Weddings are part of every human society and culture but the rituals and customs surrounding marriage can vary tremendously.
I do not officiate many weddings here in Cambodia. I help prepare many members of our international community for marriage but then they return to their home countries for the actual wedding ceremony.
However, I do attend a great number of weddings for Cambodians. In most of them, I do not know and have never met the bride and groom. I am invited by their parents whom I have met in the disability networks that I am part of.
The Cambodian wedding system is designed around mutual exchange. You invite me to the wedding of your son or daughter, and I come and pay money as I enter the reception hall. Then when my children get married, I invite you and you come and help pay for my family’s wedding. This exchange is in place of giving wedding gifts.
Foreigners are usually welcome guests. The presence of a foreigner can give status to a family, indicating connections beyond just their neighborhood. Also, foreigners tend to have money and can make a significant contribution to paying the wedding costs.
In Cambodia, the actual weddings are small affairs, usually held at 6 a.m. on a weekday morning. A room in the bride’s house is cleared of furniture, mats are put down and then Buddhist monks perform ritual chanting. The bride and groom undergo traditional practices, such as clipping locks of their hair and offering tea to their parents. Then the small number of mostly family invitees eats a breakfast served in a tent set up in — and blocking — the street in front of the house.
The more significant wedding event is the wedding reception, usually starting at 5 p.m. the same day. Again it is held in a large tent set up in the street or in a field in a rural area, and the guests are seated at round tables for eight persons. People come anytime after 5 p.m. and when eight people have filled a table, food is brought to them.
Foreigners become a problem in this context because local people who don’t know English don’t want to sit with them. But no food will be brought to the table until the seats are filled.
At a midway point, people interrupt their eating for additional traditions such as the couple processing around a table laden with symbolic gifts and exchanges with the parents. Then eventually the tables are pushed aside and there is traditional Khmer dancing.
Guests are free to arrive and leave at any time. And when a table has been emptied, it is then reset for another eight people.
It is good to celebrate with families but I find wedding receptions are not my favorite social activity here:
- At one wedding, eating the reception meal in a tent set up in a rural field, I felt something against my leg and found a huge hog rooting for food under the table.
- Portable kitchens cook the food beside the tents and hygiene is sometimes greatly lacking.
- There is a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label on every table and drinking to excess is considered part of the ceremonies.
- Cambodian culture requires that a real celebration be LOUD and there is a wall of speakers at the reception that permits communication only with sign language.
I wish all the newlyweds well and I am happy to share in the joy of their wedding days. I just try not to spend too much time at the receptions.
Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at parish-without-borders.org.