Tuesday afternoon we were in town all day shopping. When we arrived back home at 5.00 pm, waiting for me an email from Tara from TAEC- Luang Prabang : "Wedding in Lanten village in Luang Namtha on Friday, do you want to come and photograph it?"
It was tuesday evening. LN is at least 48 hr travel away. I thought about it for a couple of hours and discussed it with my wife Dorothy. We had been planning something else that week. But this wedding we waited for for at least two years if not more. Lanten weddings usually don't give much notice. So I decided to go. Managed to get a flight next morning from Bangkok to Luang Prabang No direct flights at that moment to Luang Namtha.
Thursday morning early we left Luang Prabang in a rented pick-up truck (The road is too bad for anything else) for the 7-8 hr drive to Luang Namtha. Got there in time to get to the wedding village around 3.30 in the afternoon. Met with three different people to try and get a timetable for next day's wedding.
My usual main contact, Mr LaoLee, the senior Tao priest in the village, was away in MuangLong. I had been there before with him, he's got a daughter married to a local man there. It was full moon, maybe he was attending some other ceremony. In his absence, his place was taken by his stepbrother Khammuan, whom I knew from an expedition last year around NY to record an ordination in another village.
He gave us an estimated timeline about the next day. Seven people would set off early morning from the groom's village, three women and four men, representing the groom, his family and his village. The groom himself would not come. On arrival, estimated sometime late morning, they would be received, some rituals would be performed, followed by a meal, some more minor rituals, and lots of singing (and drinking?) between the parties and between the women and men. Next morning, after breakfast and some more ritual, they would depart with the bride to the village of the groom, where the remainder of the wedding would take place.
Next, we interviewed the father of the bride. ('We' means Keuay, a research assistant at TAEC, of Khmu descent, and Leela, a young Lanten man who had earlier spent a month's internship at TAEC to be trained in his role as cultural contact person for TAEC in Ban Nam Lue, and myself as photographer).
Apart from keeping the organisation informed of any events in the village that may be of interest to TAEC, Leela also acted as language interpreter in the interviews. Keuay being Khmu, speaks Khmu, Lao and pretty good English. Lanten people usually have little or no English at all, some Lao, but sometimes only little, and of course live in their own Lanten language. Leela translated some of the interview from Lanten into Lao for Keuay and me, then sometiems Keuay would check with me and fill in the gaps I'd missed in the Lao. During this brief trip I ended up speaking and hearing very little English, and I think it benefitted my Lao.
Father of the bride gave a slightly different timeline and sequence of events from Khammuan, which also differed slightly from Leela's version. You get used to that, reality will even be more different.
Based on that info, we decided to forego the ceremony at the grooms village, in the middle of that same night, prior to the departure of the grooms party. The actual time of this ceremony was defined as 'before the chicken barks" which was Keuay's version of "before the cock crows". But when I asked what hour that would be, I found that, like in the Bible, the cock crows three times, once around 1.00 AM, once around 3-3 AM, once just before dawn. Our three informants differed in opinion which cock crowing would define the ritual time. To make sure we covered it, we'd have to arrive before midnight at that village (at our estimate an hour by car away, in reality almost two hours), and wait all night. Keuay had been very carsick during our trip from LP to Ln, and was hesitant. The 'middle of the night ceremony' had been described by all informants as 'minor' I envisaged a scene of one or two men doing some praying, over a table with an oil lamp, some offerings, and some ritual texts, maybe burning a few papers with script, a scene I have photographed numerous times.
On the balance, we decided to conserve our strength, and wait until morning.
I wasn't entirely sure how far the other village was, and what the arrival time of the grooms part would be. I suggested getting back to Ban Nam Lue at 11.00 AM. We slept in LuangNamtha town.
Next morning at 8.00. Keuay phoned me and said he'd been told by Leela that the party of 7 had left their village at 6.00 AM, and might be arriving as early a 9.00 AM.
So we agreed we'd go there a.s.a.p..
Arrived at the village at 9.30 AM. sat down at Khammuan's shop, where I learned that the party was travelling by Tektek, a Chinese produced farm tractor with tray at the back, which usually travels at max 15kM/hr,. The distance from Their village to BNL I now had narrowed down as at least 70 Km, so i knew they wouldn't arrive until earliest 11.00 AM
Waiting, sitting. Photographing a few kids and the very beautiful 20 year old daughter of khammuan and her baby. Village life. Sore bottom due to sitting too long.
Upstairs, in the house of the bride's family, the women were putting the final touch to all she was bringing with her to her marriage. A number of bolts of cloth, cotton, handwoven, were unfolded, examined and counted. Khammuan was writing down everthing on a large piece of red paper the lsit also included her silver ornaments, which were carefully weighed on a small set of scales, then the weight noted. Also on the list, as i found later when a Chinese script reading person saw that photograph, was "1 Mobile Phone".
Keuay interviewed her father.
Some young men in the kitchen area, cutting up meat, preparing a fresh blood dish from the pig that had just been slaughtered.
Interview with the bride. Shy looking, looked to me 17, age 20. She confirmed it was an arranged marriage, but said he'd met her future husband a few times, he was good looking, same age as her and seemed a very kind man. She liked him. I liked Keuay's style of interview, he seemed to be able to put her at ease, in spite of this alien falang snapping pictures of her. I like some of the pix, show her as she was. Pity about the beerlao crate in the background.
Around 12.00 or 1.00 we get offered lunch. Lunch is soup with vegetables and pigskin boiled, no meat, only skin and fat, a raw pigblood dish, rice and wet lettuce leaves. I don't eat raw pig blood dishes (potential source of serious disease) and the lettuce leaves would have been washed in contaminated water, no also NOGO. So I eat rice and a bit of the broth and vegetables in the soup. Over the next two days, the food will only improve marginally. I now understand why Bill laughed when I suggested recording Lanten recipes for the cookbook.
Then, about 2.00 PM someone received a phonecall (Thank God, Buddha or whoever is the Tao deity to thank) for Mobile phones, until two years ago unknown to ever be used by Lanten people.
The Tektek had broken down, still in Udomxai province, at least 50 Km away from us.
After some debate, we were asked if we'd be prepared to use our pick-up truck to go and collect them. Of course, we agreed. It took us lightly less then an hour to locate the farmtractor. They had just started moving again.
I was alone with our driver and two brothers of the bride, neither spoke one word of english. The groom's party was surprised to see us. The brothers didn't make a very good job of explaining what our purpose was. The grooms party didn't really grasp why they might abandon their own transport for this truck with falang on board.
So in the end I jumped into the conversation, hoping they'd understand my Lao. I simply explained that if they'd continued on their own, they'd arrive at the earliest at 7 or 8 at night, after 14 hours on the road, IF their transport didn't break down again. If they'd join us, they'd arrive by 3.30 PM, probably allowing the wedding to take place that day.
After some discussion, they agree to shift to our vehicle. That included shifting the live pig, trussed up in the back of the Tektek, who wasn't happy (premonition of his/her coming demise), and all their bags. One of the youngest women looked at me with suspicion. Over the next two days, I photographed her many times, in the end, I suspect she started acting to the camera. In some photos, she comes across as a dreamlike character from a 18th century english movie, partly veiled, somewhat haunted. (Barry Lyndon? The French Lieutenant's woman?)
She ended up being the main bridesmaid, and I have a slight suspicion she was an earlier bride who moved from Ban Nam Lue to the new village, and was foreseeing some of the potential heartpain the new bride was going to experience.
After everyone was settled in, it took us less then an hour to get back to Ban Nam Lue, and the seven guests got out of the car on the road outside the village, and said they'd make their own way from there on. We drove into the village, and the pig as unloaded and tied up the the yard of the Bride's family.
Then we settled under a tree at the entry of the village, to wait for the arrival of the groom's party.
And waited some more.
Around 4.00 someone arrived from the road and reported the party was having a bath in the river.
Around 4.30, someone else reported the party was taking a nap in a nearby field.
At ten to five, they were seen descending the path towards the river that ran between the village and the road.
The seven were greeted by local women under the tree. The three visiting women were given each a little rattan stool to sit on, then three celestial crowns (A traditional Lanten Headdress for women, worn on ceremonial occasions, made of silver) were unwrapped, and the local women proceeded to install them on the heads of the visitors. This process took over half an hour. Local children crowded around the women, and I had a hard time getting in to take some pictures. During that half hour, a small group of french tourists arrived. When they sam the commotion, they stopped and asked what was going on, and started to take pictures as well. I explained what was going on, and told them they could see the pics later on my website. Luckily, they didn't linger long.
During this all, the four men were standing, being interviewed by Keuy. He was so engrossed in this interview, he didn't noticed that the women were finished, and standing waiting for him to finish his interview before they could continue with the path to the wedding. I gently reminded him that the main occasion was a wedding, not an interview.
So then the whole party walked in procession further into the village. i had expected them to enter the house of the bride, but instead they walked on and went up the stairs into a different house, where they were welcomed, and offered a seat and some water.
During the wait, and the process that followed, I'd noticed a lot of young boys, with little bamboo pipes, the equivalent of a pea shooter, worked with a plunger like a bicycle pump. They were shooting little wet balls of fluff at each other (Made by chewing a fibrous fruit). During the procession into the village, they had started shooting these also at the visitors. To my amazement, they followed into the house and proceeded to furiuosly reload their pop guns and shoot more and more wet fluff at the visitors, covering their nice clean ceremonial clothing in messy fluff. To load them, they banged their popguns on the wooden floor, a dozen or so at the time, making a loud racket. The boys were anywhere between 6 and 12.
My thought was that this is not a very polite way to welcome one's honored guests, but somehow I suspected there was more to it. Keuy explained later: there is always a risk that visitors from afar carry with them evil spirits. This performance is to chase away these evil spirits.
It is now almost dark, taking photographs is going to be a problem. The local women now assist the visiting women again to take off their Celestial crowns.
Khammuan sends someone to the house where I am, telling me to come to the brides house, a small ceremony is being performed by a few elders.
A small table with offerings to the spirits, including the pig's head, lit by an oil lamp, the elders read an old script in Chinese characters. The 'dowry' list is carefully folded, wrapped in two layers of cloth, and then stored in a small basket made of strips of woven rattan.
Kammuan shows me 3 stick figures of women, dressed in a paper dress. On it he writes something, and my understanding is one represents the mother, one the daughter, and one the generations of ancestors. (Check!)
Each of the three 'dolls' is used in the ritual, then burnt, as message sent to the spirits.
By 7.30, the dinner is served for the women. I try and take a photograph, but the house is lit by one single tiny fluorescent bulb, 1/2 of a second handheld at 4000 ISO will guarantee me an ultra-grainy harsh image with lots of movement and little detail. The men are to eat after this, and only after that will the guests be received, and there will be a singsong and drinks. I am feeling weary after a long day, feel a bit of a fever coming on, calculate my chances at getting anymore usable photographs at zero, so i decide to go back and sleep.
Keuay stayed on for a few more hours, then later reports not much happened that would have been possible or worth it to photograph.
Next morning woken at 6.20, by Keuay, who says they will be having breakfast soon and leaving after that. We quickly drive out to the village, and find the house full of people eating breakfast. The visitors dressed up in their formal clothes, women wearing the crowns. But it must have been a cold night, because over their traditional dress, they are wearing warm modern padded jackets. After breakfast, everyone stands up, the men make three deep bows to each other, then make preparations to leave.
Before leaving the house, the visitors must consume many glasses of LaoLao, literally poured into them by the locals. Both men and women receives their share, and the floor receives the spillage. Then the bride emerges from the bedroom, together with her mother, who looks distressed. They move towards the door. Outside on the landing, the father of the bride, pointing her down the stairs. Once in the yard, she gets escorted by the bridesmaids, but then stopped by a family member. They point at me, and everyone comes back for a formal photo of family. Stiffly posing in a row, mum trying to hold back her tears.
Then they reach the gate, where the elder brother takes his sister on his back, and carries her into the village street, then continues carrying her downhill, until they reach the tree at the edge of the village. They are followed by the visitors in procession, looking happy and joking.
There, the women sit down again, and their crowns are removed and packed away.
After the tree, they continue downhill to the creek, cross the bridge, then uphill to the main road. At the road, people stand and mill around. Taking leave, I think something is exchanged , a gift between the parties. The bride and bridesmaid stand together, looking almost a bit forlorn, the bridesmaid striking her film pose again, looking slightly tragic. The guests look bit worse for wear because of that heavy dose of alcohol, then the car arrives and they climb in the back. there's some playful posturing going on, some joking. One of the guys in the grooms party is flirting with a local girl, suggesting she may want to come along for the journey, reaching out to her. She plays coy, gets encouraged by the bridesmaid, and pushed by her friend. In the end, she doesn't join them, and the bridesmaid gives me one of her wistful looks. Then we drive off.
The grooms village, Ban XXX, lies in Namor district, Udomxai province, about ten km from the main road over a winding, steep narrow and potholed road. When we arrive, the people in the rear climb out and the women quickly whisk off the bride to a house at the far end of the village. The biggest house (maybe the headman's house) is where the wedding will take place, but when we enter it, we find out they're in the middle of an ordination ceremony.
Consultations with the local elders reveal the ordination will be paused around midday, so the wedding can take place. In the meantime, we sit down in the shade and Keuy interviews the brother and the father of the groom. I photograph them and a few bystanders, which results in a rather striking portrait of an unidentified man, giving me a big smile, seemingly happy to be photographed.
Come 12.00, of course nothing happens, but around 1.30, we are invited inside for the wedding meal. The groom sits on the side, on a mat, head down. After a while, the 7 from the grooms party come into the house, with the bride.
Head down, during the entire following ceremony she doesn't raise her head once. (I was told that was to demonstrate her humility, but it did get in the way of photography!). I have only a few photos of her during the wedding where she looks into the camera, some stiffly posed family group shots, and a few before the wedding, during the interview with Keuy. The other exception was when she walked past me during the rounds of offering drinks to the guests around the table, she was looking down, and I called out "Hey Jao Sao, bung nee" (Hey, Bride, look here). She forgot her role of downcast humble, looked at me, small smile, then looked away again.
A documentary photographer shouldn't really interfere with the process they're documenting....
They enter the large, rather dark room, where a few dozen men are sitting around a long table, eating and drinking. They make one round of the room, turn their backs to us for a few minutes while one of the men in the group performs a small ceremony which I interpret as a communication with the spirits (Western observers might call it praying), then the bride (Head covered in a Yao Mun scarf, almost veiled) and one bridesmaid disappear behind a curtain into a sleeping area, out of sight.
Eventually, she comes out again, hand in hand with the bridesmaid. They walk towards one end of the room, near the door outside, and she sits down on a stool, one of the other three women in the escort group takes off her Celestial Crown, and they start putting it on the bride. This of course takes about 15 minutes. She is asked to take off her slippers, and put on the traditional embroidered mocassins.
Meanwhile, the groom sits, head down, a cup of laolao, an oil lamp and some incense in front of him.
When the bride's headdress is complete, the bridesmaid helps her get up, and, holding hands, they approach the groom and sit down next to him. The father of the bride sits in front of them and starts attaching a baci (Cotton string) around the wrist of his son, then around the wrists of the bride. he is followed by the other people in the room. Many will either attach a folded up banknote under the string they put on, or on the table in front.
About halfway during this process, one of the elders grabs my hand, puts some strings in it and pushes me to the front. So I take my turn in tying the strings, and wishing them many children and grandchildren, big harvest, long life, health, and love from one another. The last seemed unexpected since it elicits a giggle from the two girls. I know this was an arranged marriage, but i'd like to think love is not unthinkable.
One of the elders has opened the rattan box prepared by Khammuan, unfolded the sheet of paper, and starts to read out the long list of the items the bride has brought with her for the marriage.
Then somewhat to my surprise, the bride and groom get up and start doing what i've seen in ordinary Lao weddings, the take a bottle of whiskey or laolao, two glasses, and offer the first to the father for a toast. Then they slowly make their way around the table. Most recipients will add a bit of money to the tray. The bridesmaid follows with a small plastic bucket, to collect any leftovers .
As they progress around the table, it appears that after this nothing more will happen then a continuation of eating and drinking. Our team has another seven hours drive ahead, so we take our leave and get into the car. then a messengers from the groom family comes and asks us to wait a moment, we need to take some formal photographs of the family. Stiffly posed, as usual.
We get back to Luang Prabang around ten at night.