which proved to be a bit of an ice breaker. Despite being objects of curiosity we were treated really brilliantly. People kept bringing us beer, water, pillows and plates of fruit and a sticky rice thing wrapped in a banana leaf that by itself was absolutely vile, but when dipped in sugar rather nice. I resolved to learn at least a little more Thai and set about studying the Rough Guide's paltry language page. Mai Kao Jai - I don't understand, became an instant favourite.

We were separately approached by several of the older women and spoken to in Thai, so we were happy when we could at least say that we didn't understand, we were fine, how are you? They seemed pleased, their mouths, red stained and teeth missing presumably from chewing Betel Nut, were turned up into smiles all the time they spoke to us. I developed the habit of giving a Wai with everything I said, which I am sure is wrong, but I think amused everyone further. The Wai is the Thai bow or handshake equivalent, given by pressing the palms together in front of the face or chest and bowing the head. There are various variants depending on age and relationship of the people giving the Wai, but I don't understand those so I just kind of do it. It seemed to work.

Quite a lot of the afternoon was spent with a nice lady who knew a little English. With the aid of paper and pen, the Rough Guide and judicious use of the art of mime we set about teaching each other our respective languages. I fear that she was a much better student than either me or Gemma. During this process we realised how stupid English can be as a language. Explaining o'clock, quarter past, four thirty, etc was quite interesting.

Someone had called Noi to ask what we ate and suddenly we were summoned to a table. On it was rice, a veggie side dish of cabbage and tofu and two great big catfish that someone had been out especially to get for us. The table was in front of the window and I was facing it. As we began to eat, a row of spectators on plastic chairs began to form in front of us. Framed by the window with people taking turns to watch us I was taken by the idea that it must be just like being on TV. I'm certain most of the villagers took their turn on a chair at some point during the meal! I took the dishes back to the communal kitchen and was able to use my new Thai skills. I think they were happy when I told them I was full, that it was very delicious and thank you, my head bobbing in the Wai with each phrase.

Noi and Patrick's journey took longer than anyone expected and when they arrived we were sitting by the lake under a tree to keep cool. They were whipped off to get changed as soon as they arrived, the reason for the rush being that ghosts had been consulted and proclaimed that day as the only auspicious one for the wedding. Patricks wedding clothes were a delight, a pair of blue silk shorts and a white shirt that left him looking like a cross between Sinbad and a cruise ship waiter. Noi looked really lovely in her wedding outfit. The ceremony was performed in front of a pillar in the house, decorated with banana leaves, intricate banana leaf and flower arrangements, bowls of fruit and incense and, somewhat strangely, a pigs head, a sword and a rifle. The couple knelt on a mat in front of the pillar with the villagers and family seated behind them as various chants and actions were performed. In all honesty I didn't really have much clue what was going on but the people from the village seemed to be enjoying it. At one point people began to tie Orange string on Pat and Noi's wrists, before moving on to his parents and then Gemma and me. I think it was a blessing of some sort. A mix of emotion and, I think, pain from kneeling was creasing Patrick's face and I think he was glad to receive a final slap with a wet branch from the man officiating and be allowed to stand up.

There was the obligatory taking of photos afterwards, including one of Noi's cousins who is fascinated by white people and wanted several photos of her sitting next to Gemma and myself. I felt the cheesey smile setting on my face by the end of it. More food was served for the farangs, most of whom hadn't eaten as well as us, them having been cooped up in a car for 8 hours. The whole day had been completely bewildering and we hadn't thought about anything as sensible as where we might stay. Thankfully Patrick, deciding on air conditioned comfort rather than the marital bed, and his parents had booked rooms in a hotel in Surin. We bludged a lift back with them with a nearby storm lighting up the whole sky during the journey.

We booked into the hotel and got the room next to Patrick. The place was quite nice and cheaper than some much shabbier places we've stayed. As we were about to jump in the shower we got a text message from Patrick, inviting us to the restaurant. We went down for a drink and I'm glad we did. The surreal icing was put on the bizarre cake that had been the day as we and a grand total of 4 other hotel guests watched a pianist and a succession of extravagantly dressed Thai ladies belting out heavily accented classics. 'You are the wind beneath my wings...'

Like I wrote at the beginning of the post, I can't seem to find the words to describe quite how strange and yet utterly comfortable the whole experience was. The villagers are poor farmers, we were utter strangers without even a few words of their language, yet we were treated with amazing generosity and warmth. The curious stares of the people didn't bother me at all and I felt at home just drifting on the experiences of the day. It's affirmed to us that the Thai people are charming and lovely which is something we'd always heard, but not really seen anything of so far. I think the people genuinely liked us and our clumsy efforts to try and say a few understandable things to them. I'm sure this day will be one of the memories I look back on most fondly from this trip.

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