16 June 2013

Cambodian weddings

Posing for wedding photos
Three is considered a particularly favourable number in Cambodia because of its correlation with the "three jewels" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Sangha (brotherhood of monks), and the Dhamma (the Buddha's teachings). It should come as no surprise then that Cambodian weddings traditionally last three days and three nights.

I will include here only the main ceremonies that form part of every Cambodian wedding. There are others which families can choose to incorporate: a ritual cleansing, a plea for blessings from the families’ ancestors, and blessings by local monks. As family bonds are extremely important to the Cambodian people, the most significant aspect of all weddings is the joining together of two families.

The ceremonies begin with the groom and his family travelling to the bride’s family’s house to take a time-honoured range of gifts, including foodstuffs like fruits and vegetables, pastries and desserts, amongst other things. Sometimes, this can involve busloads of people travelling to the bride’s homeland but, where the couple lives in the same town, traffic stops as the groom and his entourage process through the streets in all their wedding finery. And finery is the most appropriate word to use here as everyone dresses in their best clothes and the women, in particular, make a dazzling display of flamboyant colour. Tops sparkle with beading and sequins, and the rich, vibrant silks of their ankle-length skirts shimmer as they walk elegantly along.

Above centre is the groom (wearing white and yellow), flanked by his parents
The women in their finery
Glittering fabrics at a local market

The bride and her bridesmaids are also resplendent in gorgeous traditional clothing, often wearing different costumes for each of the three days. As the expense of all this finery quickly mounts up, the costumes are often hired – I remember walking behind a wedding party who had stopped for photographs and seeing the women’s costumes had been pinned together at the back to fit their slender bodies.

The presentation of the dowry is accompanied by traditional songs – in fact, when you live near someone who’s having a wedding, it seems like every single minute of the three days and nights is accompanied by songs, very loud songs that blast out at a multi-decibel deafness-inducing volume on loud speakers designed to disperse the joyful music far and wide. As well as the music, there is often a master of ceremonies, a compere who loves to hear the sound of his own voice and explains every single thing that is happening.


The dowry procession is not the only thing that stops traffic. Inevitably, the bride’s family house is not large enough to contain the hundreds of wedding guests, so a marquee is erected – in the street, if their property isn’t large enough to accommodate it. The marquee itself is every bit as colourful as the guests it contains - lipstick pink is a favourite hue - and the entrance is often decorated with a vivid array of flowers and a sign inscribed with the names of the happy couple.

Brings a whole new meaning to the idea of a drive-in

On day two of the wedding, the hair-cutting ceremony is held. These days the hair cutting is symbolic rather than actual – the bridge and groom wouldn’t have any hair left by the time the master of ceremonies, both sets of parents and all the various relations and friends had snipped off their portions. This ceremony apparently symbolises the beginning of a new start for the newly weds, and is accompanied by blessings and well wishes for their future happiness and prosperity – and more traditional songs.

The pairing ceremony is held on day three. This is where the bride’s and groom’s wrists are literally tied together with special strings by their family members and friends – presumably, ceremonies like this in various cultures are the origin of the saying ‘tying the knot’. And, of course, the knot tying is accompanied by even more traditional songs. 

And then the party begins, with much feasting and drinking and dancing. For the happy couple, the solemn rituals are over, and they can relax and have fun. The amount of fun they have on their wedding night (and for many nights afterwards) becomes apparent nine months later, when their first baby makes an appearance! 

These days, wedding costumes can be a mixture of the traditional and the modern.