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Wedding of the year in northern Thailand

 Blue smoke curls above the huts as though from an opium pipe - once the preferred nightcap in these northern Thailand hills. Pigs squeal, spooked, catching a whiff on the wind not of poppy but fried pork. And I am trying to read an invitation written in Thai script.

"This will be the major wedding of the year for the village," says my travelling companion, Chob, an anthropologist. "Better get some sleep first - it lasts three days."

DAY ONE

A marigold-robed monk drifts among the teak houses but it's still a pig slaughter morning. In Khun Haeng village - population 336 - almost everyone is at the communal pump, lathering and chattering, or sluicing out pig intestines to form sausage skins. Gold-capped grins remind us how important portable wealth is to this Yao tribe. Gossip says the groom's family paid 15 silver ingots in bride price - more than 5.6kg.

Someone calls: "She's here!" The bride, Kun Saejow from a Yao clan some 200km away, has arrived. This serious, pretty 19-year-old will now be installed in one of the most extraordinary head-dresses on earth. Attendants coat her long hair with beeswax then pass it through a hole in a semicircular "mortar board" that sits atop her head. This, Chob assures me, is just the beginning.


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A triangular wooden frame with sides a metre long is taped, horizontally, to her mortar board, then draped with embroidered cloths. Next, her glossy black skirt and jacket are all but obscured by sashes, tassels and wraps. Heirloom silver jewellery follows. Four necklaces are hung around her neck, displaying her bride price from the groom.

The completed head-dress is now a prowed canopy obscuring the bride's face. It weighs 3kg and she may not remove it for two days. Saejow is helped to her feet for her penultimate walk as a single woman.

The bridal procession enters the village centre. A quartet of musicians weaves in and out of the crush of satin and boa-bedecked bridesmaids. Men sit on benches below a tree while the mother-in-law to-be serves whisky, tea and cigarettes. The women stand in the sun and watch and wilt.

The bride progresses to a bamboo hut where she will spend the entire night sitting up, for her head-dress must remain on. Meanwhile, a party roisters in the house of the groom's family, although the man himself is nowhere to be seen.

We toast endlessly in Mekhong whisky shots. Yao guests have poured in from surrounding villages, the regal elegance of the women in their black robes and fine geometric embroidery contrasting with the men's nondescript Western clothing.

"The Yao men mostly gave up their traditional garments when they moved into the Thai cash economy," Chob explains. "When they would go down to market they felt uncomfortable among the lowland Thais in such conspicuous clothing."

DAY TWO

I awake to dawn's dysrhythmia of pigs, gongs and the snake-charmer tootles of the band. It strikes me that I should give a wedding gift. Someone suggests a clock set within a framed portrait of the Thai royal family would be both practical and patriotic, and surely original. Right - no plaster ducks from this guest.

After what certainly must have been a sleepless night, the bride - still adorned in her tent-like carapace - emerges in procession to the groom's house. The village medium chants from Taoist texts, then decapitates a chicken. It weaves blind circles, interpreted as favourable omens. The bride mounts the stairs to cross the threshold of her new family's home. And still no groom in sight.

The party strikes up again. More food from metre-wide woks full of all parts porcine. I retire for a siesta. There's just so much whisky, tea and trotter that one can consume before the sun even hits the yard-arm.

Come nightfall the celebration focuses on the main room of the groom's house. With more than 100 people in it, the floor struts crack, but props are rushed in. A set of large cushions is placed before the main table and the house spirit altar.

"There he is!" Chob points to a dazed-looking youth in a business suit. "The bridegroom, at last."

"He doesn't look too happy," I say.

"Nor would you. He's got a very tiring night coming up," Chob adds, without any hint of wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Attendants dress the groom in a blue silk Chinese gown, a brocaded wrap and red turban, plus various sashes and ornaments. At last, a man of Yao in traditional livery. The bride emerges and the new couple stand together in public for the first time.

A line of guests of honour and wedding officials take their places at a long table. The couple then begins to kowtow towards them. For the groom one kowtow involves three bows from the waist and then three more from a kneeling position. The bride's ritual is less demanding: she kneels and bows once each time the groom drops to his knees. They then rise together and repeat.

"This is just the start," says Chob. "Those first kowtows were to the ancestors. Next, will be six to each of the four wedding officials and four parents, and three to each of the dozen guests of honour."

I calculate this brings the groom's total to almost 100 kowtows at six bows each. Six hundred bows! Instead of connubial bliss, he's in for a long night of slo-mo step aerobics.

DAY THREE

By dawn, even the musicians have expired. I return to the ceremony. The exhausted couple concludes their final bows to the guests. It has indeed been a major wedding.

I then notice what's on the wall. Overnight the wedding gifts have been displayed. There are no fewer than seven framed portraits of the royals, and four clocks. But my offering is one of only three to combine clock and portrait. Next time it'll be the plaster ducks.

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