MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE IN LAOS
Young people are relatively free to choose their partners but generally need their parents consent to get married. Young men and women often meet eligible partners at dances held during festivals, where they are free to sit and talk privately. Young people often marry cousins or someone from their own village. The law allows marriage under the age of 18 in "special and necessary cases," often cases of underage pregnancy, and a considerable percentage of women married before reaching the age of 18.
Marriage is traditionally established by elopement, living together, or a more elaborate marriage ritual among wealthier people. Polygyny is traditionally allowed but uncommon since the Communist government outlawed it shortly after coming to power in 1975. Further, having multiple wives generally was restricted to the elite because it required the ability to maintain a larger household. However, many men have mistresses.
Marriage occurs through a blend of traditional and modern practices. In earlier generations, marriages may have been arranged by the families, but at least since the 1960s, most couples usually have made their own choice, which is communicated to the parents. A bride-price is negotiated, which often defrays the expenses of the wedding. The wedding takes place at the home of the bride's family,
Divorce is frowned upon but may be initiated by either party. Divorce may be initiated by either party. If a couple encounters domestic difficulties, the two families usually address the problem first. If necessary, the village elders join the attempt to resolve the couple's differences and achieve a reconciliation. After a divorce, both husband and wife may return to their families of birth, unless either can make a living other than from farming. Children of divorce may remain with either parent. In the case of a spouse's death, the widow or widower may return to their natal household but more commonly maintain an independent household or remarry. The choice often hinges on the ages of children; if none are old enough to help in the fields, the family has a difficult time surviving without extra help. [Source: Library of Congress]
For the first few years of married life, the couple has traditionally lived with the wife's or the husband's family until her first child is about a year old. The couple may then establish their own home. There is often pressure on the youngest daughter to live with her parents and take care of them in old age. Traditionally, the couple lived with the parents of the bride until after the marriage of the next daughter (if any) or in some cases they move out earlier but the earliest is seven days after their wedding.
The groom helps with farming in the bride's family for several years until the couple feels they are economically ready to establish a separate household. Even then, they may continue to farm jointly with the older generation and either divide the harvest or eat from a common granary. A bride may sometimes move into her husband's household, but unexploded bombsrilocal residence is somewhat more common. Initial unexploded bombsrilocal residence combined with the sequential establishment of separate households by each older sibling frequently leaves the youngest daughter and her husband to care for the aged parents and ultimately to inherit the house. All the children divide lands and other valuables. [Source: Library of Congress]
A traditional Laos wedding is usually held at the bride’s family home. The wedding ceremony takes place can either be in the morning or afternoon. In the past it was always in the morning which was believed to be best time for a joyful celebration such as wedding ceremony to take place, whereas the afternoon is considered the time for sad ceremonies like cremations. However, with modern lifestyles convenience has become more important so the time doesn’t really matter any more. Generally, 10:00am and 4:00pm are usually considered the best times because guests are invited to have lunch or dinner after the official ceremony is finished. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]
The wedding process usually begins with a visit by the family of the prospective groom to the house of the family of the prospective bride for a discussion about village matters and the readiness of the couple for marriage. If the marriage is agreed upon, both families make contributions to the village of the bride based on their wealth. A bride price paid to the bride and her family is required. The price varies according to the wealth of the family and has traditionally consisted of gold and animals but these days is often cash.
A wedding in Laos begins with an engagement ceremony, which is held on a day deemed auspicious by an elder in the community called a Houana Satsanaphitee. He sets the day according to the time and day of birth of the bride and groom and the Lao Buddhist calendar. To become engaged the young man takes a khan ha to the bride's house and presents it to her parents. He does this to represent that he and his family are good people, and want to become part of their family. The length of the festivities surrounding a wedding are determined by the financial means of the families of the bride and groom. In general, Lao weddings last about a day and a half. [Source: Web of Cambodia. culture and society >>>]
An auspicious day for the wedding is arrived at by consulting a traditional horoscope. On that day the groom’s parents lead a procession to the bride house, accompanied by drums and songs, and featuring people carrying presents, food, bedding and offerings to the gods. When the procession arrives at the bride’s house the groom’s family is quizzed by friends of the bride’s family. They have to answer the questions wisely and present a bottle of alcohol and some money to gain admission to the house. Before the groom can enter he has be purified by ceremoniously being washed by a relative and adorned with banana leaves.
A Lao wedding is conducted by a Phone Khuane, an elder in the community who is knowledgeable about both Buddhism and pre-Buddhist traditional Lao rituals. A Phone Khuane may also be a Mo Phone, a lay person with special status in the Buddhist temple who can officiate at well-wishing ceremonies called Baci, interpret the Buddhist calendar, assist in healing and even tell fortunes. The Phone Khuane knows the correct order of events in the wedding ceremony, and recites verses of Buddhist scripture in pali, the language of Buddhism. >>>
Before the ceremony, the bride and groom stand in front of two floral displays in the largest room in the house and sit on a decorated rug, surrounded by family members, friends, Buddhist monks and local officials. The ceremony begins with the lighting of candles followed by guests passing around cotton threads and tying them around their wrists while priests read sacred passages. A priest ties strings around the newlyweds wrists while holding an egg, symbolizing fertility, and rice wrapped in a banana leaf, symbolizing prosperity. For good luck the couple wear the threads for a couple of weeks or until they fall off.
The ceremony ends with a blessing by a monk and the presentation of flowers and a candle by the couple to the guests. In the old days the couple was ushered into their bedchamber by a highly respected woman and slept on a bed covered by flowers. They were not supposed to cross the barrier for three days to show the strength of their character. On the forth day they visited the home of the groom and present presents of clothing to his parents.
Before the Wedding in Laos
Engagement is not that common in Laos. Some couples get engaged before their wedding while many others don't bother with the engagement at all. There are no set rules really, especially nowadays when life style of many Lao has changed. When both sides negotiate and agree on the bride-price and all other details then they set the wedding date.
Traditionally, the wedding date has to be on a good day in lunar calendar, so parents of either or both sides usually consult elders or senior ex-monks, who have good knowledge of Lao custom and tradition, before the wedding date is set. One thing most Lao knows is that the wedding is not supposed to take place during the three months khao phansa (Buddhist Lent, late July - late October).
In Laos culture, before a Lao wedding takes place, (after the proposal) a traditional procession call Sou Khor is arranged (an envoy of the boy sent to the girl to ask if her parents will allow the marriage). If her parents agree to let their daughter to marry the boy, a Kha Dong (bride-price) is negotiated as well as who pays for what at the wedding. This is usually the groom, but today often both parties share the expenses. The Sou Khor session takes place several days or even months before the wedding. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]
Today this procession has been slightly changed to suit modern lifestyles and sometimes the couple agrees on most of the details (including the bride-price) and they set the date to suit their busy lives. When it comes close to the wedding day, this sou khor procession is organised just for the sake of Lao custom or tradition. ==
The night before the Laos wedding takes place, an informal ceremony is held at the bride-to-be’s home, and sometimes the groom holds the same ceremony at his place as well. This is call an oun dong (wedding or marriage warming) and it only involves close friends and relatives who come to help with wedding preparations as well as to eat and drink. The things to prepare include pha khoun (handmade marigold pyramid made of banana leaves), food for the big day and the new couple’s bedroom. In this room tradition demands the bed must be made by the mother of the bride or an older female who has a good family (with a good husband and good children and who is not divorced, or a widow). ==
Wedding Clothes, Bride Price and Events Before the Wedding on the Wedding Day
The bride is dressed with a traditional Lao silk sinh (Lao skirt), and silk blouse, and has her hair tied up in a special way with gold decoration. This ensemble is finished off with a gold necklace, bracelets, earrings and a bell. The groom also gets dressed up usually with white or cream coloured silk shirt and a traditional silk salong (a pair of baggy pants). Sometimes grooms wear normal pants and suits as some find salongs uncomfortable. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]
Traditionally, on the wedding day a small baci (also spelt basi) or sou khuan (a spirit enhancing) ceremony is held concurrently in both the bride’s house and the groom’s prior to the formal wedding. Now many omit this custom, especially in urban areas where Lao customs and traditions are fading. ==
The wedding preparations start with the sou khor (bride-price negotiation) procession. The bride-price is usually money and gold, but it can be anything valuable. Traditionally this is asked by the bride's parents as a refund for the breast milk that has been fed to the bride since she was born (literally translated from Lao). How much? depends on the family social status of both sides. Nowadays many parents don't ask for anything so long that their daughter is happy. Once the small baci is finished, a convoy of the groom is sent ahead to give the bride-price to the bride’s parents. The bride-price could be gold or money.==
Wedding Day Processions in Laos
On the day set for the wedding by the community elder, the groom and his party parade to the bride's house to begin the sou khor (bride-price negotiation) procession. The convoy usually consists of few older men and women, who could be the groom’s parents and relatives who are good and know a lot about Lao customs and traditions. The leader of the convoy would politely say something like “we come with horses, buffaloes, cows, a pile of silver and gold to give to you in exchange for our son coming to live with you” or something similar. While this exchange is taking place the groom’s group is formed and waits somewhere nearby.[Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]
The groom leads the group, carrying a pair of flowers and a candle. Someone follows him and holds an umbrella over his head to shield him from the sun. The rest of the party carries gifts for the bride’s parents which can include jewelry, clothes and objects for the home. The gifts have been determined earlier, according to negotiations between the families of the bride and groom. [Source: Web of Cambodia. culture and society >>>]
When the procession is finished, the groom’s group is informed and they begin to walk to the bride’s home, playing musical instruments, singing and dancing along the way. Everybody is laughing, cheering and smiling in the most joyful way. The groom walks under an umbrella carried by his friend. This part of the Laos wedding is supposed to be really fun to join. This procession is called hae keuy. ==
The groom is met at the door of the bride's house by members of her family. They ask him a series of rhetorical questions, such as where did you come from? Who are you? Why have you come here? Have you come to be good to us, or do you mean us harm? The groom must politely answer all questions and show great respect to his prospective in-laws. Having done this, an upstanding family member, someone who has had a long and successful marriage and can thus act as a role model, comes over to him and brings him to his place by the bride and by two phakhuane. Phakhuane are used in sou khuane (well-wishing ceremonies also called baci) for a variety of occasions. In Laos, Phakhuane are made out of fresh banana leaves, cut and folded into a cone shape, and fresh flowers. Here in the U.S., where banana leaves are harder to come by, people substitute heavy-duty green garbage bags or florists foil, and use silk or plastic flowers. >>>
Pre-Wedding Rituals at the Bride’s House
When the groom’s procession arrives at the bride’s house, they are met by the bride's relatives where a silver door and a gold door are set up and closed. These doors are just lines of silver and gold bells stretched across the door way to prevent the groom entering before he is granted permission. The groom will be allowed to go inside only after he drinks with the bride’s relatives and pays them to open the doors and after their customary questions such as: “Where did you come from? What did you come here for? What did you bring with you?” etc. are answered. So… extensive bargaining, questioning and drinking takes place here which is another fun part of the Laos wedding. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]
The groom doesn’t have to answer the questions because the elder relatives will do all the talking and answering for him. The elders from both sides talk in a customary, polite and friendly way which doesn’t have to be real. All the groom has to do is to drink his way through and give some money to the door attendants. This is like an entry fee but it doesn’t have to be much and the money would already have been prepared for him by his relatives. When he has paid and they are satisfied with the small money gift they will allow him to step through. ==
However, it’s not finished yet. Before he can enter the house he has to have his feet washed by the bride’s younger sister or the female relative of the bride who is younger than she is. The groom has to give a money gift to the person and then he can enter the house. The groom is met at the door and led by a female relative of the bride to the pha khoun, where the baci ceremony will be taking place. Once he is settled in, the bride is led to the pha khoun from her room by another elder female relative. She is seated on the left side of the groom with the parents and relatives of both sides sitting nearby. During the seating process the bride’s relatives and friends will give her a slight push to make her to lean on the groom unintentionally, and the other party will try to push the groom the same way. It is believed that the first to touch the other one in this ceremony will have more power over the other party in their married lives. ==
The guests join the bride and groom and their families around two phakhuane which are made or purchased for the wedding, and rest in bowls full of rice. Around them are placed a variety of different kinds of foods as offerings to the khuane (spirits which protect and give life to the body of each person). >>>
The ceremony begins with the Phone Khuane taking up the threads which connect to the phakhuane. He closes his eyes and begins to recite the good wishes for the young couple, and chant verses which instruct them on how to behave. When he finishes everyone shouts, "Please come, spirit come." Then the Phone Khuane ties threads around the wrists of the bride and groom. This act of wrist-tying, called the phuk ken, is repeated by everyone at the ceremony. [Source: Web of Cambodia. culture and society]
After everyone is settled in, the baci or sou khuan ceremony begins. This involves the chanting by the master of ceremony (mor phon), the egg feeding (the bride and the groom feed each other an egg) and the tying of white strings on wrists to unite the couple. At the end of the baci, the elder relatives lead the couple to somma (a customary asking for forgiveness and thanking of parents and elder relatives of both parties). This process involves the giving of small money gifts (wrapped inside banana leaves, together with flowers and a pair of candles). During this ceremony, the elders, including the parents and relatives of both parties, give the couple good wishes. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]
Before a baci ceremony takes place, elderly women in the community gather to prepare a Pha khuan, handmade marigold pyramid, which is a key centerpiece at every baci. Now, in cities it can be bought from markets. The pha khuan is placed on a white cloth at the center of the room and everyone gathers round it. The host or the persons that the baci is intended for sit closest to the pha kuan facing the mor phon (master of ceremony usually a respected and knowledgeable person in the community), and other participants sit behind. ==
It is believed that if the receivers of the blessing want their wishes to come true, they should keep the white strings tied around their wrists for at least three days after the baci. When it comes time to remove them, they should untie instead of cutting the strings as the good wishes might be severed. After the ceremony, the pha khuan is kept until it dries out or at least for three days before it is thrown away. The reason is the same as keeping the white string tied around the wrists. The baci ceremony varies throughout the country in terms of orders of sessions and its meaning.
This Laos wedding ceremony is practised by ethnic Lao and can vary from place to place. Other ethnic groups have their own customs and traditions which are often very different.
Baci (also spelt basi) is specific ceremony in Laos which has been practiced for hundreds of years. The term commonly used is “sou khuan” which means “spirit enhancing or spirit calling”. The ceremony involves the tying of white cotton strings around person’s wrists and the prayer saying or well wishing for the person that the ceremony is intended for. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]
Lao people believe that a human being is a union of thirty-two organs, each has a spirit or khuan (Lao word for spirit) to protect them. These spirits often wander outside the body causing unbalance of the soul which might lead to an illness. The tying of the white string represents tying of the 32 spirits to the body putting them back in harmony as well as bringing good luck and prosperity. ==
The baci ceremony is held on many different occasions or events through out the year. It can be held any day of the week though it has to be on a good day in the lunar calendar. These good days are known to elders, senior monks, or ex-monks. The ceremony can be held for both sad times and happy times. Some people might find it a little strange that there is a ceremony for sad occasions. ==
The baci ceremony is held for happy occasions like weddings, welcoming guests, Lao New Year, house warmings, home comings and other such occasions. A mother and her new born baby are given a baci, after the mother has recovered, to welcome the baby as well as to call back the spirits of the mother’s that might be wandering away through the child bearing. The ceremony is also held to raise spirits when someone is weak (physically and spiritually). After someone in the family has passed away a baci ceremony is held as it is believed to enhance the spirits and reinforce the harmony of the rest of family members after having been through sad time. ==
Baci at a Lao Wedding
Starting by “mor phon inviting” session which is usually performed by one of the elderly men. He places a glass of Lao whisky and small amount of money, wrapped in banana leaf together with a pair of candles and flowers, on one hand and ties a white string around the wrist of the mor phon while murmuring words to invite good wishes. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]
After that, the mor phon starts by lighting the candle on the top of the maak beng and asks the host or the persons to receive the blessing to lay their hands (palms down) on the edge of the pha khuan. He brushes their hands with the white strings saying "hai kuard nee, dee kuard kao" meaning "bad is swept out, good is wept in". ==
After this he takes the white thread connecting the pha khuan, placing one end in his hand and the other in the hand of the person who is to receive the blessing. They place the string between their palms and pray while the mor phon is chanting in the religious Pali language, sometimes quoting from Lao poetry and proverbs. During this time everyone is supposed to be quiet. At some point during the chanting, the ceremony attendants say together “ma der khuan euy” meaning “please come spirits”. At the same time someone throws rice in the air so the rice grains fall down on everyone’s head. These rice grains represent the spirits and good luck that have been asked for. ==
After the mor phon has finished his chanting, he ties the first white blessing strings around the wrists of the main person being honoured. Then everyone else joins in to tie strings around the wrists of the main celebrants and other family members as well as among the guests themselves, while murmuring good wishes for receivers of the strings. Some roll up a bank note and tie it inside a white string then tie around the wrists of the host, while others just place a glass of Lao whisky, fruit, an egg or any edible thing available on the pha khuan on the hand of the person and tie a string on the wrist. ==
The baci procession finishes when everyone has tied the white strings around everyone else’s wrists or when the white string has run out. The ceremony varies in length from 30 minutes to one hour. Some times, at the end of the ceremony the mor phon and the olderly people do their little prediction by looking at chicken wings, claws and jaw. An example of the prediction that I often hear is that, if all the claws are neatly pointing to the same direction the spirits of the receivers of the blessing are all well and stay with them. ==
The Laos wedding ceremony ends with the sending of the couple to their room. The elder female relative will lead the groom to the room and the bride follows behind. Traditionally, the couple is supposed to stay in their room until the next morning. However, as the order of this ceremony has changed over time, it now takes place before the party (in the past it was after the party) because the newlyweds have to greet the guests. ==
Usually, after the string tying procession has finished everyone is invited to eat, drink and some times lum wong (Lao circle dance) with a live band playing.
Today, most people split their wedding into two parts, one is a traditional Laos wedding ceremony and the other is a modern Laos wedding party. Some have the traditional Laos wedding ceremony at home in the morning and some do it in the afternoon. Only close friends and relatives are invited to join the baci part. Whether the baci takes place in the morning or afternoon, food and drinks are served to the guests at the end of the ceremony. The party is then held at a hotel or a restaurant in the evening when more guests are invited. This practice is more common among city people. =
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014