Capturing a Traditional Lanna Buddhist Wedding in Thailand

Doa, the bride of our traditional Lanna Buddhist wedding. (Joe Grez/Sesame)

Doa, the bride of our traditional Lanna Buddhist wedding. (Joe Grez/Sesame)

Pai, Thailand – So when a once-in-a-lifetime experience falls in your lap, you take it. You have to take. Even if you are a mere observer to it, just the fact of witnessing it will bring a world of insight and perspective. When this once-in-a-lifetime experience is a traditional marriage of two people of a culture half way around the world that you are asked to photograph, you respond: “Where do I sign?” And when you sign up for the job, you may have some small apprehensions. For one, how personal and candid can you be with a family you met two weeks previous? Sure they are wonderful people, very welcoming, warm and attentive hosts to you as you stay in a room in their guesthouse. Their family is fun, full of jokes and smiling and laughing all the time. But really a wedding is a personal experience to the two being wed and their families. Where is your place in this whole story? Then the day comes and with it a rich tradition of beauty and grace, of pageantry and process, of joy and good will. You observe at first as discretely as possible as to respect this tradition. Then you see it’s beauty unfold like a flower in late April, and you can’t look away, nor can your camera. But you are still reserved as there are many other family members and friends that are also documenting the event. You need that encouragement to be forward and then…you get nudge in the back. “Pai, Pai!” (Go, Go!) you hear, and an Uncle pushes you into the main room of the ceremony in the guesthouse where you are staying. He motions to you with his hand shaped like holding a camera to “Take Picture!” And now you know everything is OK, and yes they welcome you and you belong.


The Lanna people of Northwest Thailand have a rich culture and history. If you explore any major search engine with the key words of “Lanna Culture” and click the images tab you find a colorful array of beautiful people and telling rituals. I find it easy to appreciate, even more so being fortunate enough to visit and spend time in this region. Of course with any culture a cornerstone ritual is the act of wedding. In the case of the Lanna Buddhist wedding tradition, a set of events unfold telling the story of the start of beautiful and (hopefully) long-lasting union between two people. Traditionally speaking, no specific wedding ceremony between two men nor two women exists that I know. I view this not as negative nor an insult to the TGBT community but rather a storied pageant of a beautiful culture. Perhaps in the future the ceremony will amend for such a union, but for now we have the celebration of union between a man and a women.

The Pai valley lies in the northeast of the Mae Hong Son region of Thailand. Although originally settled by the Shan (or what we now call Northern Burmese) in the 13th Century, the Lanna made their way to the valley in the 14th and 15th centuries soon battling with the Shan in 1481, overtaking them and the area. The valley quickly became inhibited by primarily Lanna people and with it came their traditions from Chiang Mai.

Since the Lanna are primarily Buddhist and before a wedding can take place (well one has to propose first!) the couple must speak with an elder monk to gain advise as to when to get married. This could be at any time the monk deems fit for the couple, so sometimes a wedding can take place at 3AM – how’s that for an all night party? Dao (our story’s bride) (ne Sanchaliew) and  Ouy (our groom) went to their elder monk and upon his meditation found that 8AM Saturday December 8th, 2012 (2555 Thai calendar) was their ideal time to wed. So the date was set. Then as the women know there is the planing. Staying traditional, the wedding was to take place at Dao’s house amongst both families and friends in the town.

With the date set next comes the “excitement” (for women) of planing the wedding. Ding and Doi (Dao’s mother and father) had prepped the entire week leading up to the event. A stage was rented and constructed for the evening entertainment as well as over 50 tables, hundreds of chairs and three tents set up on the back lawn beneath the large bamboo stalks. I’ve never seen bamboo so tall as a matter-of-fact, some 20m (60 ft.) high and providing nice shade from the sun bearing down in the late morning to early afternoon. And what would a wedding be without floral arrangements. A common floral piece known as the Bi See and made of banana leaves is found throughout the yard. The Bi see will make plenty of appearance as the ceremony progresses.

The big day arrives and the buzz is building. I’m up and about at 7AM to get a jump but find I’m the one behind. Figures, but quickly I become immersed in the thick of it. Dao has some of her friends and family outside of the house to take some initial photos. Ouy on the other hand is parading through out Pai announcing his intentions of marrying Dao. The followers quickly grown in number to over 100 to show their support. They include Ouy’s parents, family, friends, well wishers and of course a band (Gong Yewoh). As they proceed to Dao’s home, the family bears gifts. These including the Chan Ma (dowry) and plenty more Bi See used as an offering of good spirit.

Ouy, our story's groom leads his procession to take the hand of his bride. (Joe Grez/Sesame)

Ouy, our story’s groom leads his procession to take the hand of his bride. (Joe Grez/Sesame)

As Ouy leads his parade south and turns right into Doa’s family driveway. He is greeted by Dao’s cousin and good friend acting as bridesmaids holding a Bro To Reung or a “Silver Gate.” The Bro To Reung is the final obstacle for Ouy to cross to gain entrance to Dao’s home. Lanna legend has it that the Bro To Reung is suppose to be the most difficult challenge for the groom to complete. The bridesmaids request the groom to profess his love for their bride and family. Is is here that the groom proves his worthiness. As sometimes happened in centuries past, the groom was not allowed to pass for his unworthiness. On this day, Ouy has his charm working and his Chan Ma in order so he and his family and followers gain acceptance. The parade marches on to the tune of the band.

Ouy’s family and close friends are allowed in Dao’s house and the rest of the procession mingle outside and eventually start taking their seats. Inside the front room, the bride and groom sit opposite of each other. Bothe are donned in traditional Lanna clothing. Doa wears her hair up and her golden outfit is native to the Chan sub-group of Lanna. Ouy is wearing a classic white Lanna ensemble with a gold and green Sabai Sash over his left shoulder. The union is overseen by a chosen family couple whose marriage is viewed as strong, happy and lasting otherwise known as a Hung Ha. In this case it is Dao’s aunt and uncle. As typical in a Lanna Buddhist wedding, no monk oversees the ceremony. Generally in most Buddhist wedding ceremonies no monk is present to minister.

Dao and Ouy have prepared basic vows for the each other and read them. Ouy’s (as the groom) has to be a bit more convincing as per tradition, but by the look of his intent and Doa’s smile, it’s an easy sell. They exchange very simple gold bands and a modest yet timely kiss.

The Sai Sin tie the couple together in Lanna tradition. (Joe Grez/Sesame)

The Sai Sin tie the couple together in Lanna tradition. (Joe Grez/Sesame)

Then the time comes for the blessing of the union. Doa and Ouy sit side by side as to great all the well wishers of their marriage. This begins with Doa’s aunt. She anoints both of their foreheads with white chalk paste from ash. This represent and reminds the couple “What you say, sticks.” Next comes Doa’s (or the bride’s) parents Ding and Doi. They shower both with a Po Malai (necklace) and connect them with a Sia sin (Holy Thread). The parent’s Sia sin offering is worn on the head of the bride and groom crowning them (supposedly in good fortune). The rest of the family and friends follow by tying Sia sin around the bride’s and groom’s wrists. First family on both sides then anyone wanting to wish well on the union (including those not immediately in the room). Doa and Ouy prove to be quite charmed and blessed by their family and friends with many Sia Sins tying them together.

For all practical purposes the ceremony is now complete. However, Doa and Ouy honor a final tradition of their Lanna heritage. They are led by the Hung Ha to their new home where they are showered by money and Bi See in hopes of a good life and family. Typically, this is suppose to happen on the morning before the marriage where the couple “wakes up to their fortune.” But honoring the tradition in this order suited the couple better. They share the Bi See (bananas) and collect their gifts of Baht notes.

Not one, but two receptions are planned for the union. The wedding reception varies in Lanna Buddhist culture, but because of the time of this ceremony the Sanchaliew family feel it best to host people during the late morning and again in the evening where show girls (Sow Ram Wong) perform with a band and various singers sing (including Doa’s father Ding). During the late morning reception green curry, fried fish and rice are served with chili paste. Yes, it’s Arroy (delicious) and yes the chili paste is Pet (spicy). The day is long but most people take a break or return home before continuing on well into the night at the second reception.

So with the marriage complete and the partying go on, it is easy to get swept away in the charm. Especially when the people are so inviting. Yeah, being a wedding photographer can be a pretty good gig sometimes.

My sincerest appreciate goes out to the Sanchaliew family for welcoming me into their sacred event. And, for also helping me with this article. Their explanation of the stories behind the pageantry brought this story to life.

Joe Grez

Joe Grez

Joe Grzesik (JGrez) is still an artist developer trying to keep up with new technologies. Photography still has been one of his strongest passions. However, now his main focus has led him back to music where he teaches guitar, piano, saxophone and percussion privately. Music education can never be short changed.

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