In December last year two of my closest friends in Cambodia were married. She is English, a foreigner (‘barang’ in the Khmer language), and he was born and raised in Kampot, a province about two hours south-west of Phnom Penh. What follows is an account of their wedding day.
We arrived in Kampot the afternoon before, turning off the main highway from Phnom Penh onto a skinny orange dirt road. We were greeted by a vibrant mess of a village: kids, dogs, chickens, and decorations going up. Behind the flurry of activity, rice fields stretched into the distance, peppered with gangly coconut trees and fanned with a cool harvest-time breeze. Once our cargo had been unloaded (boxes of whiskey and armfuls of pink and white lotus flowers) we were ushered inside for the first ceremony: a Buddhist blessing for the bride and groom. We covered our knees and shoulders and knelt on the floor, hands pressed together at our chests while saffron-clad monks chanted. My Cambodian is rudimentary at best, but when I later asked the groom what the monks were saying he shrugged his shoulders. The chants are an ancient language – Sanskrit – that many Khmer people don’t understand.
We slept that night on the second floor of a wooden house, and were woken at five-thirty by the distorted disharmonies of Cambodian wedding music. The morning was a blur of braided hair and fried bananas for breakfast. By ten-thirty we were dressed (pink skirts, gold belts, false eyelashes) and ready for The Fruit Walk.
The Fruit Walk is one of the most important ceremonies in the Khmer wedding tradition. The bride and bridesmaids wait in the house for the groom and the guests, who come bearing fruit and other gifts. The bride is escorted downstairs just before the groom reaches the house, and she walks a few metres to meet him. The couple then walk together to the wedding tent, where the fruit is acknowledged and the guests are thanked. There is no priest or celebrant in a Khmer wedding, but a male and female ‘MC’ run the show. I understood very little of their rapid-fire Cambodian, but the feeling in the air was palpable: a heady mix of excitement and joy.
A quick costume change for Cut Sok – The Hair Cutting ceremony. Burnt orange pants and single-shoulder tops had us feeling a little like princesses out of Arabian Nights; the boys were similarly regal in shiny gold jackets. Traditionally, close relatives would cut a piece of the bride and groom’s hair to symbolise a new beginning. These days the cutting is mimed – though the groom’s elderly grandfather managed to get a few real snips in!
The last Khmer ceremony for the day (and my favourite) was P’tum: the Pairing Ceremony. The bride and groom are dressed from head to toe in gold, to resemble a king and a queen. According to the story, a king falls in love with the daughter of a dragon, and she takes him to visit her palace under the sea. To help him breathe, she holds him close to her in the water (this is represented in the ceremony by the groom holding the bride’s clothes as they walk together). Family and friends throw flower petals over the couple, and tie pieces of red string around their wrists to wish them well (the song traditionally sung during this ceremony goes: “We wish for true happiness and success to this couple, who will always be together like wet grass seeds”). There is no limit to how many people can tie the string, and by the end of the ceremony the bride and groom had forearms covered in red thread. The string must remain tied for at least a week after the wedding. It was lovely to see so much good will, so brightly worn.
Once the Cambodian ceremonies were done it was time for the Western component. After some initial complications (a broken stereo cord, kids running off with the basket of flowers) everyone sat down for the exchange of vows. For an English wedding in the Cambodian countryside things were predictably chaotic – and perfect. The sun began to set over the rice fields as the bride walked barefoot down the ‘aisle’ (read dirt path in front of the house); kids were running around, baby chickens ‘cheeped’ in the background; some guests chatted to each other and into cell phones while others listened intently; and at one point the bride’s dog settled himself on her train and went to sleep. Lips were kissed, confetti was thrown, and the bride and groom headed off into the rice fields for a photo shoot with the cows (one of which was presented to the bride in place of a dowry[i]).
The day ended with eating, drinking, and dancing. So much dancing. We sashayed – Apsara-style – late into the night. Kids, coiffed teenagers, parents, grandparents; Khmer rock, K-pop, and even some Mariah Carey. We woke the next morning with sore feet and aching heads, but big smiles. Back down the skinny orange track to Phnom Penh – no cans rattling on the back of the minivan, but a whole lot of red knots tied.
[i] The modern dowry system in Cambodia is based on money rather than livestock. However, when the bride refused to let the groom’s parents pay for her hand in marriage it was suggested that a newborn calf be given instead. The cow remains on the farm in Kampot, but out of respect for the bride – a vegetarian and an animal lover – it will not be used for meat.