Traditional weddings in Cambodia truly test endurance

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The couple engaged in numerous rituals, this one directly in front of their parents.

The bride, bridegroom and their families arose around 3 a.m. on the day of the wedding to prepare for formalities starting approximately 7 a.m.  Preparations included the professional application of layers of makeup and the creation of elegant hairdos.

The key figures didn’t sleep again until sometime before midnight the same day following an elaborate dinner attended by a throng of 640 in a catering hall.

They also were up late the previous night, when 260 of their closest friends and extended family members joined them for a night of celebrating the upcoming union at tables set up under a tent on the street in front of the bride’s home in the Phnom Penh district of Stung Meanchey.

Little did I, who had to leave home for the wedding at 6 a.m., appreciate what a physically challenging experience a Khmer wedding would be for guests and participants alike.  Nor had I fully understood how extensive, time-consuming and physically challenging are the customs demanded of Cambodian families with a Chinese heritage.  Among the demands is sitting or squatting solemnly on floors for hours at a time.

There are candles, gaily tossed flowers, Buddhist monks chanting, nine or 10 clothing changes for the bride, matching outfits for the bridegroom, burning joss sticks, endlessly arranged formal photographs, ceremonial hair cutting, prayerful hand gestures, offerings of food in a long procession, banging of gongs and orchestrated bonding between the two clans.

Although I have considered how many rituals some organized religions practice, I think it is safe to say that few compare with the density, complexity and quantity required for a traditional Cambodian wedding.

Aside from ceremony, Cambodian custom also dictates that abundant breakfast, lunch and dinner be served, with the wedding reception that topped off the celebration I attended featuring a bottle of 18-year-old scotch on each table.  (There wasn’t much left.)

Although Asian embellishments predominated, Western touches were not ignored such as cake cutting, a bouquet toss and ring exchanges.

I couldn’t begin to understand much of what I witnessed and, even if I could, see no reason to consider explaining it all in this space when others here and here have covered the same ground already.  I am happy to have attended the traditional wedding —  which, I should say, was not without modification from the strictest standards — and hope never to have to go to another such marathon.  (Iron pants, I am not.)

In any case, pictures being what they usually are worth, the ones below should give you a pretty good idea of the experience.

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Wedding marquis are commonly set up on the street in front of the bride’s home.

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Offerings of fruit and other comestibles are meant to ensure a variety of goodness and wishes such as happiness and luck. They are provided to wedding guests, who pick them up, walk a short distance from the event and return in a formal procession.  Many minutes pass, and some of the guests noted afterward that their hands trembled from the weight of their burdens.

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We lined up two by two to deliver the goods. The offerings had numbers on them to indicate our places.  You might be able to glimpse me (section 8) in a white shirt way to the left with my proffered apples.

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The bride and bridegroom lead the procession along with the parents and other relatives.

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Those red envelopes are pretty important. Distributed by the families with guest names on the outside, they are for cash, the only acceptable gift and a mandatory one at that.

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Who me? The comic master of ceremonies (not pictured) spotted me — one of three guests from the West — and then bantered with me. However much intimidated, I actually responded to him in Khmer over that microphone but switched to English when he swiftly questioned me in his language.

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My moment of humiliation trying to understand Khmer and replying accordingly over a microphone occurred just before the hair-cutting ritual, which doesn’t actually involve lopped locks.

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The bridegroom’s parents naturally played along with the ritual.

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Golden receptacles contain the rings that will be exchanged.

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Yup, that’s the bride placing a ring on her spouse’s finger.

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Hunger was a stranger banished during the two-day affair.

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The outdoor kitchen, established in its own tent behind the one for guests. That’s papaya salad in the foreground, and it went well with the fish that was served family-style as was everything else.

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Yet another change of dress for the weary couple.

This 6-year-old boy, whose father is behind me, wordlessly attached himself to me during the wedding events, trailing me and hugging my knees for a reason known only to him.

This charming 6-year-old boy, whose agreeable father is behind me, wordlessly attached himself to me during the wedding events, trailing me and hugging my knees for a reason known only to him.

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The reception was in a catering complex. Our section was labeled “L,” and the alphabet extended in both directions. No one checks invitations, so maybe free dinner every Saturday night is an option.

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Yes, at some point, they cut the cake, though I was too sated to push through the crowd for a look.

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The bridegroom is about to hand the bouquet to his wife for her to toss, just like they do in the West.

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Those red envelopes are opened and their contents recorded with extreme diligence. Each “side” hopes to outdo the other, I believe.

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The reception on the Saturday night of the morning wedding was jammed with 640 guests.

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The remains of the night among a group of friends robustly enjoying each other.

This may well be my last post until after the New Year, which I hope will be the happiest ever for my readers.  Here is wishing you a memorable holiday season.

E-mail: malcolmcarter@gmail.com

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