This past weekend I was invited to a wedding, and I did not know either bride or groom. Prior to going I asked my colleague and the person who invited me, Pinkie, what to expect. Her response: bling. Cambodian weddings are very elaborate affairs. In advance of the event, the bride and groom have hundreds and hundreds of pictures taken. These pictures entail multiple outfit changes and bizarre concepts that are not in any way wedding themed. For example, I’ve heard of an engaged couple having pictures taken against backdrops of major global cities, including a backdrop of Rome with the couple pretending to ride a Vespa a la Audrey and Gregory in Roman Holiday.
The wedding itself usually takes place over multiple days, with the actual ceremony occurring in the bride’s home with approximately one hundred guests. I attended the reception on the second day of this wedding. Because I am in the capital city and the groom is fairly wealthy, this was not a traditional Cambodian wedding reception. The whole affair was very modern, taking place in a resort hotel on Diamond Island.
When we arrived, we went to the hall labeled “K” and were greeted by a red carpet lined with people I can only assume where the bride and groom’s families. The hall itself was a huge, long room with no less than sixty tables accommodating approximately 600 people. Down the center of the room ran another red carpet. At one end of the carpet were a stage, dance floor, and a fruit arrangement in the relative shape of a cake. At the other end was a photo backdrop that looked like it came out of a fantasy. Deep purple faux flowers dripped in heavy arrangements around the border of a wooded scene.
We sat down at a random table, and when the seats were filled the waiters began bringing food, of which there were six courses and fourteen dishes (if my memory serves me well). Among these dishes were a suckling pig (including half the head), a whole fish, noodles and rice, a seafood salad, shrimp curry, and the typical Cambodian seafood soup. There was also a bottle of Chivas Regal for each table. Waiters filled our water glasses with ice so persistently that my Scotch quickly transformed from a drink on the rocks to water with a splash of Scotch.
Pinkie’s description of “bling” fairly adequately ascribed the evening’s attire. I’ve never felt so underdressed, even though I would have been appropriately dressed for any wedding in the U.S. All of the women were wearing tight, vibrantly colored dresses that contained no less than three of the following: glitter, sequins, rhinestones, lace, satin, tulle, bows, and sashes. The makeup was heavy and the hair was done by professionals. Additionally, I was very surprised by the number of bare arms and shoulders I saw. Cambodia is typically modest when it comes to attire. It is considered indecent to expose the upper arms and shoulders. Either the modern, westernized dresses were a deviation from the norm or standards are changing, at least among the (upper?) middle class of Phnom Penh.
After dinner the bride and groom made their way down the red carpet toward the stage as guests stood alongside and threw flower petals on them. I’m not entirely sure what happened at that point, because there were far too many guests to be able to observe the events.
At some point after polishing off a traditional Cambodian desert tray, the dancing began. Though it was entertaining to observe, the dancing was terrifying to partake in. All of the music was Khmer. Mostly, people danced a circle around the cake-shaped fruit table. Occasionally, the circle broke up and formed smaller groups of dancers. When dancing in these groups, it seemed rude to leave or go elsewhere. If people took breaks, they would say they would be back shortly and return within a few minutes. One of the larger groups of younger people got their hands on the bride’s bouquet. The holder of the bouquet danced in the center of their group for a minute or two before passing it off to someone else, at which point everyone laughed, wooed, and/or screamed. During one of the circuitous dances, a man of about sixty literally dragged me onto the dance floor with a grip that quite hurt. I awkwardly moved my feet and prayed that the dance would end soon, only to be swept into a sub-group when it did. When some of the younger women stormed the stage and began performing I was able to escape.
Because weddings are so large (usually 500 people or so) and costly, guests are expected to bring a monetary gift (usually $20 to $35 depending on how well you know the bride and groom). I can’t help but wonder if, for a wedding that luxurious, the gift actually makes up the cost of the wedding. The hall, the food, music, decorations, photos, wedding attire, it all has to cost a small fortune, even with less bling.
Though my glimpse into a Cambodian cultural event was non-traditional, I expect that it will increasingly become the norm for Phnom Penh’s middle class. At the very least, I was able to experience a very unique component of Cambodian culture.