If you’re a foreigner in Cambodia and someone asks, “Would you like to go to a traditional Khmer wedding with me?”, don’t hesitate. Just say yes.
You should say yes for the following reasons:
1. It’s An Honor
Foreigners rarely go to full Khmer weddings. They mostly cluster at the reception. But through a connection we had with a student translator and film and documentary fixer, we got to be guests of honor, interview the family and even film the whole thing. And by whole thing, I mean two full days of ceremonies. This wedding occurred in Phnom Penh, where weddings are “short”. Weddings in rural areas often run three full days or more and involve days of complicated travel and lodging arrangements for guests.
2. For the Fashion Spectacle.
Cambodian weddings are an intriguing mix of ancient Khmer mythology, ritual, culture, and history. Not to mention, they’re gorgeous. Brides in the U.S. obsess over that one perfect dress. During the course of the Khmer wedding we filmed, the bride changed dresses at least seven times.
All the dresses were insane works of art made from scratch by a wedding tailor who also coordinated the bride’s multiple transformations from behind-the-scenes. With all the quick costume changes and a hair and makeup team standing by for touch-ups, in a lot of ways it felt like we were on a movie set.
3. To Appreciate How Easy Your Wedding Ceremony Was.
Khmer weddings are divided into seven of what our guide described as “paths.”
In one of these paths, both the bride and groom kneel on their knees with their backs straight for hours at a time and bow awkwardly from this position to approximately all of their family members. This is quite a workout for the abs and would turn an ordinary person’s knees to jelly. How they stand up afterward without falling on their faces, I’ll never understand. The pins and needles must be more like knives and swords. On top of that, temperatures in the room–packed with dozens of sweating family members in already humid Cambodia–skyrocketed to over 100 degrees. Luckily in Khmer tradition, smiling through the whole ceremony isn’t expected the way it sometimes is in Western weddings.
4. To Let the Cacophony Wash Over You.
A lot of the fun of a Khmer wedding lies in their cultural embrace of raucous comedy and musical interludes. Even during the ceremonies, the wedding Emcee–usually an older gent who loves his microphone–is wired to a loudspeaker that rings out deafeningly across several blocks.
With music and/or Buddhist chanting blasting through all hours of the day and often stretching far into the night during the height of wedding season, some foreigners complain. I asked a Romanian/Canadian expat currently living in Cambodia (we’ll call her “R”) how she feels about the all-hours music. ”I love it,” she said with a smile on her face. “You’re sitting at home, your walls begin to shake, you hear the music and you know people are enjoying themselves.”
Having lived in Cambodia for the past seven years, she feels strongly about the haters: “If you’re coming to visit someone else’s country and you’re complaining about the noise, then leave. It’s part of the culture. No one asked you to come here. This is their tradition and they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.”
5. To Experience History and Mythology in Action.
Underneath it all, the traditional Khmer wedding is basically a re-enactment of the birth of Cambodia – through a marriage between two star-crossed lovers – with different actors every time. The bride and groom star as Preah Thong, a Prince of India, and Neang Neak, Princess of the Sea. Their marriage begat the kingdom that later became Cambodia and every Khmer wedding traditionally retells this tale.
Bonus: The Reception.
The karaoke and electrified bands rocking the reception might not be as traditional as the ceremonies, but the music does bring everyone out on the dance floor after days of being cooped up the heat together. Young, old, middle-aged–everyone dances. One song sounded so upbeat, I decided to I ask Seiha, to translate what one singer was crooning.
Seiha began translating in a sing-songy voice: “She is lonely. Nobody likes her.” (For a social experiment, the next time you’re at a Western wedding, throw this track into the DJ mix between Uptown Funk and This Will Be (An Everlasting Love) and just see how it goes over).
If you would really like to experience a Khmer wedding, just head to Cambodia during peak wedding season (mid-October to shortly before the Khmer New Year in mid-April – and only during months with 31 days). Then walk anywhere in the country, and you’ll trip over one. Do you see bright pink, orange or green tents blocking the road? Do you hear music blaring? Do you hear gongs and Buddhist monks chanting over loudspeakers? Congratulations! You’ve found yourself a wedding!
** all photos kindly provided by Misadventurist Films, unless otherwise noted **
Stacy Libokmeto and Benjamin J Spencer are filmmakers, independent journalists, amateur musicians and incurable wanderers. They are also the two halves that make up Misadventurist Media. You can currently find them somewhere out in the world filming “I Do: A Wedding of Cultures,” a documentary web series about unique wedding traditions and the people behind them.