The Cambodian wedding, Part II

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2008

The guests to a Cambodian wedding don't actually come to the wedding until the second day. This is the real day of celebration.

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Courtesy Of Michael Kohan
Courtesy Of Michael Kohan

On this day, the seemingly exhausting agenda of the Cambodian wedding will have the bride changing dresses up to 10 times, and many traditional ceremonies will be held by priests and close relatives.

On the morning of the wedding ceremony proper, the bridegroom, decked out in traditional Khmer costume, is joined by his family and friends in a procession of gifts from his house to the house of his betrothed.

True to Cambodian tradition, the number of trays of gifts is a display of the wealth the bridegroom is bringing to the family. The giving of gifts has replaced the old tradition of paying money as a dowry. In the countryside, the bridegroom can be expected to bring 10-20 trays of sweets, fruit, beer, meat, cakes and vegetables. In the cities, some prosperous bridegrooms have been known to have 200 or more trays accompanying him as he proceeds amid the traditional wedding chants and songs to his future bride's house.

As for us guests, the party really begins that evening. You can hear a wedding before you see it. Women dressed in brightly colored lace tops and expensive Cambodian silk skirts color the highway as they speed pass sitting side-saddle behind another wedding invitee.

The entrance to the wedding party is a canopy of neon colors closely resembling some of the women's self-designed silk and lace tops. At the entrance, the bride and bridegroom greet the guests and offer a wedding souvenir, usually in the form of a keychain. Once you have walked down the gauntlet of outrageously beautiful Cambodian women, you are guided through the hundreds of guests already seated yelling to each other to be heard over the deafening karaoke music.

Then the food comes. Dishes and dishes of appetizers, salads, seafood, soup, stir-fry, grilled fish and meat appear to somehow miraculously materialize just as you sit down. Beer and shot glasses of rice wine are distributed and the chorus of 'Jol mui!' (Cheers!) resounds in the midst of the karaoke twang from the speakers.

The meal can last the whole night, but if all guests were to miss out on what they really came to the wedding for, they might be heartbroken.

What is really top on the agenda is dancing. With the rice wine flowing and smiles and rosy cheeks glowing, the music (if you can believe it) is turned up a notch and the anticipation grows. Then, innocently, an older woman walks to the swept dirt dance floor and starts to shuffle her feet and bend her hands in a way only female Cambodians know how. Before long, a formation somewhat like a conga line is formed and people follow each other shuffling and swaying their hips in a circle around a center piece which is usually a plant on a table or a tree.

Hours are passed going round and round the tree, and somewhere in the middle of doing the Macarena for the sixth time a wedding cake might be brought out. This is a stretch from traditional culture and is an indicator of the apparent and somewhat sad observation of cultural diffusion from the western world to Cambodia.

The early morning sounds have begun to give way to the start of a new day. Night creatures' noises have succumbed to the diurnal racket of my neighbor's constant chatter as she prepares breakfast in the restaurant next door. Trucks transporting goods to Vietnam honk wildly as they speed through our little blip of a town on a major highway. Pigs in the back of the house are getting hungry and are not quiet about announcing it. Believe it or not, kids taking advantage of the cool morning weather have already started to play volleyball behind my house.

Sometime later in the day, my family members will retrieve the decorations and supplies from the wedding that took place last night. Leaving behind a state of disarray and very hung-over guests, the "wedding-to-go" supplies will be on the move in a perpetual transition during this chaotic time in Cambodia known as wedding season.

• Michael Kohan, of Juneau, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Cambodia. She can be reached at

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