a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Thursday, August 9, 2012

my first traditional Cambodian wedding

Weddings in Cambodia are cause for large celebrations, not just for the bride and groom but for the community. January is the most popular month to get married because the harvest is done and it's not planting time yet. In the city, whole streets are blocked off with giant tents for three days in row. It makes driving in this already chaotic and crowded city that much more challenging. Stephen had to alter his route to work and my route to school on more than one occasion. And my assistant was late once because there were so many tents up on her route that every new street she tried was blocked.
In May I got to experience a traditional Cambodian wedding for myself. It was in a province, not the city, and the drive was 3 1/2 hours one way. It was an extremely hot day, probably in the 100's and our air conditioner was not working properly. Even in the passenger seat with air blowing directly on me, I was sweating. We caravanned with Stephen's staff so all together our party numbered 10 people. We stopped at a gas station about 3/4 of the way there and some of the staff changed into their fancy clothes. Women wear sequined and rhinestone studded silk dresses. In fact it's almost hard to tell who the bride is because all the dresses are just as fancy as the bride's outfit. I wore what I would wear to a wedding in the US but I felt not nearly dressed up enough.
While we waited for the truck to catch up to us, the girls riding with us found a scale, presumable used to weigh large bags of rice, and proceeded to weigh themselves. They all weighed about the same, mostly just under 50kg so about 100-110lbs. It was amusing to me to watch them climb up on what looked like a giant kitchen food scale.
It was 4pm when we finally arrived at the wedding. The bride's family lives way outside of the village, so quite a rural feel. The bride and groom greeted us at our car and led us into the tented area. Stephen and I were the only foreigners there and everyone was staring at us. There were hundreds of people sitting at large round tables, already eating. Our party was shown to a table in the center and food was brought out immediately. One or two large platters were set in the middle of the table. There were no serving spoons so everyone at the table used their chopsticks to dish up the food. For me that was fine before the chopsticks were used but after people ate with them and then used them again to serve themselves AND others, I was grossed out. Some people acted as if the platter was their own personal dish and ate directly from it without bothering to first fill their individual bowl. I noticed all of this but did not know what to do. If I stopped eating that would be so obviously rude to the people at the table and the bride and groom. There was no way for me to stop other people from touching the food I was eating with their chopsticks. So I decided to put it out of my mind and just pray that I didn't get sick. Besides I knew we had a lot of medicine in our med kit at home and we would be at home that evening.
The food was delicious. I tried everything and liked most of it. There were about seven courses including dessert. It turns out I tried "prahok" and liked it. It's fermented fish paste that the Khmer add to many of their dishes. There was also a continuous flow of beverages and girls circulating with bags of ice. For the most part the girls used tongs to put the ice in our cups but to be helpful some of the people at the table would grab the ice with their hands and distribute it in the glasses around the table. I drank several cans of 7-up, something I never do, but there was no water and it was hot and I was thirsty. Despite all that liquid I was drinking I didn't need to use the restroom until we got home that night. I sweat instead. The bride felt sorry for me because she noticed and pointed to the sweat that was pooled at my neck just above my collar bone. The men at our table drank Angkor beer and it felt like every other minute some one was making a toast. Sometimes I joined in but sometimes I just kept eating. Brother!
To collect the many many beer and soda cans, there were little boys and girls running between and crawling under the tables. I started to take pictures of them and then show them the shot in my camera screen. They were really interested in photos of themselves. Good photos were hard to get. The tent cloth was red so it cast a red glow on everything making the colors garish. A Khmer woman told me later that they do that on purpose because the Khmer like how the red glow affects their skin color. Well I do not have Khmer skin and red is the last kind of color cast I want. My skin is pink normally and red in the heat so add another red color cast on top of that and what you get is a tomato. I also felt so conspicuous taking pictures. No one else but the official photographer had a camera.
After the meal there was dancing. There was a live band that had been playing throughout the meal, and dancers on stage. I had been watching and was intrigued by the choice of clothing and style of dance. The skirts were very short and their dancing style was provocative. It seemed incongruous for a wedding in my opinion. When people began to dance they did nothing like what the performers on stage did. Cambodian dancing involved walking slowly in a circle slightly moving your hands in extremely flexed ways. Hyper-extending the fingers and elbows is the hallmark of Khmer traditional dance. Stephen and I joined in to be polite because we were invited to. I watched the other women and tried to copy them. When they would see me watching them and trying, they would smile encouragingly. After one very long dance I decided we had been polite enough, a girl can only tolerate so many gallons of sweat in one day. But as we were making to leave the dance area, men were grabbing hold of our arms and trying to pull us back. I was shocked but I smiled and then firmly pulled my arms away.

We had more passengers on the way home because some of the staff had to stay in the province for work and kept a vehicle with them. Two of the staff had to sit in the rear of the car cross-legged for the whole 3 1/2 hour drive back to Phnom Penh. Our small Rav4 became a 7 passenger vehicle.

Except for suffering in the heat, traditional Khmer weddings seem pretty interesting, particularly when they are in the country. I look forward to attending more in the future. Perhaps in January next time. :)

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