Cambodia for beginners
The country in a nutshell
Going to a Cambodian wedding
Of all the hospitality that might be extended to visitors in Cambodia, an invitation to a wedding is probably the most special. Wedding parties usually take place in street-side yellow and pink marquees by the family home, or in a hall at a specialist wedding venue. Put aside thoughts of formal speeches and hours of photographs: you’re most likely to receive an evening summons to party. Now all you have to worry about is what to wear, what to bring as a gift and how to behave.
For the ladies, there can never be enough make-up or sequins. Khmer women really go to town in peacock-coloured traditional silk skirts, beaded bodices or bling ballgowns. Join in the fun with a pre-wedding package at a Khmer salon — you’ll be crimped, primped and sent on your way with an inch of makeup and risk of a typhoon if you blink your false eyelashes too rapidly.
Men tend to wear new jeans or formal trousers, with a short-sleeved silk shirt or something snazzy from the market. Check out pop-up shirt stalls by the roadside for a suitably sparkly or floral number and do try it on — arm length and chest size could be on the small side.
Khmer wedding invitations don’t come with extensive lists of required household appliances. Instead, cold hard cash is the order of the day. If you receive a written invitation, the envelope should be used for a contribution in dollars. If you don’t have an official envelope, supply your own and write your own name on it. Gifts are passed over (using both hands) at a table where representatives from both families record donations in a ledger. One use of the written record is that reciprocal gifts of equal amount will be given at weddings which the happy couple attend in future.
How much you give is up to you, but consider that it’s polite to cover the cost of the food and drink you’ll be provided with. A sliding scale exists depending on whether the party includes a full bar, whisky and rice wine, or simply beer and softies on your table.
Eating and drinking
Arriving too early for a wedding in Cambodia is a rookie mistake. Consider the time on the invitation as more of a suggestion. The meal isn’t served in one sitting; rather, a table will be provided with food when all the seats are full. Get there too early and you’ll be desperately grinning at each guest as they arrive, hoping they’ll join your table so you can tuck in. Several courses are provided, with dishes heaped in the middle for everyone to share. Don’t expect vegetarian options — fish and meat are the staples. Personal cutlery shouldn’t be used to serve from the main dishes, follow the lead of your fellow guests in table manners and etiquette. The meal will be regularly interrupted for ‘Cheers!’ (chul muoi) with passing guests and across the table.
What happens next depends on the wedding. The bride and groom may make several costume changes throughout the evening, and some will walk through a guard of honour, with guests lined up to throw flower petals. All weddings, however, are guaranteed to include loud music, often with a live band, and plenty of dancing. A table piled with fruit is often the focal point for the first circular dance. Guests take pieces of fruit, representing fertility, to bestow blessings of children on the couple. Dances will be a mixture of the traditional, the retro rom Madizone, and bopping about to modern techno hits. Guests will be pleased to show you some moves — the challenge is to co-ordinate hand and foot movements while looking graceful and not falling over. Festivities ease off after a couple of hours as guests slowly drift away, leaving a hardcore group of dancers making the most of deafening speakers.
Not lucky enough to secure an invitation to nuptials? The next best thing is to have your own Cambodian wedding photography shoot.
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