After our lively day at the first wedding, we were yet again woken up at the crack of dawn. This time however, we weren’t woken by blaring Khmer music but rather a blaring Khmer gentleman. Chase was awake, dressed and ready to take us back to his childhood home.
We had recently found out that this was not the short weekend trip we initially thought, but rather a week long party of weddings. With our new collective name of “The Wedding Crashers”, we all climbed into our transport for the week – a 4×4 pick up truck. Yes, that’s right. Some people arrive to weddings in a vintage car, some will come by limo. That’s just not how we roll, we’re all about the trucks.
We all piled into the truck and began the short drive to the house that Chase grew up in. Driving through the province reminded me of what different upbringings Chase and I had. His street was an empty dirt road with a house every 200 metres. His back garden was a paddy field. And the only electrical appliance he owned was a small black and white TV. The one thing we did have in common was a happy and loving family. Even though he grew up with so little – Chase, his brother Tee and his elderly parents all seemed so content and never stopped smiling.
The street Chase grew up on.
Next to the house we were staying in was a small shop owned by Tee. This shop would become our new hang out. Every morning we’d go straight to the shop, where Tee’s lovely wife would cook us a lunch of pork, vegetables, egg and rice. We’d spend the rest of the day drinking beers, playing cards and trying to communicate with the locals.
Of course none of them spoke a word of English and some of them had never even left the province. We were the first Western people they’d ever met. Word must have gotten out around town as people were driving to the shop just to see us.
In situations like this I try and being as friendly as possible. It’s not always a comfortable experience to be stared at, but when you are, it is only because people are interested. I find the best way to deal with it is to smile, wave and say hello. You are the visitor after all. This is always a good opportunity to try out phrases you’ve learnt in the local language. You’ll probably get laughed at but if they understand and reply, you know you’re doing something right!
“The Shop” and our local friends.
This is literally the nicest I’ve ever looked whilst backpacking.
After spending the previous day hanging out by the shop (I swear this must have been the most business Tee has ever received), it was time for the second wedding of the week. I couldn’t quite figure out who the bride and groom were in relation to Chase, but sure enough the same style invitations arrived with our names on them and in went another $20 each as a wedding gift.
On this occasion it was Chase’s sister-in-law who produced a massive bag of dresses. This was met with much rejoicing, but the only dress that I could fit into was a questionably short blue number. “Is this okay?” I asked Chase, worried that it was going to be inappropriate. He assured me it was fine, if a bit garish. Oh well, when in Rome!
Just as I started to brush my hair, one of Chase’s female relations took the brush and began to braid my hair. I’m absolutely rubbish at doing my own hair so I let her have a go, and man, did it turn out well! She braided my hair all around my head until it looked like a cute little hair bonnet. I loved it!
A similar set up and a familiar face from the bar.
Unlike the previous wedding we attended, we were only invited to the evening celebration this time. This meant we dived straight into food, drink and dancing, which was absolutely fine by us! As we sat down and took a look around our surroundings, we began to realise some similarities… Same entrance, same marquee, same furniture. Even the food and the music were the same. I assume in small rural provinces like this, there is only one company the rents out wedding equipment and services.
One thing that I must mention about Khmer weddings is the sheer volume of the music. The speakers are quite literally deafening. As soon as the festivities began, the speakers went on and stayed at a level that would make Coachella blush. The choice of music was an eccentric mix of retro romvong style music and pumping modern techno. Quite a contrast, I think you’ll agree!
Me and Tee, Chase’s brother and the owner of the shop we hung out in. He was Gunther, we were the “Friends”.
No, not Jay-Z on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Instead our friend JJ at a Khmer wedding.
One particular song that got everyone up and dancing was called Pok Pon Na Neh and was just a joy to hear every time. This seemed to be everyone’s favourite and by the end of the week, was my favourite too. The most interesting thing about Pok Pon Na Neh is the fact it actually means something quite rude. I have it on good authority that a direct translation of the phrase would be “big vagina”. The sight of both elderly folks and small children throwing their hands up and yelling “BIG VAGINA” really was something else.
I really feel the need to share this special track with you guys, I swear it will change your lives.
Just for comparison, here is an example of a romvong style song, which was mixed with the banging techno. If you’ve been to Cambodia, you will recognise this style from hearing it ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE. Especially on buses when you’re trying to sleep.
We had some time off from the wedding-pocalypse the following day, so Chase decided to take us fishing. At the back of the shop were endless paddy fields stretching out to the horizon, and among these fields was man made fish pond. This was when Chase showed off the country boy in him as he threw a giant net into the pond and jumped straight in, jeans and all.
After positioning the net and wading through the pond, Chase began diving in and catching fish with his bare hands. Chase would grab a fish that was caught in the net and throw it onto the bank. As it flipped about trying to find water, Dave would chase it and pop it in the bucket. When Chase accidentally threw a fish DIRECTLY AT ME and I screamed as loud as a Khmer techno song, he knew he had discovered a fun new game.
Chase spent the next half an hour throwing live fish at me, chasing me with live fish, and pretending to throw the bucket of live fish at me. By the end of the ordeal, I was a nervous wreck and I’ve never looked at a live fish in the same way since. I did however, thoroughly enjoy eating the fish that had previously tormented me for dinner that evening.
Fishing antics with Chase and Dave. I am scarred for life.
As our last day in the province arrived, so did our final event. This was the last time we would “crash” a wedding and the last time we would get together with the people who were now not only Chase’s family, but our own.
We jumped in our beloved pick up truck and drove straight to the party. We arrived quite late for the previous wedding, so this time we made sure we weren’t early enough to be rude, but not late enough to miss out on any of the festivities.
Arriving in style.
I’m not sure if what happened next was a Khmer custom or if it was simply a quirky touch from the bride. She greeted us by excitedly handing out lollipops. To be honest, I was pretty excited about the lollipops too. I hadn’t eaten a Chupa Chups in ages.
With high spirits we skipped through the entrance, which was surprisingly decorated differently than the last two weddings and featured some awesome silver bananas. Again, I couldn’t quite figure out Chase’s relation to the bride and groom but everyone was still so welcoming and friendly.
By now we fancied ourselves as wedding connoisseurs, so it was straight to our table, straight into swigging beer with shouts of “chul muoi!!!” (cheers) and straight to the dance floor for some romvong dancing. There were lots of familiar faces from the previous weddings so we really felt at home, it was like meeting up with old friends.
Lollipops, bridesmaids and a BRAND NEW ENTRANCE.
I think now is a good time to talk about Khmer wedding traditions and the symbolic nature of the day. The entire wedding illustrates the legend of the first Khmer prince Preah Thong’s marriage to the naga princess Neang Neak, and the birth of Cambodia. The prince was exiled from his home and during his travels fell in love with a naga princess. As a wedding gift, the naga King swallowed a part of the ocean and formed the kingdom of Cambodia. This is the short version, of course.
The ceremonies performed throughout the day represent parts of this legend and other mythological stories. For instance, Hai Goan Gomlohor or The Groom’s Procession symbolizes the journey of the prince to meet his bride.
Gaat Sah or Hair-Cutting is a ceremony that symbolises the cleansing of the bride and groom. The act of cutting hair (or pretending to) cleanses the couple of the past and prepares them for their new life together. According to the legend of Preah Tong and Neang Neak, they married without the naga King knowing. Neang Neak prayed to the Gods to witness her hair being cut and to carry the locks to her father. When he received her locks, he rejoiced in the knowledge that his daughter had wed.
There’s a great reference page that can be found here if you’d like to learn a bit more about the many different Khmer ceremonies and their meanings. I think we’ll all agree that the history is incredibly fascinating and vibrant!
Yummy wedding catering!
After we were extremely well fed and watered, it was time for another makeover. I hadn’t imagined being so lucky as to have a third beautifying session, but guess what, I was! Chase took Jay and I to another little house that was dedicated to ornate dresses, sparkling jewellery and over-the-top make up.
This time there was no dress bag, but instead a wardrobe that was full of huge, decorative outfits. Jay and I couldn’t help but pick the showiest of dresses and I had to be safety pinned into mine because I was too fat. I had to laugh.
From looking at the pictures, I think you’ll agree we look pretty fancy. Imagine wearing this to a Western wedding? The bride would be furious! In Cambodia however, the bigger the better and there’s no danger of upstaging the bride. Especially not with her 500 costume changes and infinite bling.
Khmer make over number 3!
The fanciest dress I’ve ever worn and Jay looks like it is her wedding day.
As the party wound down, so did our time in rural Cambodia. Chase made a speech and translated our thanks for everyone’s generosity. We really did feel humbled to be included in such special celebrations. We gained so much knowledge about Khmer culture and traditions, it really was the best lesson. I learnt more in a few hours then I ever would reading a Lonely Planet.
In the last remaining hour we did the last of our Khmer dancing and even tried a few of our own dance moves. JJ started a huge conga line and we taught some kids how to do the macarena.
The following morning it was time for us to return to Sihanoukville and get back to work at the bar. We were genuinely upset to be leaving and there were a few tears shed! We really felt like part of the family and welcomed into the town. I didn’t want to leave!
We presented Tee with a fruit basket to say thank you for letting us hang out in his shop. However, I feel like all the dollars we spent in there made him happy anyway. As a goodbye present to Chase’s parents, we bought his mother a mobile phone and his father a radio. They were over the moon!
A fruit basket for Tee…
A mobile phone and a radio for Chase’s parents…
…and hugs for us!
So there we have it, my experience of wedding season in rural Cambodia! I hope I didn’t ramble on for too long (I know I did) and congratulations if you read to the end. If you ever get invited to a wedding whilst you are abroad, you must go. It’s the best way to learn about other cultures and you’ll be able to experience traditional customs first hand. Now I’d like to know…
Have you ever been to a wedding in Cambodia or anywhere else abroad? What foreign customs did you learn? Have you ever had a live fish thrown at you?