Holidays update

My folks e-mailed to remind me that as a child Halloween was my favorite holiday. Thais are generally very superstitious, and the idea of a holiday mocking ghosts would never fly here. Especially in the touristy areas there is usually at least a token effort to celebrate the western holidays, but as I thought, there wasn't even a glimmer of Halloween.

But coincidentally, the Thai holiday "Loy Katong" fell on October 31 this year. Historically Loy Katong was about thanking water for all the abuse it takes, pollution, wells, etc... The Thais make elaborate little boats out of a slice of a banana tree trunk and then decorate it with flowers and banana tree leaves.

In the evening, (preferably midnight), you light a candle and incense in the little boat, put in a few coins, say a prayer and then sit it adrift as an offering of thanks.

That's the history, but these days Loy Katong has evolved into Thai Valentine's day. Couples set their boats adrift together. If the boats float away together it means you will be a couple in your next life as well, but if they stray apart the romance probably isn't meant to be.

We had a hard time finding a good launching site and then I had a hard time getting my candle to stay lit, but we eventually got our boats (called katongs) launched. My candle blazed and my katong just managed to clear the tail of a long tail boat. Tuk's katong got caught up in an eddy which brought it closer to the boat where some kids grabbed her katong and pillaged it looking for coins before setting it adrift again. Hmmm.

Here in Krabi Loy Katong is also used as the "official" start of the high tourist season, so there was a massive festival, sort of the western equivalent of a state fair. Dancing, beauty pageants, rides, food, etc... It was fun, not quite Halloween, but fun.

Christmas is celebrated here but it's not a major holiday as Thais exchange gifts on New Years Day instead. Christmas Eve we went to a party for all the dive shop staff in town and Christmas day we had the traditional turkey dinner, but that was the sum of our festivities. Both of us had been working very hard and our presents for each other hadn't arrived.
New Years
We had big plans to be out living on the dive boat for New Year's Eve, but the plans changed at the last moment and we ended up just doing to obvious champagne on the beach thing. I had to work in the morning on New Year's day so it was all a bit restrained.
10 Jan 2002
I've got lots to write about now, but updates have been a bit thin because I've been working like mad and studying Thai with most of my free time. We were worried here that the season would be bad, but it actually seems to be going ok. The current theory is that all the instability in the world is good for Thai tourism. There may be less people traveling, but those who are traveling are more likely to come to Thailand than some of the surrounding countries...
1 Mar 2002
Tuk and I break up.

This isn't the right place to say all that much, but basically after two years of sorting through all the language and culture issues, we finally reached the inexorable conclusion that we are both two pretty ok people who just weren't meant to be a couple.

7 Apr 2002
An old friend is visiting my from America. We'll spend one week in Krabi, one week in Chiang-Mai (for Songkran), and one week in Laos, my last of the Indochine countries.

I'll write this up more later.

1 May 2002
I've finally reached an agreement where by I'll stay in Thailand for at least another year and manage the Dive Shop.

The downturn in the states has devastated my finances and I'm close to broke, so it's time to rejoin the ranks of the working stiff. Well, sort of...

I've lived the last several months in a lot of uncertainty, not really having any idea what lay ahead more than a day or two. Now I know I'll be here in Ao-Nang for at least another year, and I can settle in a bit.

4 May 2002
A full three years on the road.

I get asked a lot if I have any regrets, if I miss work, or the so called "intellectual stimulation" of life in the western world. Umm, nope, not for a minute. I can honestly say in the last three years there has not been a single instant that I wished I was sitting behind a desk somewhere. Occasionally I muse on what might have been, but really, no regrets at all.

I also get asked a lot if this experience has changed me. The answer is obviously yes, but in what way is a much more difficult to say. I certainly feel like my perspectives have been broadened, but that's almost a given. I've become more patient with many things, but then far less so with others. I've learned a language, a feat I never quite managed in the past, but have found that just to be the first step in understanding a culture.

It's a pleasant exercise to muse on how different I might be if I'd taken other paths, but really I'm quite content with where I landed, no matter how I got here.

24 May 2002
My 36th birthday. A bit of celebrating, but really nothing more than the usual pup crawl. Who wants to celebrate being 36?

30 Mar 2003

Siri and I

Siri and I at our wedding

Siri and I first met in August of 2001, when I was staffing an Instructor Development Course in Pattaya Thailand. We've been friends ever since and in March of 2002, we started a long distance relationship (Pattaya and Ao Nang are about 12 hours apart by bus).

We speak Thai at home, and under the burden of rising phone bills I finally got serious about learning to read and write Thai so that we could switch to email.

October 2002, we moved together to Patong, Phuket, to give our relationship a real try, and things have been great ever since. We are very happy together.

February 2003, her father was ill, and she returned to her family home in Chonburi (near Bangkok) to help with his care. Her birthday is the day before Valentine's day, and as her father was better and out of the hospital I decided to go up and visit her there.

On her birthday She introduced me to her family and we had a party at their home. Although my Thai vocabulary is reasonably good, my accent is terrible, and it often takes people a while to get used to it. I was very nervous, and worried that I wouldn't be able to talk to them at all, but everything went well. We communicated easily, and they genuinely seemed to like me.

Her family has lived in the same home for 35 years, and it's the sort of neighborhood were the small children have never seen a real live Westerner before, so the random white guy who could eat spicy food was quite a spectacle.

We spent Valentine's day in Pattaya where we first met. In the morning, while walking along the beach where we'd had our first kiss, we had a long talk about our possible futures and the issues involved. Later that afternoon, back in our hotel room, I gave her the engagement ring I'd bought for her and asked her to marry me.

In an astounding display of judgment run amiss, she said yes, and we began planning our future together.

We were married March 30th at her family home in Chonburi Thailand. It was a small wedding, with a traditional Thai ceremony, and the traditional whisky blow out bash that follows.

"It must be time," says my best man, Robert, "a truckful of monks just pulled up." Oddly, I don't remember anything in the program about a truckful of monks, but sure enough, 5 minutes later they come for us, and we are off on a cross-cultural wedding adventure.

I wanted a traditional Thai ceremony, (what other sort would you have in Thailand?), but after days of explaining, I still have only the vaguest notion of the rituals, and only the meagerest grasp of the symbolism. Luckily, this is Thailand and just playing along is always a fine plan.

Playing along...
Waiing as the monks chant
It turns out the monks are here to bless the house. Furniture has been banished to the back room, and blue drapes hung, lending a suitably monastic atmosphere. Siri and I light joss sticks and then assume the Wai (traditional Thai greeting) position in front of the monks as they begin to chant in Sanskrit.

A ball of string is unwound between the monks and they each take it between their waiing hands and continue the chanting. The string thus blessed will be used later in the actual marriage ceremony.

After a fair bit of chanting the head monk gestures at me, and I eventually work out that I'm to lift a basin of water, then place it back down. Five minutes later, more gesturing and I'm to light another candle. This one is balanced on two joss sticks to drip wax into the basin.

Monk brunch.

When not busy keeping me in the game the head monk is directing traffic, keeping care that the fans don't put the candles out, and generally running the show. The other monks are chanting, but that leaves time enough for nose scratching, and the occasional poke or wisecrack to a neighbor.

Incense burning, candles dripping, monks chanting, bride and groom waiing, there is a sacred, spiritual hum in the room, but with none of the solemnity of a Western wedding and I don't feel at all uncomfortable with my understudy performance as groom.

In fact, especially by wedding standards, we are having fun. No one is afraid to laugh or ask questions, and Siri's family is happy to guide us through the rituals.

The chanting completed Siri and I serve the monks food. We are handed dish after dish, and together, while kneeling, we place them on a cloth to be pulled onto the monks pad. No problem until we get to the boiling volcano pots of tom yum soup. I may not be an expert on the culture, but it's a fair guess that setting the monks on fire would not be an auspicious start to our union.

Blessing the dead pickup

It seems like an incredible amount of food, and sure enough the monks really only sample the dishes and soon an early morning feast is underway in the wedding tent outside.

When the monks are sated Siri and I are called back in for a final round of kneeling and chanting. The head monk takes up the basin of water and flicks it over us, then assembled monks before moving outside and blessing everything from Siri's parents to the disabled pickup truck that occupies a position of prominence in the center of the wedding tent.

At this point I'm actually a little bit confused, so far none of this has been according to the program I dutifully memorized, and I'm not actually sure whether I'm married or not. A quick check gets a lot of laughter and the answer, no, we are not married, just blessed, and there is an intermission before the final ceremony.

A bit of a break is in order, while the monks arrived at 7am, Siri got up at 3am to have her hair done, and we didn't get to bed until just after midnight, so blessed or not we are both a bit weary.

Bribing my way through the gates.

The main ceremony begins with a parade. Following all the guests and led by two boys carrying towering palm fronds Robert and I are lead from one of the neighbor's house to Siri's family's house.

But oh, trouble! The entry is blocked! In a Thai wedding tradition, some of the neighborhood children block the way, holding gold chains to prevent my entry. In theory, I am supposed to bargain my way through these gates, but my bargaining skills must have been judged not up to the task, because Siri's sister has provided me pink envelopes that seem to do the trick.

Three times my passage is blocked, and three times the pink envelopes work their magic, until at the forth and final (I hope) gate, I'm quietly advised that two envelopes a child is more appropriate.

Inside their home, Siri is waiting for me, along with her family. At this point we needed to play a little loose with Thai traditions, because there is supposed to be a separate engagement ceremony and because my family wasn't able to make the journey from America, Siri's family had to play both roles.

An engagement offering was laid out containing everything from cookies to dead chickens and pork chops and after this was gathered away, I (re)gave Siri her engagement ring, and placed her wedding band on her finger. She then gave me my wedding band and I think at that point we were technically married (I think).

Two rings for Siri.
And one for me as well.

The dowry.

Except of course for the dreaded dowry. A bride price is an accepted part of Thai culture. It would have been very embarrassing for Siri's family and high inauspicious for our marriage if there wasn't a dowry. We'd talked about a few options, but in the end Siri chose to use her own money, 50,000B (US$1,150), that we gave in show only, her mother would returned it after the ceremony.

Siri's mom makes her getaway.

The laying out of the dowry and subsequent photographs was quite a production, and left me no doubt it was an essential part of the ceremony for her family. With the notes arranged for maximum effect, everyone made a wish for us (long life, many children, plenty of money), and sprinkled some seeds over the bills.

With the blessing complete Siri's mom gathered it all together and dashed off to stash it away. The bride price out of the way, we settled in to the last matrimonial rite, getting tied.

Siri is tied by her mom.

Using the string blessed by the monks, each of the guests came forward and tied a short length around our wrists. Each person would brush the string across the top of our wrists three times while offering a wish (invariably lots of money for me, and lots of children for Siri), then sweep the string under our wrists and tie it over the top. While one of our wrists was being tied anyone close enough would help support the arm.

Siri's mother, father and elder family members went first, but then it quickly broke down into a tieing free-for-all with everyone wanting the chance to add their wishes. My friend Robert, having traveled all the way from America for the wedding, was a big hit, and soon people were tieing him as well. Siri's mom's wish for him was a specific monetary figure that I'm fairly sure is less then what he pays a month in taxes, but the warmth we were welcomed with and the way we were shown through all the customs was really very touching and special.

With the tieing finished, I tried to leave the house only to discover one last Thai wedding tradition, it seems it is customary to nick the groom's and then hold them hostage for a small bribe, luckily I had a few pink envelopes left.

On paper[sic], the process didn't look so hard:

  1. Swear out an affidavit at the US Embassy
  2. Have it translated into Thai
  3. Bring the translation to the foreign ministry and have it legalized
  4. Take the whole works to a local government office (Ampur) and have the wedding registered
Wary of bureaucracies we allocated 3 days for this, Hah!

Step one went by with little fuss, although the affidavit I swore out was fairly bizarre. I promised I'd never been married before (fair enough), gave the addresses of two people in America who know me, my passport details, and my monthly salary!? Hmm, whatever, 1,200B (US$30) for the stamp.

Another 400B to get a single sheet with three paragraphs translated, and they didn't even get my name right. After living for two years in a town where no one could say my name properly I'm a bit fussy about how it's spelled in Thai, and gave her explicit instructions which we didn't realize until the following morning, she'd botched. Oh well, close enough. A full days effort, and the foreign ministry is way outside the city, so we give it a rest.

Bright and early the next morning we are wondering around the foreign ministry trying to figure out where to go and what to do. "Legalize" doesn't translate well into Thai especially as it doesn't have much of a meaning in English.

Three false tries (complete with queues and forms) later we seem to have finally have found the right window. A receipt for another 400B, and thank you very much we'll see you in two days. What? Can't we get it today, we are in a bit of a hurry as we marry tomorrow, can't we pay a rush fee? No, No, No, Mai chai, Nyet!

Rats. Oh well, we'll just have to register the marriage after the ceremony, another day down the tubes.

[two day interlude while we actually get married]

I have other business in Bangkok, so Siri goes off to the foreign ministry on her own to collect our paperwork, but of course there are problems. They don't like the translation of my first name and insist on having it changed to what in English would read "Ee-wairn" which I hate, but it seems like we don't have much choice. Only 200B for the new translation, and another day in the can as this time it seems that all of a sudden they can rush it. If I sprint over there we should be able to pick it up by 1:30 and still have time to get it registered at the local Ampur.

At the Ampur's office, the technocrat sends Siri for photocopies and begins to take down my details. Name: blah, blah, blah; address: blah, blah, blah; Date of birth: Blah Bl-- Oh what's this? (and a flurry of head scratching). As she tries to convert the date I've given her to the Thai/Buddhist calendar, something doesn't match up and it turns out that on the original form that we've now had, notarized, translated(twice), and legalized(twice), I've written that my date of birth is May 24, 1996, i.e.: Siri is marrying a seven year old.

In the panicky few minutes before Siri returns with the photocopies I run through my options, white out, cello, bribes? But no, the dragon is having none of it, and like a school boy I need to tell Siri that the dog ate our marriage license. Almost the shortest wedding in history.

We're superhero-style out of the Ampur and into a taxi and make the American embassy just before it clothes. I bolt through the security checkpoint mash my nose up against the bulletproof glass in consular affairs and beg, "Hello, I'm an idiot, can you help?"

A bit of scratching out, initialing, and a (free) new stamp from the embassy and we are back in the game for tomorrow.

The next day brings the familiar scene of Siri in the foreign ministry trying to legalize our now legal paperwork. But no, what has befallen our heroine now? Oh no, but yes! She must retranslate and relegalize, that will be another 400B and two days thank you very much!

At which point Siri blew a gasket and threw the standard farang (foreigner) temper tantrum, "Why is everyone here so stupid!? Why do you have to make everything so difficult!? We went to the American Embassy and this took 10 minutes, for once, can you just break down, do something sensible, and help!!?? Let me see your manager damn it!"

One temper tantrum and a 6-hour wait later Siri returns with our damp, spindled, notarized, stamped, legal, and legalized paperwork. Hurrah, tomorrow our protagonists might still win the day and rest in nuptial bliss.

Throughout all this, in the back of our minds has been the fact that we wanted to change Siri's last name on her ID card, and that can only be done at the Ampur where her "family book" is registered. So, with our kill-two-birds attitude we are up at 5am and at the Ampur in Chonburi by 8. Of course, the official we need doesn't show up until 9, but hey, it's Thailand.

While a queue of about 20 people accumulate behind us, the official-of-the-day proceeds to stare at us and fret. After frequent consultations with her co-workers it becomes apparent, at least to me, that she has no idea how to marry us. Several hours of fretting and paper shuffling later she writes out a long winded speech in Thai and then proceeds to read it to me only to stop half way, scratch it all out, and then start over again.

It seems to be the usual stuff, about promising to love and take care of each other with the usual Thai dose of concern over my monthly salary. I'm past the point of being worked up over it, and grab the pen and sign.

Armed with our freshly minted marriage certificate, it takes only another hour or two to change Siri's ID card and we are back in Bangkok by dark, tired, weary, eight days after we started, but now, Evan and Siriphorn Bigall.

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