This morning I wished the misty mountains of Omkoi goodbye. The little ragtag blue bus bumped and jolted down the zigzag road in the early morning dew and I let my sighs fly out the window and into the rice fields, now brown and dry until the next growing season.
Omkoi is a rural community high in the mountains of northern Thailand. Here I taught English and made some of the more genuine friendships of my life over a year ago. This past weekend I returned once more for the wedding of a dear friend.
A Karen hilltribe wedding is a massive community affair, with everyone pitching in to decorate the ceremony space, prepare and serve the meals. The day before, the bride’s best friend coordinated the decorating of the worship hall. Massive piles of flowers in a rainbow of colors filled the stage, waiting to be artfully arranged. Huge swathes of white, pink, and purple fabrics where ironed and hung. Arches constructed with simple wood frames, wet florist blocks, and a piling of roses, baby’s breath, orchids, and palms. I let before the decorations truly took shape, but the result the next day was breathtaking. With all the women pitching in, a 3,000 baht’s worth of flowers looked like a professionally arranged 10,000 baht ($325) florist’s job.
The morning of the wedding, we all met at the bride’s house, as the women cooked and dished and poured water and washed dishes only to fill them back up with rice. Everyone chattered, smiled, dug into food, and made this farang feel welcome. The bride wore the traditional Karen outfit of a married woman – all handwoven in beautifully dyed and patterned. She was simply stunning. The groom and all his groomsmen pulled their Karen handwoven shirts – brilliant red – over their white collared shirts and bowties. As the bride and groom led the way, the bridal party trailing, a massive swelling of people – family, friends, neighbors, joined the parade from the bride’s house to the wedding ceremony.
That night, we met at the bride’s house with members of her church and her pastor to pray together and bless the newlyweds. Once more I was struck by how integral the community is to the start of a marriage, how the fostering of these relationships is built into the foundation of the wedding of a young couple. This was truly an entire community witnessing and blessing their marriage.
The next day, about 50 of us from the village pilled into 4 different pickup trucks, most sitting in the beds and wearing hats to shield their faces and necks from the hot sun. Along with the bride and groom, we drove high into the mountains to the groom’s village. The road grew rough and pockmarked, deep ruts entrenched in the dusty red earth as we jolted and bounced above the villages and fields and jungle below. At the groom’s village, a rustic collection of tidy wood stilt houses, we enjoyed a meal served by the groom’s family before saying goodbye to the bride and heading back down to Omkoi.
I already miss Omkoi – the way the sunset paints the mountains, the laughter of the children from the children’s home, the clucking of chickens and constant question from my friends and students – “Bai nai?” Where are you going? As prevalent as asking how you are doing in a place where people really want to know how you are and where you are headed in life.