The first of the posts about Amy’s life, “Two American Teachers in China, Part 2,” is basically positive (Link); the second, “Escape from China,” deals with some disappointments after her return from vacation and particularly with her flight from the toxic air pollution (Link). Now the third details the happy events which followed. I’d like to add that on my four trips to Thailand I found many people and places extraordinarily friendly and helpful. There were those who were out to gouge tourists, but they were easily avoided.
Amy and I spoke over Skype when I was in the Philippines and she was with her new family in Ohio.(Thanks to Amy for the photos)
The Long Distance Relationship—In our first interview I talked about my then boyfriend, Andy, who was in the US. We’d been together for four years. Before I left for China we’d committed to staying together even when geographically apart. It would be two years, possibly longer. We’d decided we were going to see each other about every three months. I’d fly over to see him, or he’d fly over to see me.
We did our best despite the distance. Being apart is a strain on any relationship, but nowadays it’s more common, and technology is a big help. We messaged each other often and had a video chat a few times a week. We prepared meals and watched movies together. We shared photos and made sure we said good night and good morning every day. These rituals brought us closer. Of course, it was essential to set up a schedule which allowed us to see each other as frequently as possible, as if we were almost on a never-ending honeymoon. The good-byes were always heart-wrenching, but thoughts of the coming hellows kept us going. We also sent each other care packages, and it was nice to get things both from each other and from the other side of the planet.
The Engagement—This January, after seeing you in the Philippines, I flew to Bali to meet Andy. At the time we didn’t know we’d get engaged there. I think that in the months we’d spent apart we saw how important we were to each other. So while we were soaking up the tropical paradise we started to talk about getting engaged. As unconventional people, we decided that Bali was perfect for committing our lives to each other.
By nature I recoil at any female submissiveness. We wanted our own version of this ritual, a mutual and equal promise. We decided he’d ask me if I wanted to spend my life with him and turn I’d ask him if he wanted to spend his life with me. For a traditionalist this decision might have taken away some of the romance, but for us it was more meaningful.
In the bustling, little cosmopolitan village of Ubud, we found a wonderful mom-and-pop ring shop with work by local craftspeople, which was very important to us as artists. We love having out commitment symbolically represented by the Balinese design of our rings—exactly what we were looking for. Andy’s was the wrong size, but the shop offered to resize it immediately.
We were only in Ubud for the day and would be heading south to the beach for the remainder of our trip. Fortunately, we had hired a driver to get us around Bali for the ten days we were there—I highly recommend this as it is affordable and ultra-convenient—was able to pick up the rings and bring them to us. She also recommended a beach for what we were calling our engagement ceremony. Wow! What a beach it turned out to be!
Milastee Beach is a newer beach on Bali and truly a “must see.” No exaggeration, when we drove up it was like a scene out of a beachside movie. We could see 180 degrees of crystal blue water, with cascading white sandy cliffs. People were hang-gliding on rainbow gliders. Turquoise waves broke along the silky soft, white sand as we walked hand-in-hand to a place that was a little more secluded.
Andy let go of my hand and got down on one knee. This immediately alerted the passersby, and they stopped to watch. Bali is an international place, so at any part of the island you’re rubbing elbows with people from places like France, Germany, China, Africa—all over. So we had this small global group of people standing there watching us pledge our love to each other. At the end everyone clapped.
Then after we finished our ceremony we realized people had been yelling at us that we had to move. They were doing construction on the cliff above, causing rocks to break free and fall. Andy and I thought this was appropriate, to get engaged at our own peril.
Then we did what any couple would do after getting engaged on a beach: we took our rings for a swim. The water was warm and salty, the sun golden in the cloudless sky. We drifted around on our newly engaged bliss, so grateful at that the distance apart had showed us what brought us there. There would not have been a Bali if there had not been a China. It was a profound experience.
The wedding—My exodus from China made me think I am both impulsive and thoughtful. I used to jump first and think later, but now I jump and think about it in mid-air. By the time I hit the ground I know whether I’ve made the right decision. Now, I don’t see this as negative. Many people are too cautious and miss out on opportunities. If I’m impulsive or spontaneous, shouldn’t my wedding be that way too?
We’d planned for Andy to visit me, and he’d had already bought a ticket, but I decided I was too sick from the toxic air to stay in China. I didn’t think I was well enough for the long flight to the States, maybe not even for the flight to Thailand, but I took it.
The week before his arrival in Asia, I was in Thailand, walking along a beach in Phuket, breathing clean air, feeling the sunshine and trying to get better. That morning it occurred to me that instead of getting married in the States in October, as we’d planned, we should do it right there.
When I called and asked Andy, he thought that the idea was perfect but that we should ask his boys. We’d intended to include them in the ceremony. We decided to ask them and to tell them we could all plan a reception when we returned. Nolan, the eleven-year-old, would be Andy’s best man, and Caleb, the nine-year-old, would be mine. They said yes very enthusiastically. Nolan would even offer a toast at the reception. He has a knack for theater, so it should be quite a speech.
With the children’s blessing, we started planning. We gave ourselves four days to pull it off. We had a ten-day resort stay planned and wanted to call it our honeymoon
So how do you go about getting married in Thailand? We did what most people do these days. We did a Google search—I really didn’t know where else to start—thankful that I was no longer in China. I typed into the search bar, “How to get married in Thailand?”
This led me to Trip Advisor and the suggestion that chartered boat captains could officiate, but it wasn’t possible with the time constraints.
We really wanted a no-frills ceremony which would allow us to focus on each other and keep the costs down. Out of a mixture of curiosity and desperation, I contacted a few wedding planners. Most were booked up. But one was especially receptive, a company called Celebrant Phuket run by James Ritter. (Link) He called me back within half an hour. He was an American.
“So what are your plans?”
“We’d like to get married in four days,”
“You’re in Phuket? What beach are you on?”
“ Nai Yang.”
“Okay, I’m going there for a wedding today. Why don’t we meet after the wedding and talk about this?”
Now, if you’ve been to Phuket you know it’s a pretty big place. It’s an island—well, a peninsula I guess. It takes about two and a half hours to get from one side to the other. There are a lot of beaches, so this coincidence was really something.
We met around seven that evening, when the sun was descending over the ocean. As we got to know each other a bit, a comfortable mood settled in. Jake had come to Asia to study meditation and yoga practice. He’d spent a few years in India before moving to Phuket. He was also a meditation teacher.
I was glad to be speaking with a wedding planner without any language or cultural misunderstanding, particularly with something as complicated and intimate as a wedding arranged on short notice. This is not to say that arrangements could not have been made with a Thai company. They certainly could have.
“So, how would you like to get married?”
I explained that, although Andy and I were not Buddhists, we followed a lot of Buddhist principles which align with who we were as people, so we’d like to incorporate this aspect into our wedding. Of course we were open to having some Thai rituals in our ceremony as well. And, since we’re from a western culture, we wanted a traditional exchange of vows and rings.
Jake was enthusiastic. “Well, let’s do just that then. We’ll get a temple on the beach where the monks will bless you. We’ll go through a Thai ceremony, and after we can go to the beach and get some nice photos for your memories.”
“That sounds just perfect. Can we do all this in four days?”
“Yes. No problem. “
“Umm, I’d like having some meditation. “
It was really amazing that exactly the person I needed came from an internet search. It’s hard to say it wasn’t meant to be. Our arrangement was much more affordable than the average State-side wedding.
Andy was still in America.
I had little time to do all the things a bride does: find a dress and shoes, buy the rings. My bridal party was an interesting tapestry of former strangers, people I knew I probably would never meet again. When you decide to pass an important milestone without friends and family, strangers and bystanders fill in for them.
Rena, my driver’s wife, whisked me off to get my hair done.
She told the beautician that I was getting married the next day so she did a traditional Thai twist to my hair. At a local craft shop, I got a beautiful lavender dress which was hand-embroidered by local craftspeople. It was very large, so they altered it for me, knowing it was going to be my wedding dress.
I bought a shirt for Andy to get married in at the local market in Puce Town. It was a beautiful, vibrant, multicultural market that is in the old quarter of Phuket.
The dress was sheer and required appropriate undergarments, so we went shopping at a large shopping mall where the lingerie salesperson sang a wedding song to me and used two fingers to pantomime walking down the aisle. I said in Thai, “I need…” and pointed.
She lit up “Oh, okay! “We do sexy, sexy for you!”
I blushed a bit. “Yes, please.”
She loaded my arms up with assorted lingerie and led me over to a dressing room, swaying her hips and giggling. When she threw more items onto the dressing room door, it was, “Ma’am, I have more sexy, sexy for you!” It was surreal.
Twenty-four hours before we were supposed to check-in, I made a reservation at a hotel near the temple without telling the staff we were getting married.
Meanwhile, Andy was on a nightmarish journey halfway across the globe from Detroit to Phuket. From Detroit, he flew to Shanghai and took the bus to Hangzhou, the other airport in Shanghai. It was his first time in China, so he had to navigate, communicate, and cooperate with all the people to arrive where he needed to go.
If you’ve lived in China, you know it’s no easy feat. It can be scary if you’re traveling all by yourself.
From Hangzhou he flew to Guangzhou, where the weather was bad and he had to stay overnight. But on the plane to Guangzhou he started talking with the Chinese guy—English name Dave—sitting next to him. Andy told him he was trying to get to his wedding.
“All right, I’m going to help you.”
So Dave became Andy’s spokesperson, the one asserting himself at the counter. You know what I’m talking about–if you don’t speak up, you don’t get what you need. [Sometimes this means banging your fist on the counter and yelling your head off. Sometimes it means manipulation and flattery.]
So Dave told the clerk, “This man needs to get to Phuket and now.”
“Okay, we’ll get you there.”
It sounds like a movie, right? I’m on my way to get married and I’m not going to make it, so someone help me.
He arrived fourteen hours before the wedding. The crazy part is that we were actually smiling and in good spirits after the whole harrowing affair. I was both amazed and even more certain that this was so my man.
Our driver took us to the Kata beach, where we were to get married the next morning. The hotel could have easily doubled as a cultural museum. We had a lavish room with a canopy bed and doors that opened to several reflecting ponds dappling fountains, and contorted sculptures of Hindu deities.
That evening at sunset we walked slowly to the beach and found a little restaurant with tables in the sand. We shared a whole fried fish made with a chili lime sauce and a papaya salad. In the distance a small, silent storm lit up the sky like fireworks. It simply could not have been a more perfect evening.
The morning of the wedding, I was in the hotel room and Angie, Jake’s wife came in with flowers. She also did a really beautiful job on my hair. After that she took Andy and me to the temple along with the photographer we had hired.
The temple was gorgeous, with beautiful murals and Buddhist sculptures. When we walked in, the monks were waiting for us. We knelt, and they took us through a traditional wedding chant and ceremony. We gave an offering.
It was one of those moments in life when you are 110 percent present, just aware of the profoundness of it all. Here I am in Thailand with the person I love, doing this crazy thing that we put together in four days. Look what it brought us to, this moment of monks chanting in the most beautiful way, doing a blessing for our wedding.
After that the monks departed, and we went into the Thai ceremony, which involved blessings from the local Thai people who were friends of Jake’s. A Thai wedding involves lots of flowers—jasmine bouquets worn like bracelets which you give each other as a blessing, wreaths that you put on each other’s heads to indicate your spiritual union. Then there is a water ceremony where a gold-encrusted conch is used to pour water over your hands as a way of purification of your soul for the sanctity of marriage.
At the end of that we stood and faced each other for a traditional western wedding with an exchange of vows and rings.
We each had three rings worn on the same finger. The first is a wedding band that represents our past, which we honor because it brought us together and which we don’t ever have to regret. The center ring is the one we got in Bali and that represents the present, which is the most important because we should be in the here-and-now. The third ring is our future, which is what we work toward every day to support and love each other.
The whole wedding lasted about an hour. It was considered disrespectful to kiss in the temple, so there was no kissing of the bride at the end of the ceremony but there was a signing of the certificates. We were able to kiss on the beach later, which meant just as much.
A short drive took us to beautiful Katter Beach. We walked around and took some photographs, and afterwards we went to a lovely café on the bay and had a delicious Thai meal for two.
At the end, it seemed like my best four days ever, like we just fit together. I think if you’re on the right path and doing the right thing, then everything falls into place. I look back now and think that this is the only way I would ever want to do it and that it will always be one of the most important things I’ve ever done.
The honeymoon—This is the final part of the story. We had wanted to be in a quiet place and had booked ten days at Santhya koa kai, without realizing it was on an island accessible by ferry. The compound had big, wooden doors that swung open and made you think of an internment camp. It was all-inclusive. You know those places that treat tourists like cattle? It was one of those.
I’m sure some people love places like this, but for us it was Thailand Disneyworld, something meant to look like Thailand, but really wasn’t. The location was beautiful, but the rock music made the walls shake.
At the pool I asked, “Does that music play all the time?”
“Every day from four to seven. You need to bring the towels back at six-thirty.”
“Doesn’t the pool close at seven?”
She said her shift was over at sic-thirty and she needed the towels back.
There were so many things making us uncomfortable that within a couple of hours our skin was crawling. This was not where we wanted to be for our honeymoon. Dinner was a small frozen pizza and five leaf lettuce salad for the equivalent of about 60USD.
The resort had a no-refund policy, which we knew when we booked the place, so there was no way of getting our money back. I’ll never do that again. We’d not yet paid the daily $86 minimum charge for food. Even checking out of the place was a nightmare. It’s so large that they have trucks to pick you up and drive you up the cliff, which takes about twenty minutes. We almost missed the ferry back. We’d found a lovely Airbnb for $33 a night.
I’d arranged for our driver to pick us up at the marina and take us to the Airbnb. Soon we were unpacking our bags in a lovely jungle bungalow, which a nice little pool overlooking the village. It was nestled between two beaches.
We had no regrets. I learned an important vacation lesson: you might have spent the money, but what’s going to be better for you–spend a little more money or stay eight or nine days in a place you hate?
Finally, our honeymoon. For the next nine days we took cooking classes, and shared fresh coconuts in the surf, took night swims in the pool and dined every night in a little restaurant that served barbequed fresh seafood while a man with a guitar sang classic American songs. It even had in-house kittens to pet and play with. We went for long boat rides to some of the surrounding islands and saw the Giant Buddha inside a cave temple. We walked on the beach, slept in, and woke up to the jungle looming outside our bedroom wall to wall windows. It was the trip of a lifetime.
On the last day we packed up and headed back to Shanghai for my luggage that had been waiting for three weeks in a hotel storage room. We spent the next morning packing and getting all o my seven-bag mountain of luggage repacked and down to the proper weight. We had a late afternoon flight out of Shanghai.
Even though we’d made our reservations two months apart, Andy and I were able to get seats next to each other. We’d return to the States as husband and wife. As the plane took off from China, overwhelming relief and gratitude came over me. I took Andy’s hand and watched the Shanghai smog disappear from my window.
It had been an interesting chapter, I thought, but now it was back to the regularly scheduled program, whatever that turned out to be.