Love from the land of smiles-Thailand and Mangpo

My Magical Mystery Tour to Thailand is done and my son is a married man. I’m overwhelmed.

How do you process the spectacular? The extraordinary? Asia, Thailand, Bangkok, Phitsanoluk, a mind-bending five senses assault of thai-spiced food, epic heat and humidity, the olfactory experience of canals from the last century, the madness of loud tuk-tuks engines spewing unregulated exhaust into the Bangkok pollution. Tall skyscrapers squeezed between tin-roofed hovels. Street food barbecuing, a sudden rainstorm bombing us, endless varieties of rice noodle soup dishes and ‘sure, I’ll try it!’  
Listen to our kids: they are the adventurous generation.  Just as David and I are peering skeptically into the noodle bowl, contemplating the idea of “pork blood” and noting the preponderance of red thai chilies, Jason is declaring at the other end of the table that he likes nothing better than to try another new thing. And yes, he is more engaged and excited there in Thailand, where the serving staff photographs the oddity of our group of 18 Americans, than I ever see him in the US.  

And for all of that, the best and most moving moments were the wedding.  A five-hour extravaganza of ceremony and reverence and laughter and frivolity.  I doubt my ability—anyone’s ability—to adequately describe the experience.  For this one, you had to be there.  But here goes.

August 17th, we gather at Hua and Pom’s beautifully decorated home at 7am to await the nine monks (nine is the lucky number.)  Mangpo’s extraordinary aunts have made the 100 plus guests breakfast—congee (a savory porridge) with accompaniments and a hired Kanom krok (a steamed coconut pudding) vendor.  Yesterday, we were given a run-through of the day by Mangpo and her sister, Maprang. Maprang has laboriously prepared an english version to narrate the day for us.

The house is amazing.  Yesterday, we’d spent hours in the heat helping to prepare and we’re awestruck by the transformation today. Dozens of the family’s close friends have strung tiny “love flowers” (the white ones) into long strings, interspersed with pink and purple blooms.  They’ve done the groom’s family job for us, a traditional Thai art.  How can I ever repay them?

The monks are late. But Aunt Baou (spelling?!) and Maprang prepare the gathered crowd with a Thai-English recitation of the meanings behind the ceremony. Jason and Mangpo, and many guests, wait kneeling on the teak floors, but David and I, our US friends Sharon and Michael and a few other old(er) folks, mercifully have chairs in the next room. And fans. Cause, man, is it hot in Thailand!

The nine monks arrive, a fascinating group. They’re arranged by seniority (and age) before us in a line, cross-legged, on special mats with backs. Orange robed, heads shaved. They observe us as we observe them. Sometimes their eyes close. You cannot rise above them, so when Jason and Mangpo move, they move on knees. First, the couple lights candles in front of the Bhudda, and Jason does as he’s rehearsed, the three bows, head to the floor, with his bride. A silk string is unwound and passed along the line of monks, they each hold the string to be blessed for the couple (more on that later.) Then, the chanting begins.  Think of a male low pitched humming, times nine. There are words, some of which the Bhuddists in the room also chant in a call and response section. There’s a very specific cadence, in specific sections.  Just as we think, “alright, lovely, that’s done,” just as the chant lowers and begins to die out, a monk begins again.  Yes. And again.  

About an hour later, they are done. (I want to clap, but that would be wrong. Very wrong.) Oddly, someone in the kitchen a few rooms behind us turns on the television! Complete with Thai laugh track.  One of Mangpo’s eight aunts gestures frantically.

I’m forgetting a few things, but next (I think) the monks bless the water for the later ceremony, and Jason and Mangpo scoot on knees to present the water to each down the line. And finally, gifts are given to the monks (a box of drugstore items from Hua’s store, only necessities allowed as gifts) and breakfast is served them by the aunts. On their knees, of course.

We’re excused while they eat, and we eat again. Then, called back in again for the final blessing. Shoes off, then on, then off again. The heat increases. But, I’m awed by my son’s ability to embrace Mangpo’s traditions. And his absolute love and adoration for her.  I’m trying really, really hard not to cry the entire time. 

Now, a bit after nine o’clock (the lucky number) the monks are gone, Jason and the groom’s family and friends head down the block to form the march to Mangpo’s house. Our procession is led by what us westerners would call a court jester—the master of ceremonies dressed in Aladdin gold pantaloons and sparkly top and sash. He has us practice the Thai cheer—he whoops (a kind of yodel) and we “eeey-ah!”—a cheerful warning to Mangpo that her groom is arriving. She’s in her room on the second floor, waiting. We all carry the elaborately flower-decorated plates bearing her gifts—baht (thai money), the wedding rings, food, sweets, banana trees (!) symbolic of wishes for a long and happy marriage.  We are a large group—Jason and Mangpo’s friends have flown in from around the world—aligned by Mangpo’s parents’ “procession map” (like our wedding seating charts!)

Yodeling and eeey-ah’ing, we dance and laugh and sing down the lane, through the gates into the yard. There, Jason’s first of nine “gates”—love flowers strung between two people who issues him challenges to prove he is worthy. He must shout as loud as he can: “I love you, Mangpo!”  And he does, over and over (nine times, was it?) Each answered by loud laughter from the Thai guests, which makes us all laugh in response. For all of you who know and love Jason, can you imagine our normally taciturn son, a huge grin on his face, as committed as you’ve ever seen him?! Extraordinary.  I don’t stop the tears this time. Who could?

And on he goes (distributing envelopes of baht) to the physical challenge (issued by his MIT weight lifting buddies, of course) of nine pushups, jumping jacks, burpees(!), to a Thai-language  shouted “I Love you Mangpo!” to the recited menu of a Jason-cooked meal for his beloved, to a Thai-language written note for her, to the final challenge from Maprang outside the door to Mangpo’s room. Our MC, naturally, leads us all in more “eeeey-ah’s” and teasing, and a final rousing cheer. Jason has passed!

Once inside her room—just the parents and the couple—Pom, Mangpo’s mom, gently puts her daughter’s hands in my son’s as he kneels down before her. You know I’m crying again, right? As is David and Mangpo.  And maybe even Jason. 

And now the engagement is official, and we are back again to the main room downstairs, this time for the official request by David and I to Hua and Pom that our son marry their daughter, and the exchange of the symbolic dowry. Followed by the ring ceremony and then the guest gift exchange ceremony. Jason and Mangpo kneel before her parents, and then before David and I. The guests surround us.  I am so full and overwhelmed at this point I can barely recall which came when, but the moment when Mangpo offered her cheek to my son for a kiss, and the moment I touched her head and then his, but most of all when they looked at each other exchanging rings, are forever etched in my memory.  I am changed forever, grateful beyond belief.

But we’re not done yet!

In order of age (?) importance (?) each special guest is seated before the bowing couple to present a gift and a few words of wisdom, and in exchange, receives a gift from the kneeling couple.  This is all carefully orchestrated by Maprang and the aunts.

Meanwhile, the coconut ice cream vendor has set up outside–treats for everyone!

Pause a few moments for a furniture rearrange (and everyone gets drinking water, cause you know…it’s hot!) and now we’re on to the water blessing ceremony.  Jason and Mangpo are each bestowed with a love flower necklace, and are seated before gold benches. They are crowned by a flower wreath that is connected by the monk-blessed silk string. They extend their hands over more elaborately decorated trays. Now, again in honor of importance, each guest pours the monk-blessed water over the hands of our son and daughter-in-law. The mayor and his wife are now here. One hundred plus individual guest pours later, and they are married!

Now, we eat!  The caterers have set up the entire yard for a buffet of phenomenal food under tents. More guests are arriving. 

David and I offer our thanks in a little speech, translated by the deft Pang, Maprang’s husband, followed by Hua and Pom and then finally, Mangpo and Jason.  Mangpo, our extraordinary daughter-in-law, offers us first in Thai, then in English, the story of her and Jason.  She feels, she says, that her entire life was fated to find him.  First, her entrance into the demanding Thai school in Bangkok, followed by her winning of one of two annual Thai government scholarships to the US, by her admittance to MIT, and then by her friend’s urging to take the specific programming class that led her to Saman’s research group. And to Jason. Mangpo’s fate. Tears? More tears.

And all along, the warm and wonderful Thai relatives who have far more english than we have Thai, gathering around us again and again for photos and smiles and congratulations.  Perhaps most of all, Mangpo’s Bangkok Aunt Poo and Uncle Wolfgang, who booked our hotels, transported us in-country, took us out to eat, told us where to buy Thai wedding clothes, and spent countless hours advising us via email ahead of the trip. Poo, you are my sister now, the two us “the crazy ones!” My own sisters couldn’t be in Thailand, and I am forever grateful to have had you.  

As Mangpo said, this wedding was a true lesson in the power of family.

How do I process this extraordinary two weeks? The overwhelming experience of Thailand, of my son and my daughter-in-law and her family, now mine as well? The only way I know how.  Begin by telling the story.

Love, love, and smiles,



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