“Khmer weddings symbolize the beautiful legend of the origin of Cambodia and parallels the marriage of the first Khmer prince, Preah Thong, to the naga princess, Neang Neak. The prince was a foreigner exiled from his homeland, and during his travels encountered and fell in love with the naga princess. As a marriage gift, the father of the naga princess swallowed a part of the ocean, and thus formed the land of Cambodia.” – The Khmer Institute
As October ended, the rains became less frequent and therefore easier around which to plan the dénouement of all young Cambodians’ lives: weddings. In the five weeks since wedding season began there have been as many weddings in the village, a rate which doesn’t surprise but still leaves one wondering how there remain any singletons. Khmer weddings are dripping in tradition, extravagance, food, and selfies such that the ceremonies are strung out over several days. What is more, weddings provide all those involved to feel utterly famous for a day and night, to rise briefly and splendidly above their socioeconomic situations the way that the lotus bursts from even the murkiest pond to bloom in full before its nightly retreat into the depths. Throughout you’ll see a mix of photos from all the different weddings I’ve attended in this year and half, but hopefully the prevailing themes will lend some continuity. This is a rough guide as to what one can expect as a guest at a Khmer wedding, the end-all-be-all of Cambodian shindigs.
But wait. Back up. Neither the young love nor the phantasmagorical celebration which springs up around it can simply materialize from thin air, right? Wrong. In fact, compared to many Western standards, Cambodian match-making, courtship, planning, and execution of the festivities is relatively straight-forward and expedient. I turned to Leakhana with my inquiries into Khmer dating etc. After a certain age, men and women here become increasingly segregated as do opportunities to meet and socialize with members of the opposite sex, she says. Marriages within a commune or village are common simply because the candidates present are the people you and your family have known for your whole life. If no one suits you in the vill, she says, there are a couple of ways to cast your nets: 1) begin chatting with someone via Facebook, ideally a friend of a friend and 2) meet via calling or being called as a wrong phone number. Yes, actually. I told her of all the times I’d been called by an unfamiliar number only to hear a male voice. “Oh, sorry, wrong number! But hey, where are you? Your voice is beautiful.” Fishing for brides, Leakhana said casually. These are modern methods, though, wherein people can choose their own spouses. More traditional methods involved parents choosing their children’s spouses in conjunction with local match-makers who, even if a couple has fallen madly in love, does the due diligence of examining the two parties’ compatibility via Khmer astrology. More and more families make an effort marry off couples who genuinely love one another, despite poor star-signs. On the other hand, even the purest love cannot convince some families to allow their daughters to marry drastically below their socioeconomic class. However, the match comes about, the parents must meet and approve first. After some months of engagement (“depending on the couple and the season,” says Leakhana) ornate invitations are sent out inviting hundreds of friends and relatives to the wedding. Many young couples will also take engagement photos in destination spots.
On the first day of the wedding, technically the day before the largest ceremonies, you’ll see a tent or two being erected in front of the wedding party’s house – a tent large enough to occupy an entire lane of traffic. Loud music will be played over a tall speaker to announce to all with ears that the wedding (for which you received your invite all those months ago, no not that one, that one, with the gold trim…) has commenced. But, you may not need to attend just yet. Some guests will attend the evening ceremony of soat mun, “the before-prayer,” but this gathering is usually rather exclusive and only inner family and close friends attend. The wedding party and their few guests solemnly bow their heads and press their hands together as several local monks recite blessings of happiness and health for the couple’s future, dousing all with perfumed holy water in the process. The chanting can be heard throughout the village, over the loudspeaker. Throughout the day, num ansoms will be boiling away in preparation for tomorrow morning’s feast.
At four AM the next morning, the true madness begins with hair and make-up. Immediate family members, the bride and groomsmen, and some esteemed guests (often foreigners, in the PCV experience) will descend upon the home where the wedding is being held to get beautified. The families of the bride and groom with have rented several hair and make-up artists for the day who will repaint most peoples’ faces in the modern fashion – which is to say, unrecognizable, inconceivably white death-masks – and whip their hair into the most elaborate up and down-do’s. From the neck down, everyone helps the wedding party, bride, and groom in and out of the various traditional outfits they will wear throughout the day of which the number is staggering. The pants and skirts for men and women alike involve laborious folding and pinning with ornate brooches to create the illusion of a most literal pear-type body shape. At least one ear gets singed on an errant curling iron and everyone is fighting back hair-spray-and-eye-liner tears. Well, the women, anyhow. Men stroll in at the latest possible moment. Foreigners (PC volunteers, here) are usually given roles to “make the wedding photos exciting.”
Around 7 AM, once everyone looks presentable, guests in their sharpest attired will stroll from both near and far will gather in the fresh tent, lined on either side with chairs. Each guest will hold a platter, arranged by the wedding party using fruit, cakes, treats, and candies donated by the guests. An enthusiastic emcee keeps things moving and he and the live band take their cues from one another. At the emcee’s signal, the haii gkon kamlah, the “march of the groom,” begins. The guests leave the tent and follow the groom and his family around the block, stopping a short walk from the bride’s home where everyone will be corralled for photos while dodging traffic.
Upon the emcee’s signal, the groom will march back to the home of the bride, symbolizing the journey of the prince Preah Thong to meet his bride the princess Neang Neak as told in Khmer folklore. Guests will re-enter the tent and take their seats but the groom will meet the bride’s family at the entrance where some negotiating must be done, however symbolic.
Alright, Grampa. I’m sure this is plenty for now. We still have hours and hours of tradition to cover here. Put up your feet and have some Frangelico and M&Ms, I’ll be back with more next week. Will the bride’s family reject the sojourning groom over some imperceptible slight? Has enough fruit been donated? When are we gonna eat it, for Buddha’s sake? Stay tuned. Love you all the time, Kels