“I actually enjoy the ceremonies in Thailand more than I used to enjoy marrying a couple off in Sweden”, says Lennart Hamark, the Swedish priest of The Scandinavian Church in Bangkok. “I think the couples who decide to have their marriage blessed in Thailand are more focused on the actual ritual and the meaning of it all where as a couple getting married in Sweden will be surrounded by 150 guests, thinking about dinner, the party and so on”, says Lennart Hamark who does not have the right to perform actual marriage ceremonies outside of Sweden.
“The couples who get married here in Thailand have not even considered what they are having for dinner afterwards”, he laughs.
He emphasizes that the ritual of having your marriage blessed is actually legally superfluous, but never the less it is a popular event for many Swedes. “They don’t need it”, he states, “But something makes them go all the way to Thailand and pay the church 15000 baht and five tubes of Kalle’s Kaviar plus my travel expenses if they are getting married outside of Bangkok”, says the priest.
Magnus and Malin Näsgårde had both had Swedish church weddings with their previous spouses. “We had already been there so we were looking for something different and Thailand is a beautiful and peaceful country from where we have many pleasant memories”, says Magnus. “The idea of ceremony on the beach appealed to us both and provided us with the opportunity to bring our three children and my mother-in-law for a holiday”, he says.
The postcard wedding
Magnus and Malin had their civil marriage in Sweden last July. A couple of weeks after, they flew to Thailand and had a second ceremony in Koh Pangan. “We visited Thailand the year before and we agreed that we would get married on the beach”, says Magnus Näsgårde. Approximately 80 per cent of the couples that are getting blessed by Lennart Hamark prefer to have the ritual performed on a ‘postcard beach’. The rest have their ceremony in tranquility of the church garden in Bangkok.
“I have found a spot in Phuket that is very beautiful and a perfect setting for a ceremony”, says Lennart. “I picked it because it has no resorts, restaurants or tourists. It’s just a beach, a Thai pavilion and some green trees in the background. There are also some Thai fishing boats to complete the scenery”.
To his own surprise, Lennart Hamark has only once not met the expectations of his clients. “I once drove a couple to the beach and all of a sudden, the guy says that it’s not at all what he expected. He thought it would be azure blue water and palm trees hanging out from the beach”, says Lennart. “I don’t know why it has only happened once, because the couples clearly have expectations and they have been planning this event for months”, says Lennart and adds that he often also functions as the photographer even though he is wearing full ordinate.
A blue altarpiece
A wedding day starts with Lennart taking a flight to Phuket in the morning. In Phuket he takes the (first) couple to a small Italian restaurant where he goes over the details with them. The wedding has been carefully planned be email in advance and psalms and Bible texts have been selected by the couple. Some of the couples bring guests. Usually they bring no more than ten people along, but most of them have a couple of children with them.
“In the restaurant, we go over the texts and psalms. It takes about 20 minutes and then I take the couple to the beach. I ask them to pick a perfect spot. It is important, because it is their altarpiece and they consider this day their wedding day. Most of the couples want to face the sea so I stand with my back to the sea and the ceremony begins. It is not much different from the wedding ceremony in Sweden, but in stead of saying ‘Do you take….’, I say ‘Do you confirm…’, Lennart says. “Thereby they finish what they started with their civil marriage in Sweden”, says Lennart with reference to couples such as Magnus and Malin.
The couples are often dressed according to the Thai climate. So far Lennart has never seen anyone in tuxedoes and neither has he seen couples wearing too casual clothing such as Bermuda shorts and Hawaii shirts. “The women often wear dresses in bright colors where as the men are in bright suits. But some of the men have had a woolen suit tailored for the occasion”, Lennart says.
Where words are not enough
“I never ask the couples why they choose to have the ceremony. They have to know for themselves. I honestly don’t know”, says Lennart. “But of course I have thought a lot about it given the increase in weddings I have seen this year. I don’t ask them because I think that words could not describe their feelings about the ritual. It has to do with the notion that love is a fragile gift”, Lennart says. “People hope that a blessing – on a beautiful beach or elsewhere – will make their marriage last in a world where many marriages are broken up”, he says.
He is fascinated by the fact that so many young people go through months of preparations, emails and phone calls to select the texts and psalms for a ceremony that has no legal or practical influence on their relationship. “But it is a very positive experience for me to witness the ceremonies”
Malin and Magnus are both what Magnus calls ‘spiritual people’, but they are not regular church goers. To them, the ceremony was meaningful as they had both already experienced divorce and they are certain that the ceremony on the beach and the vows they exchanged will enhance the marriage’s success. “The promises that we gave each other on the beach will be both a stick and a carrot in our relationship”, says Magnus. “We both want to live up to the promise, but we also have to sacrifice for it”, he states.
“The couples often long for something more than material safety and comfort. They long for love and the ritual helps with that”, the priest says. He has never turned down a couple who wanted to have his blessing on a Thai beach. “They are already married and there is nothing I could do to stop that even if I did not approve”. Fortunately, he has never doubted the sincerity of the more than 100 couples he has already blessed during his four years in Thailand.
Kalle’s Kaviar and the wedding business
Lennart Hamark is not trying to disguise that blessing Swedish couples is also a big business for the church. As a priest he shares the responsibility of financing the church.
“I have to come up with more than a million baht each year in order to keep this church running. The income from the weddings is all channeled to the church and in that way the couples are sponsors of the church. I always make a big effort telling them that they are financing a church in Bangkok with the ceremony”, Lennart explains. This season the wedding business has generated 600.000 baht for the church. A peek into the multiple refrigerators of the church tells you that either the Hamark couple is extremely fond of Swedish tubed caviar or the large stock of “The pink gold” serves some other purpose.
“The cost of the blessing in Thailand is 15000 baht and five tubes of Kalle’s Kaviar. It is a product that all Swedes have grown up with and enjoy”, Lennart says. The pink gold is being sold in the church’s shop along with Marabou chocolate, Ahlgreen’s Bilar and Swedish cheese. But this winter 250 tubes of caviar have been brought to Thailand by the 50 happy couples and that has meant a booming stock of caviar in the church”, he thrills.