A Lao wedding, or kiin dong, is a celebration that involves the entire village or community. The festivities usually begin one or two nights before the wedding day itself with an informal gathering at the bride’s family’s home as they begin their preparations. Elders create the ritual pieces to be used in the suu khwan — the formal wedding ceremony. Others prep and cook traditional Lao food for the wedding reception. Even with so many tasks to complete, the atmosphere is relaxed and festive, with plenty of food and drinks, and with people generally being sabay — Lao for “happy.”
The wedding day itself begins early in the morning, as family members continue to prepare food for the luncheon reception. The bride, or naang saow, begins her preparations earlier than the groom, or chao bao, since her costume is much more intricate. She wears a traditional Laotian wedding outfit consisting of sinh, a Laotian silk shirt, and paa bien, a scarf, both made from raw silk, and decorates her hair in a traditional bun with ornate gold jewelry. The style of the wedding outfit and hair will vary depending on the family’s wealth and the region of Laos they are from.
The wedding ceremony, or suu khwan, is held in the late morning. The guests, mainly family and close friends, gather at the bride’s family’s home. The ceremony commences when the groom, along with his family and friends, leads a procession from his family’s home through the village to the bride’s home. Upon arrival, the groom’s entourage must convince the bride’s family of his worth before he can enter the house and wed his bride. Playful banter between respected elders from the groom’s and bride’s sides ensue, marked by light-hearted jeers and teasing.
The suu khwan takes place with the bride, groom and guests seated on the floor around two paa khwan — arrangements made up of flowers and white strings to be blessed during the ceremony. The ceremony is officiated by a mo phone, or lay community elder, who offers chants and blessings to unify the couple, family and community, and to call back all the individual khwan, or spirits, in order to make the person complete. The ceremony continues with more blessings for the bride and groom, as the guests tie the white strings to the bride’s and groom’s wrists. The mat khene, or string-tying, provides an opportunity to share a personal message and blessing with the bride and groom. The ceremony is followed by the lunch reception.
The wedding day ends with an evening reception, which is often held at a hall or hotel. In the United States, it is common to have 400 or 500 guests at a Lao wedding reception, which includes live traditional Lao music, dancing, speeches and, of course, more delicious Lao food.
Related Books and Articles:
» Hesser, Amanda. “To Eat in Laos.” New York Times. July 13, 2005.
» Xayavong, Daovone. Taste of Laos: Lao/Thai Recipes from Dara Restaurant. Berkeley, CA: SLG Books, 2000.
» Sing, Phia. Traditional Recipes of Laos. Alan Davidson and Jennifer Davidson, eds. London: Prospect Books, 1981.
This essay was researched and written by Channapha Khamvongsa, the executive director of Legacies of War, an organization dedicated to resolving the problem of unexploded cluster bombs in Laos, providing space for healing the wounds of war and creating greater hope for a future of peace. Legacies of War uses art, culture, education and community organizing to bring people together and create healing and transformation out of the wreckage of war. Previously, Channapha worked at the Ford Foundation and Public Interest Projects, focusing on immigrant and refugee rights, global civil society, civic engagement, capacity building and transformational leadership. She was born in Vientiane, Laos and has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. She received her master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University.