When one of my colleagues invited me to his cousin’s wedding, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was letting myself in for. I’d only ever been to handful of weddings back in England, so the idea of a Cambodian wedding was hard to fathom.
My friend Chase and I both work for a beach nightclub in Sihanoukville, South West Cambodia. We’ve always had a rapport with one another and I felt privileged to be asked, along with a group of other expat friends, to attend a traditional Khmer wedding. Due to my inexperience, I thought this would perhaps involve a short drive to the venue, a lively party and then back home by midnight. Oh how naive I was.
I was picked up from my bungalow at about 7am and I’m telling you, after finishing my shift at 3am this was no easy feat. Chase had hired a minibus for me and 9 of our friends to drive to and from the festivities. When I was told we were going to Chase’s home town (you’ll have to forgive me as I can’t remember the name) I genuinely thought we would not be going far. Turns out, we were going far.
Chase and I as we celebrated the day before the wedding. The party was just beginning.
We ended up driving for 4 hours to Phnom Penh, where we went shopping for our wedding outfits. Now, I’m not sure if it was only me who was out of the loop, but I believe a stop off at the nation’s capital for a shopping trip was worthy of being mentioned in the itinerary. However, there was no itinerary (known to us) and such is the beauty of travelling. It’s spontaneous, it’s unpredictable and sometimes you just have to go with it. Some of my most memorable experiences have been a direct product of saying “YES”. You should always say yes. Unless it will threaten your life, then you should politely decline.
Chase took us to a market, where we were given strict instructions regarding wedding appropriate attire. Ladies were to wear dresses that covered the knees, bare shoulders were okay. Our dirt stained Havaiana flip flops were denied, instead we bought delicate diamanté studded sandals.
The men were to wear button up shirts, formal trousers and smart shoes. No exceptions. This lead to a hilarious scavenger style hunt for the Western men. Their height, trouser measurements and shoe size were so greatly different from their Eastern counterparts, that finding something fitting was near impossible. Hours went by as my male friends searched every market stall, rifled through huge boxes of shoes and haggled on XL shirt prices. I will never forget the sight of my friend becoming stuck in a shirt sleeve that was clearly designed for a child, as a group of Khmer market stall owners laughed on with no intention of helping him.
Suited and booted, we all took great consideration into our wedding looks.
Most of the boys finally found something to wear. Even if it didn’t match their usual style, it would do for now. If you look closely at some of the photos, you may notice Dave trying to cover up his unbuttoned trousers with a belt, or Steveo’s bright white flip flops because Cambodia just doesn’t accommodate a size 13.
Having been put through this needle-in-a-haystack search, we were surprised to find Chase sporting an outfit that can only be described as THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what we were wearing. He turned up to the wedding wearing a white vest, leather jacket, denim jeans and electric blue converse. When I asked my good friend Chase why he was able to dress so casually at such a formal event, he simply replied, “Because I am gangster.” I think we can all learn a little something from Chase. Next time someone asks me, “Abi, why aren’t you settled down with a husband and a stable job?” I will reply, “Because I am gangster.”
After our successful and not so successful shopping trip, we drove another couple of hours to Chase’s home town. This was like no other place I had previously visited in Cambodia. There’s going off the beaten path, and then there’s going to an absolutely random place, which no other tourist would ever have the chance to experience. These are the paths I value most.
Home sweet home.
We found ourselves surrounded by paddy fields, dusty roads and a house or two every 500 metres. I revelled in this and thanked my lucky stars that I was fortunate enough to experience such an authentic place. We were shown our living quarters for the next couple of nights, a traditional stilted house where the 10 of us would share one room and a few mosquito nets.
We arrived at the venue just before sunset. With nothing else to do, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the site. Amongst the dusty roads and the wooden houses was an explosion of pink and yellow- a glamorous marquee surrounded by tall trees, gold chairs nestled themselves into the muddy ground.
Unknown to us at the time, Khmer weddings usually last 2 or 3 days and we had we arrived on the first day. Whilst we thought we had arrived early and in good time, we were actually late. By nightfall the marquee was full of family and well wishers, drinking and dancing in celebration of the happy day. The bride and groom had spent the day attending Buddhist ceremonies but still found the time to bring us beer and dance around with all the pre-ceremony guests.
A warm welcome and the happy couple the night before. The groom looks more than ready for bed.
At about 7am the next morning, we awoke to the sound of traditional Khmer music blasting from the wedding tent below. The music was at such a volume that even the most seasoned festival goer wouldn’t be able to handle it. It was loud. And by loud, I mean LOUD.
This was our queue to get up, get dressed and join in with the first ceremony of the day – Hai Goan Gomloh or The Groom’s Procession. The bride waits in her family home whilst the groom leads a parade of his family and friends through the streets to meet her. The guests were all given a gold or silver tray to carry, all bearing gifts of fruit, dessert or drink. Steveo was in fact given a tray of beer to hold, which I think suited him perfectly.
I can’t begin to describe how honoured I felt to be included in this personal part of the wedding. After discussing this with friends who have also attended Khmer weddings, it seems the majority of guests are only invited to the party in the evening. I was over the moon to be able to experience Khmer culture and custom in such an intimate way.
The Groom’s Procession.
When we arrived at the brides house, we took our seats along the aisle. The groom and his wedding party stopped at the entrance as the bride and her bridesmaids emerged from the house to meet him. Once she reached him, the bridesmaids each paired off with a groomsman as they all paraded down the aisle and back into the house.
This was when the next ceremony began though we didn’t get to see it take place. It’s my understanding that usually everyone watches the following blessings, however as this wedding was in a particularly poor part of the country, the house simply was not big enough to accommodate more than 15 or so people. We did hear lots of monk chanting and smelt a lot of incense though!
Whilst the bride and groom continued their nuptials, we all headed over to our table to enjoy some early morning beers. It was then Chase emerged from one of the houses brandishing a giant bin bag and a huge smile on his face. What on earth was he carrying?
When he showed us the contents of the bag, I could not contain my excitement. So much so, I think I actually squealed. Inside I could see a collage of brightly coloured satin, tiny diamantés and intricate beads. It was a bag of Khmer style dresses. Now, I am not the girliest of girls. I like hiking and climbing, I chug beer and I haven’t worn a pair of heels since 2009, but show me a bag of gorgeous dresses and I will go weak at the knees.
The girls and I grabbed the bag and proceeded to put on a mini fashion show. We took it in turns to try on the different dresses, though most of them didn’t fit me – the reason being I am 5″9 and not even near a a size 0. After failing to fit into several dresses, I finally found this ravishing yellow number that made me feel like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and Jay found one that wouldn’t have looked out of place at her high school prom.
Getting our make up did.
The day only got better from there on out, especially when we were shown to a house that was dedicated to hair and make up. The ladies there seemed to be just as excited to do our make up, as we were to have it done. Turns out the current Khmer beauty trends are very light foundation, heavy black eye-liner and crimped hair. Yes, that’s right – crimped hair. 1985 called, they want their hairstyle back. HA HA HA.
Now we were well and truly beautified, it was time to really start the party. As we sat back at the table, we were showered with food and beer. The catering was a mixture of grilled fish, pork, vegetables and rice all served family style in the middle of the table. The beer, which there was a never ending supply of, was Angkor beer. Fun fact – always check your Angkor beer ring pulls and tops, if they say “1 can” or “1 pint” you can redeem them at local shops for a free beer.
When we received our invitations, in the form of glossy white card with embossed gold writing, we asked Chase the etiquette regarding wedding gifts. The custom is to write a good luck message on the back of the invite, enclose some money in the envelope and return the invite to the newly weds. We gave $20 each, which Chase assured us would cover our share of food and drink, with a little left over for the happy couple.
Stevo and I after Sompeas Ptem (hair cutting ceremony). The newly weds were knelt here for about an hour having pictures taken with guests!
Whilst most of the guests enjoyed the festivities out in the marquee, the couple mostly stayed indoors and conducted the many traditional ceremonies of a Khmer wedding. As I mentioned before, the house could only accommodate about 15 people, however we did manage to pop our heads in from time to time.
The ceremonies were all very symbolic and many of them were the retelling of mythical Khmer stories. The ceremonies we managed to catch included Sien Doan Taa (Honoring the Ancestors), Gaat Sah (Hair-Cutting Ceremony) and Sompeas Ptem (Knot tying Ceremony). Check out this post from Tourism of Cambodia to find out a bit more on the history of these traditions.
Our chaperone, the wonderful Chase.
Throughout the course of the day, the bride and groom changed outfits 5 or 6 times. Each time they emerged from the bride’s house, they would be wearing a different brightly coloured outfit with an even more intricate design than the last. It made me think, if brides in the Western world agonise over one dress for their wedding, how must a Khmer bride feel!?
The bride and groom seemed to spend most of their time having pictures taken with all their guests, something that they looked more than happy to do. To be honest, I think I only saw them do one of two things all day – they were either kneeling down during a blessing or posing with party guests. What an exhausting day!
When night came and drinks had flowed, the party really began to kick off. Whilst we were sat at our table, every few minutes someone would raise their glass and shout “chul muoi!!!” (cheers), prompting everyone to clink glasses and take a swig. The more we chul muoi-ed and the tipsier I got, the more I found myself instigating the beer chugging. Even more so than the locals! They appreciated this a lot.
When we weren’t smashing beers, we were being taken by the hand and ushered into the dancing circle. There was one table in front of the speakers that was reserved specifically for dancing around in unison. The dance we did was a popular folk dance named romvong, which is also practiced in Laos and Thailand.
Dancers slowing move round in a circle, stepping their feet in time with the music and alternately unfolding their palms. The steps were really hard to master to begin with, it’s a sort of step forward, a static step, and step backwards and then again forwards. I likened it to patting your head and rubbing your stomach as the steps felt so out of sync. After the first 2 hours of repeatedly doing this dance, I think I just about got it!
By the end of the night we were truly exhausted. After being up since 7 am and continuously drinking, eating and dancing throughout the day, we were ready for bed.
“Will we drive home tomorrow, Chase?” I asked, absolutely pooped.
“No, I want to show you my childhood home. And then another wedding.”
“Yes, it is wedding season and there are two more weddings this week. Would you like to do it again?”
Have you been to a Camboadian wedding? Let me know your own experiences in the comments below!