The Lao Wedding Crashers

July 29, 2011

James and I took our seats at the table, gazed around at the enormous ballroom hall surrounding us, and shook our heads in disbelief. Three days ago we had arrived in Vientiane without knowing a single soul in the Laotian capital. And yet here we were, special invitees to one of the most lavish wedding receptions that either of us had ever been witness to. It would prove to be a night that neither of us could have predicted nor will ever forget. How had we gotten into this improbable situation?

Central Vientiane

James and I arrived in Vientiane well past sunset, after an arduous but spectacular 10 hour bus ride from Luang Prabang. After searching for two hours, we finally settled on some acceptable accommodation. The following morning I explored the downtown area. For the largest city in Laos, Vientiane feels more like a sleepy town, only with a little more traffic and a few taller buildings. Its population is a mere 300,000 or so (Laos itself has less than 7 million inhabitants, far fewer than all immediate neighbors). Architecturally there is not much inspiring save for a few attractive temples. The most interesting site that I visited was the under-kept Lao National Museum, and that was only because I enjoyed reading the extreme communist vitriol contained in the English-translated captions. Most tourists spend less than 24 hours in the city before moving on to another destination, but given that James and I had decided to apply for Thai tourist visas here, we knew we'd be hanging out in the capital for a few days.    

James writing a song in a Vientiane park

So, we decided to fill the time by writing songs and playing guitar. James is one of the most talented musicians I've ever had the fortune to jam with. When he picks up the guitar, magic happens. Everything he plays is improvised. Gorgeous sonic textures give way to unusual chord sequences and beautiful melodic lines. It's inspiring to watch this guy play, and I'm sure he will be a very successful musician one day not far in the future.

My Missourian friend is also quite the pool shark, so he decided to test his mettle at a local billiard hall the evening after we arrived. I elected to stay in the guesthouse and relax. I didn't see James again until the wee hours of the next morning, when he stumbled bleary-eyed into our room, with a fantastic tale to tell. This, I had to hear. While running table after table, he had begun flirting with a pretty local woman who was frustrated by his dominant play. Nong (her name) was there with some family and friends, and taking a shine to the talented foreigner, they coerced James to go out on the town with them later that night. In the end, James and Nong hit it off so well that she invited him to come to her sister's wedding, taking place in two days!

I might not get so excited about the prospect of attending a typical American wedding, but the thought of a Lao wedding seemed fascinating and exotic. So, being the selfish adventure-seeker that I am, I immediately pleaded for James to ask Nong if I could attend too. She acquiesced, and the next evening she introduced me to her cute friend, Moon, who would be my date to the wedding. That night, James and I ironed our best shirts, washed our jeans, and laughed at our inappropriate wedding attire. It was all we had, so it would have to do. I fell contentedly asleep, smiling at the unexpected turn of events and eagerly anticipating the next morning.

The Traditional Ceremony

We arrived at the house where the wedding was taking place right after the traditional ceremony had begun. Everyone was kneeling on the floor and directing their attention toward the bride, groom and the "priest" (I'm not sure what the Lao word is). All of the women were wearing beautiful traditional dresses whereas the men's dress was more varied. There were perhaps one hundred people in attendance. The groom was a giant Australian man, and the bride (Nong's sister) a lovely young Lao lady made up to the nines. Save for a few people I had met the night prior, I didn't know anyone, but I was comforted by the sight of all the pale Australians around. James and I weren't the only falangs (foreigners).

The Bride and Groom

As I was sitting in the back of the room and don't understand the Lao language, I didn't capture a close account of the specific ceremonial acts. In any event, it was all pretty low-key and the service took about the same amount of time as a Western wedding. When it was finished, everyone went to the front yard where a large tent had been erected to create a reception area. The tent was essential because it was positively scorching outside. Frigid cans of Lao's famous beer, the imaginatively named Beerlao, also helped with the unrelenting sun. The mood outside was very relaxed and informal. James, Nong, Moon, another Lao friend named Pheng, and I sat together. We enjoyed some good food from the reception buffet and stayed around and chatted for about two hours after the traditional ceremony had wrapped up.

Myself, Moon, Pheng, Nong, and James

The traditional part of the wedding had finished. But the real fun had only just begun. There was still an after-after party to attend. The evening's reception would be held in the cavernous ballroom at the largest hotel in Vientiane, the legendary Don Chan Palace. This event was more similar to a typical reception at a wedding in the Western world. However, in contrast to the hundred or so people who had attended the actual wedding, five times as many people showed up in the evening! If that doesn't say something about the fun-loving spirit of the Lao culture, I don't know what does. "Hmm...We could get up early and go to the boring wedding...or, we could just show up at the booze-fueled party afterwards!" I like the way these people think. I like it a lot!

James and I arrived at the ballroom nice and early in order to soak in the scene. The giant stage at the front had a multitude of instruments standing idly, ready for the live musicians who would play throughout the night. Each side of the hall had football-field length tables filled with mouth-watering dishes and desserts. Alright, maybe they were more like tennis-court length, but they were still long! An army of caterers presided over fifty circular white-clothed tables where the guests would be seated. The guests began to arrive, and most everyone had dressed in more Western outfits than we had seen in the morning. James and I both remarked at how beautiful all of the Laotian women looked in their brilliantly-colored dresses. Our dates were likewise radiant to behold, and we felt lucky to be attending with such captivating ladies. Nong, Moon, Pheng, and several other Laotians joined us at our table. Despite knowing hardly anyone and being laughably under-dressed, we were made to feel very comfortable and welcome.

In the middle of our table and every other, there were three unopened bottles of whiskey: Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, and Jack Daniels. For reasons which will be explained shortly, Jim, Johnnie, and Jack would turn out to be the star players of the night.

Jim, Johnnie, and Jack

Events initially unfolded as they would at a typical Western wedding. There were speeches, toasts, buffet runs, more buffet runs, and then dessert runs. The food was so delicious that I'm pretty sure I regained all the weight that I had lost from my bout with food poisoning ten days prior. There were group dances, similar to what you would find at an American wedding but with an Asian-twist and with far greater audience participation. Seemingly every woman went to the front in these moments, after attempting in vain to drag along their male counterparts. James held tight to his seat, but I got pulled up a couple of times and awkwardly tried to imitate the unfamiliar dance movements of those around me.

Lao ladies dancing at the Wedding Reception

As the night wore on, one thing was becoming very apparent. A large contingent of the young ladies at the wedding were getting absolutely hammered. And I mean, falling on the floor, running to the toilet, passing out hammered! By marked contrast, I didn't see many men behaving unusually. If this had been somewhere in certain parts of the Middle East that I had recently visited, it would have been exactly the opposite. But this was Laos, and clearly different rules applied. The reception began to wind down at around ten-o-clock, but heavy drinking was continuing unabated. James, like the gentleman he is, would spend a large chunk of the rest of the night ferrying home those who had gotten to know Jim, Johnnie, and Jack a little too well.

The after-after-after party

While James was playing designated driver, I followed others from the wedding to yet another party. Without a doubt, this would turn out to be the best after-after-after party that I have ever been to. The Don Chan Palace has a thumping discotheque that was already heaving with sweaty bodies by the time we arrived. I don't see how anyone gets any sleep in that hotel because it is loud on the dance-floor. The remaining survivors of the wedding party were up on a platform overlooking the club in a sort-of VIP area. The club had a sizable number of Western young men who were well-received by the many stunning Lao women inside. (Yet another contrast with the Middle East: in the Arab world, local men often go out searching for foreign women. In Southeast Asia, it's more common for local women to go out looking for foreign men!) The deejay was playing a mix of hip-hop and house hits from the US and Europe, and I had a blast moving to music that I was more familiar with. James eventually made it to the after-after-after party, and we stayed and danced until we could dance no more.


James and I roused at some late hour in the morning, checked out of our guesthouse, and went to get some breakfast. We shook our heads in amazement at our good fortune. Having arrived a few days ago as strangers in a strange land, we now had local friends who had invited us to participate in one of the most intimate times of their lives. For sure, the ceremonies we had witnessed were not exactly representative of normal Lao wedding. I suspect that only a tiny percentage of Laotians would be able to afford such a lavish affair. Because the groom was Australian, much had seemed "westernized". But the way James and I were readily welcomed into what we normally consider such a private ritual, that was an exotic feeling indeed. Upon hearing of the circumstances of our invitation, an Australian man who had lived in Laos for many years told us that he wasn't surprised at all. "That's just the way Lao people are. They welcome you like family even if they've only known you for a minute."  

The past couple of days in Vientiane had also been a fitting way to end our travels together. After three memorable weeks of backpacking around Laos, James and I already felt like brothers. We had seen amazing sights, shared great adventures, and played some unforgettable jam sessions. James was now heading back to Chiang Mai, and I would be going down south to visit more of the country. While I still had a week left to explore Laos, I already knew what the highlight of my time here would be. It just doesn't get much better than crashing a wedding in a far-away land.  


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