As the weather in Cambodia has become cool (ok… mid 80s) and the rains have stopped, wedding season (December through May) has begun! Khmer weddings now range from very traditional to a mix of Khmer tradition and western tradition. Luckily I was able to experience pieces of both, as well as seeing the differences between more rural weddings and those in the city.
Like anywhere in the world, there is a certain amount of planning involved in and importance placed on getting married. However, the difference is than men in Cambodia are expected to save money over the course of many years in order to present the future wife with a “package of money” with which she will plan the wedding. This “package”, for a mid-sized wedding, is expected to be around $5,000 and approximately 400 to 500 guests would be invited. Now remember that salaries in Cambodia are low, so for many men saving this amount of money is a big commitment.
Before a couple becomes engaged (many marriages, especially those in rural villages, are arranged, so much of this would occur between the families without much input from the husband and wife to be) there are many discussions between the two families and decisions as to whether the match will be successful and beneficial for everyone (sometimes marriages will be arranged based on potential business opportunities). The couple will visit a “guesser” who reviews the background of the man and woman (year each of them were born, what animal represents that year on the Khmer calendar, etc) to determine if they are a good match. If they are a good match, the guesser will also tell them the most auspicious date for their engagement and wedding (thus many weddings are weekday evenings).
The first step is the engagement ceremony, where the couple exchanges rings (the men often wear pretty flashy gold bands set with diamonds) and they receive blessings. A few months (or however long they decide between the engagement and wedding- a few months to a year) later the wedding is held over the course of two (to three, if you undergo all of the possible traditional rituals) days. The first day is like the rehearsal dinner and involves discussions between the two families followed by a large meal. The second day begins from the early hours of the morning, when family and friends carry baskets of fruits to present to the couple. After this process the couple undergoes the main ceremony of the day where they receive blessings and have their hair cut by their family members (small clippings). Lunch follows the ceremony and further rituals are performed in the afternoon (as I said, there are so many rituals that they can last for up to three days, so it is up to the couple as to how many they want to perform). The day is finalized with a big party (this is where the 500 guests attend- before this only family and very close friends participate). The party involves a large dinner, further blessings, an exchange of fruit between the new husband and wife and from the husband and wife to their parents (picture something similar to the cake cutting ritual in the US) and lots of dancing; of course, mostly traditional dancing, which you can easily view here – I had lots of fun learning the various traditional dances, but be warned, your wrists really start to hurt when you first start learning! 🙂 One of my favorites is saravan.
I was really surprised to find that, not only between rituals, but throughout the party the bride changes clothes (and sometimes the groom, to match) approximately five to seven times!! Each traditional outfit is a different color (with different shoes, accessories, etc).
However, much of this is different for weddings that are a mix between traditional and western. For the wedding I attended in Phnom Penh, the bride changed dresses during the party, but both were white/cream gowns and the groom was wearing a cream colored suit to match. They combined the tradition of walking down an isle with the the ritual of feeding each other fruit, and they had a first dance (something that did not occur at the other two, more traditional, weddings I attended).
For the guests the party is great, although if you attend numerous weddings every year it can become quite costly, especially as the women all get fully made up with hair and makeup and wear elaborate, beautiful dresses (therefore the guests at many weddings are predominately men as it takes so much time and money for women to attend- especially for those weekday evening weddings). Guests are also expected to, instead of giving a gift like in the US, make a monetary contribution. Ultimately, although the wedding is very expensive for newly married couples, much of that expense is made up in these gifts.