Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Weddings are glorious occasions, even for the poor(photo:Wikipedia)
A wedding is always a great way to experience local culture, so when I was invited to a Cambodian wedding, I quickly accepted. Since the groom's family is of limited means, I’m not expecting a fancy wedding. But I will be surprised by what I experience.

I’m told that a 'taxi' is picking me up, but upon arrival, it turns out to be a small motorbike. I should have guessed that, since there are few automobile taxis in Phnom Penh. I climb onto the back seat, and we motor off to the northern suburbs.

The reception is located in a neighborhood where the groom has family, and on arriving, I’m rather surprised at the exact location of the festivities. I was expecting a poor neighborhood, but this is the first time I’ve been to a wedding reception located on a road. Right in the middle of a dirt road!

A wedding canopy with tables and chairs, is taking up most of the roadway. Walking closer, I spot a security guard sitting off to the side, cradling an AK-47 rifle. Hopefully, he won’t have to use it tonight.

The canopy is very colorful, made of bright red and blue fabrics, decorated with balloons. Beneath the canopy are wedding sights familiar to my western eyes. A lovely cake. Fancy tablecloths. An enormous sound system. Golden chair covers, which stretch all the way to the ground. 

Just a few steps from the canopy and tables, are railroad tracks! The train hasn’t run here in years, so curious neighbors not invited to the wedding are sitting on the tracks, in shorts and t-shirts, watching the festivities as spectators. A scratchy stray dog joins them. Beyond the railroad tracks are small neighborhood houses, crowded tightly together. Some of these homes are merely shacks. There is little open space here; that’s one reason why the wedding reception is on a dirt road.

To the other side of the wedding canopy, what’s left of the road is still open to traffic. It’s not busy, but as I watch a motorbike buzzes past, followed by a cart, squeezing through with a load of pigs. Beyond the road is a swampy pond, with old plastic bags and litter lying about.

A Khmer couple takes pre-wedding photos at Angor Wat (photo:Wikipedia)
Glancing around at the well dressed wedding guests is a total contrast to the humble surroundings. What a sight!

The ladies are all done up in marvelous formal dresses. Women’s formal wear in Cambodia is much more colorful, bright and festive looking than western fashions. Each dress is one solid, bright color, and many have elaborately decorated trim. Scanning the crowd, I see many colors of the rainbow. Most guests aren’t rich either, but even poor Khmers usually have one elegant dress for these occasions.

The male guests are dressy, but more conservatively casual. Most wear formal trousers, and a dress shirt. With the evening’s tropical heat and no air conditioning, a suit and tie would be very uncomfortable here.

Entering the canopy, I’m greeted by the wedding party, and the bride is absolutely stunning. She looks like a Khmer princess, or even a queen. Her wedding dress is absolutely fantastic, Tim Gunn would approve. It’s bright blue, with a silver sash, and gold trimming throughout. There is nothing gaudy about her ensemble, it gives an air of royal finery. The bride’s hairstyle is equally fancy. Her coiffure has a reddish tint, pulled up with loops and curls, with a matching hairpiece filling out the back. Her lavish hairstyle must have taken a couple of hours to complete. It’s topped with something that looks like a cross between a tiara and a crown. 

Her two bridesmaids stand next to her attentively, looking like ladies in waiting. Unlike in western weddings, here it’s the bridesmaids wearing white. To the other side of the greeting line, the groom’s outfit is also traditional and fancy. As is true with most cultures, the groom’s wedding garments are not as flashy as those of his beautiful bride. He has a red silk shirt of Asian style, with black trousers. He looks like a young, 19th century Khmer prince. The groomsmen at his side wear similar apparel. The whole wedding party gives me a traditional Khmer Buddhist greeting. (Both hands with palms together in front, with a slight bow.) I'm handed a key chain as a wedding souvenir.

Dinner is a delicious four course meal; Khmer rice, chicken, and beef, all with various Khmer sauces. Dessert is sticky rice, and of course the wedding cake. Following dinner, the happy couple exchange their rings. Then the groom kisses the bride on both cheeks, which results in great howling by the guests. Public displays of affection are rare in Cambodia. Then the two leave to change out of their royal outfits, returning in a white wedding dress, and a white suit and tie, just like in a western wedding.  

The dancing begins, with the sound system blaring Khmer love songs and local pop music. Everyone dances Khmer style, which is different from western dancing to say the least. Khmer dancing is not partner dancing at all, it looks similar to Tai Chi. Their traditional dancing involves slow, rythmic walking movements. Rather than an open dance floor, the group circles around a central table. There is lots of rolling of the wrists with outstretched fingers, and I recall that they look like traditional apsara dancers seen on old temple wall carvings. As the hours go by, the young wedding couple changes outfits again, this time into party dance clothes suitable for clubbing.

Beer and mixed drinks flow through the night. As the hours pass, shirtless children from the adjoining neighborhood dart around the edge of the wedding canopy, collecting the empty beer cans to recycle. I’m struck by the extremes of luxury and poverty I’m seeing, which are packed literally right next to each other. Nobody seems to mind, and neither do I. The wedding couple aren’t rich, but for tonight, they certainly are. For one night only, they have become royalty, and the guests and I have been honored to be their court. This wedding may have been in a very humble neighborhood, but they have truly given me a night to remember.

I’m more impressed tonight, than I was when I visited the royal palace. 

1 comment:

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