So, you’ve been invited to a Khmer wedding! Brace yourself, you’re in for a real treat. If you stay in one place for long enough or are working as an expat, you will most likely be invited to one of these special occasions. Whilst living in South Cambodia, I was lucky enough to be invited to three in one week!
Unless you are are close friend of the wedding party, you will presumably be invited to the evening celebrations only. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Although the ceremonial side of a Khmer wedding is fascinating and you can learn a lot about traditional customs, it does go on for hours. Sometimes days.
Depending on the location and wealth of the family, the wedding will either be held in a colourful street-side marquee near the family home or in a specialist wedding venue. The choice of setting however, does not change the order of the day. Khmer weddings adhere to the same traditional ceremonies that are held in chronological order.
A Cambodian wedding retells the legend of the first Khmer prince Preah Thong’s marriage to the naga princess Neang Neak. Spoiler alert! It ends with the birth of Cambodia. The ceremonies will usually last 3 days but can even last up to a week.
Wedding season begins in October and runs until March. Traditionally, a wedding may only be held during a month with 30 days. Celebrating during the rainy season is avoided due to the unpredictable weather, transportation difficulties and the fact farmers will be too busy tending crops. Some families also believe that a rainy season wedding brings bad luck, and will carefully consider the date to bring harmony to the newly weds.
What to wear
If you’re anything like me, this will be the first thought on your mind. What on earth do I wear?! For wedding guests, this will be a smart-casual affair. The happy couple however, will dress like royalty and change outfits several times throughout the day. They will be dressed in colourful satin with intricate designs, and the bride will be covered in decorative jewellery.
Gentlemen, you should wear smart shoes, a button up shirt and formal trousers. Jeans are okay but they must be clean. Don’t be arriving in your cut off shorts and singlets!
Ladies, you will want to wear a dress that covers your knees, bare shoulders are acceptable but make sure you don’t have any cleavage on show. Also, don’t be afraid to go all out glam. Unless you arrive on a diamond encrusted swan boat, it’s impossible to upstage the bride. If you’re close to the wedding party (a friend or colleague) then you may even get a Khmer make over!
Wedding etiquette in Cambodia is vastly different to that of Western countries. You’ll find no wedding gift list of household appliances here, instead you will be expected to donate cash. Weddings are an expensive affair and you should give enough to cover your share of food and drink. A polite amount is about $20 but feel free to give more if the bride or groom is a close friend.
Your written invitation will come in an envelope, which you should use to present the money. When you arrive, you will usually be greeted by a table of family representatives who will jot down your name and contribution. No, this isn’t based on greed or gossip, but instead acts as a record of how much they should contribute if you invite them to wedding in the future.
Food and Drink
This is my favourite part of a Khmer wedding! Food will be served to your table once all the seats are filled, and will come often and in vast portions. Expect grilled fish, pork, chicken, vegetables and bowls of rice. The meal will be served in the middle of the table family style, so tuck in!
Beer will be your main tipple and there will be lots of it! Served with a glass of ice, every so often someone will raise their glass and shout “chul muoi!!!” (cheers), prompting everyone to clink glasses and take a swig.
The first thing you will notice about Khmer weddings is the sheer volume of the music. The speakers are quite literally deafening. The choice of music is usually an eccentric mix of retro romvong style music and pumping modern techno. Quite a contrast, I think you’ll agree!
There will be a table reserved specifically for dancing around in unison. The dance being a traditional folk dance named romvong, which is also practised in Laos and Thailand. Dancers slowly move round in a circle, stepping their feet in time with the music and alternately unfolding their palms.
The steps are hard to master to begin with, it’s a sort of step forward, a static step, a step backwards and then again forwards. If you’re unsure, a local will gladly teach you. If you’re sat down, a local will also gladly bounce over, lift you off your chair and usher you to the dance floor.
So there we have it, a guide to attending your first Khmer wedding! It really will be a joyous occasion and my best advice is to just get involved! If you’re invited to take part in something, just pay attention to the other guests and follow their lead. Good luck and chul muoi!
What are your experiences with weddings in Cambodia? Got any questions you need answering? Feel free to ask away in the comments below!