Your graduation from the sensational extravaganza of the groom’s fruit march and partial digestion of the morning’s rice porridge earns you a ticket to tonight’s wedding reception. The approaching onslaught for which your eardrums and intestinal lining should now be primed will be remembered fondly, I swear.
Although the foreign attendee may find themselves thoroughly exhausted by the night’s end, I have only ever found myself in admiration of the unwavering thrill with which most community members approach each and every wedding reception as if it were their very first. Tonight will have all the anticipation and glamour of a high school prom, beginning with the regalia. Those same stylists from this morning will still be going strong, cranking out your village friends with unrecognizably elaborate hair and make-up. Special attention is paid to the bride and groom, of course, who by now are being plated and wrapped in their umpteenth costume of the day.
On the rest of the crowd, however, you will soon notice the highly non-traditional sty (slang, “styles”) making their way to the entrance. While morning ceremonies are far more subdued in terms of decorum and custom, nightfall sanctions an elevation of hemlines and backcomb for dames and dudes, respectively. You will see more shoulders, knees, and bouffants traipsing through the village than ever before as everyone saunters to the wedding for their close-up. Every reception will have at least one if not two backdrops prepared at which every fish-seller, tailor, electrician, high schooler, and septuagenarian alike can pose for infinite Hollywood-quality photos. The entrance is also where one will find a table of three to four gentleman awaiting donations for the wedding families from guests.
I am told that the lowest (read: stingiest) donation one can make is around $10 USD which, for most families, is still a lot. Most middle-class families will give around $20 USD. The money is not so much a “donation” as a mandatory cover-charge for all attendees who, once invited, are expected to send at least one representative from their family who will offer their well-wishes and cash in order to offset the expenses incurred by the wedding families. Therein lies the rub, they say, of weddings for given the frequency of weddings in most communities, too many wedding invitations can forecast a rapid dwindling of family finances on the part of the popular invitee. To not send a family representative or to become known for stingy donations can easily damage one’s reputation and lead eventually to a stifling of all social invitations. Given that all donations are tracked by family-name in a large book for each wedding, one’s previous donation amount can be looked up and compared to one’s current donation. It’s like that. Most guests, specifically the men who can drink to their heart’s content, are quickly mollified by the deluge of drinks and rich food. The term for the wedding reception (hob gkaa or nyam gkaa) translates roughly as “the eating party.” Guests will enjoy a two to three-course meal with appetizers (Khmer cashews, various prahut treats and savory sauces, and sour nyoam salad as examples), entrees (anything from chicken stew to barbecued duck to Takeo prawns in peanut curry with bread), and occasionally dessert (sticky rice, banana, and/or bean cakes). It is the only situation in which Cambodians may be witnessed either forgetting or skirting rice for the sake of other morsels. White rice is offered, though, alongside my personal favorite: fried rice with carrots, bits of sweet sausage, and egg.
Everyone eats and laughs amid the din of the live band elevated on a stage, now fully erect and outfitted with flashing lights and scandalous dancers. One of the band members will emcee when ceremonies begin, but bride and groom wrangling duties will have been turned over to the photographer and chief stylist for the evening.
A table near the stage will sport a tall topiary of fruit and function as the fulcrum of the dance area for traditional, circular Khmer dancing. Many weddings nowadays, especially for younger couples, will infuse the evening with more modern activities (such as a wedding cake) and bassy dance numbers to which many booties will be flung about. After mingling and taking photos with guests as they dine, the band’s lead singer will announce the bride and groom’s entrance. Friends and family will line the walkway leading to the fruit table, armed with sparklers and silly-string. As the couple walks through the crowd they will break through the clasped hands of their friends and take turns kissing each other on the cheeks and foreheads. Once arriving at the fruit display, they will circumnavigate it three times and bestow some final, nervous kisses before they are showered in silly string.
From here there may be a garter and/or bouquet toss, the competition for which I have seen draw both tears and bloodfrom the crowd. Upon dispensing these final rights, the rager may begin. The band will alternate several electronic and top-40 hits with slower, traditional numbers to please the youth and aged alike. Here is where even the most esteemed local officials and teachers of the male variety will be on their worst behavior (e.g. grabbing/yanking on women’s arms, stumbling, and shouting) and a girl does well to stay surrounded by friends in well-lit places. Truly. Many community members who were either not invited, without the budget to attend, or plainly too lazy or busy to go and have instead sent their husband or kids attend will form a crowd around the dance arena to observe everyone at the height of their opulence. The bass can be felt in one’s chest in the furthest reaches of the village and the dancing will endure for hours past everyone’s bedtimes.
As soon as the tables clear and the dance floor is full, the hired chefs and serving staff will begin deconstructing the feasting area and stacking up the chairs. By morning, all that will remain is a field littered with discarded napkins and straws for which the owners of the real estate are responsible for sweeping. As the lotus blossom of a celebration recedes fully into its pond, so do the guests resume their usual dress and routines, selling in the market, cooking on the street, repairing and washing motos. No one despairs, though, for it is wedding season and in all likelihood, we will do it all again in a matter of weeks if not days.
Grampa, by now you may have sensed this author’s love-hate relationship with wedding season in Cambodia as it is a time of strengthening one’s village relationships at the expense of one’s sleep, money, and bodily integrity. To be invited to a wedding in the community is a gesture of affection and inclusion, above all else, and it certainly signals one’s acceptance and friendship in the community. Thus, if you attend and none of the food is to your liking, the music is too blaring or modern, or the Cambodian beer tastes utterly like pee, there is joy to be had in the palpable bliss emanating from your village friends and family.
Love you all the time,