By Vince Stange
Cambodia’s streets serve many purposes, possibly more than any other streets in the world. In Phnom Penh, during the morning and evening rush-hours, the traffic spills-onto the sidewalks with motos, tuk-tuks, cars, tractor-trailers, food carts, and everything in-between. Meanwhile the quieter streets are filled with children playing “flip-flop football,” Khmer BBQ grills, families engaging in “ankgoy leng” (play sitting, or relaxing in chairs), and stray dogs keeping watch over their domain.
In the country, the scene is often different, but no less busy. Water buffalo and cows seem to come out of no-where, emerging from the ditch onto the road with their human herders. Chickens cross the street (literally to get to the other side), tractors putt-on-by, and motos weave in-and-out of it all. In the evenings, the countryside roads are pretty much empty by 7 p.m., with very few vehicles passing by after that. By that time, the sun has completely set, and families are eating, with most folks in bed by about 9 p.m., only to rise at 4:30 or 5 a.m. the following morning.
There is one thing, though—one thing, that will get everyone into the streets after 7 p.m. Not only will they come, but they will dress to the nines, and they will dance. That’s right, they will literally dance in the streets. That one thing, of course, is a Cambodian wedding.
Now, as rare as this event may sound, it is not nearly as rare as it may be in many other places.
By 2020, it is projected that 40% of Cambodia’s population will be between the ages of 15 and 30, making it one of the ‘youngest’ countries in the world. Combine that with the fact that most Cambodian’s are married before the age of 30, and, well…you get the point. Weddings happen really often. This is especially true between the months of November and March (also known as wedding season), because it is not rainy season, nor is it hot season. It’s an ideal time to get married outdoors.
Now, for the wedding itself. Most traditional weddings consist of a number of ceremonies, including a fruit-carrying ceremony, a hair-cutting ceremony and a more formal time of parents consenting their permission and “handing-over” their children in marriage. All of these ceremonies have great significance, both in Khmer culture, and also in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Christian-Khmer weddings, of which I have attended three already, are composed of an interesting mix of traditional Khmer attire and ceremonies along with Western Christian traditions (including a feet-washing ceremony). The reception is almost always held in the middle of the street (both in the countryside and the city), with a five or six course meal served and a “dancing circle” (with fruit in the middle) accompanied by a band (sometimes with live dancers).
Khmer weddings are a far cry from Western weddings in that they are community events and not simply a gathering of some family and friends, if the whole getting married in the middle of the street thing doesn’t emphasize that fact enough, consider this—on average, 500-1,000 guests attend each wedding—with some weddings surpassing that. Pretty much any acquaintance with the groom, bride, or their family is invited.
I have had the pleasure of attending five Khmer wedding so far (in just seven months), and recently served as a “Neak Komdol” (groomsman) in two of them. While I was honored to be asked to participate—it was quite a long day. It starts at about 5 a.m., with preparations for the fruit-carrying ceremony, and concludes with lots of “cheers-ing” and circular dancing around 10 pm. The day starts even earlier for women getting their make up done.
The entire wedding party wears traditional Khmer clothing—similar in style to the bride and groom. It is hard to state how colorful and flowery everything and everyone looks, it is a quite distinct look, yet beautiful in its own right. It’s also hard to grab onto all of the visual adjectives you could use to describe a Khmer wedding—loud, boisterous, metallic, flashy, over-the-top, maybe even ‘bumping.’ The non-visual adjectives? Tasty, hilarious, welcoming, and so quintessentially Cambodian.
So, if you ever find yourself in Cambodia, do yourself a favor and follow the crowd towards the ginormous metal loudspeaker blasting out Khmer melodies, and take your one chance to do a little dancing in the street.
Vince Stange is serving as an Education Program Facilitator in Prey Veng province in Cambodia. Prior to moving to Cambodia he worked as a teacher in New York City.