(Photos – The beautiful and lovely wedding couple.)
Love is in the air and you can just feel it when you start to experience road blocks all over the city, hear loud live music which seems to reverberate in your neighbourhood at night and receive more than five wedding invitations in a month. Unfortunately for me, I only received one, but fortunately enough it was the mother of all weddings that I have ever attended.
Yes, this is the month where many young Cambodians decide to tie the knot and they do it with much pomp and circumstance in this hot and dry season. I think that February, March and April are chosen, not because they are considered as auspicious, but more of practicality. In a country where the majority of people still rely on tuk-tuks and motordop (motorcycles) as modes of transportation, the weather is an important factor to ensure a good turn-out at a wedding.
On 1 March 2009, I was honoured to be able to attend the wedding of one of my colleague’s daughter. It was truly a spectacular and colourful event. The traditional and cultural richness could only be matched by the display of brightly coloured and intricate weaving of Cambodian silks on the couple and guests’ attire.
One must be aware that Cambodians take the proverb “the early bird catches the worm” very seriously. As early risers and probably also to take advantage of the temporary cool morning air, the first part of a wedding ceremony usually starts as early as 7am. Traditionally, a Cambodian wedding lasts for 3 days and 3 nights, in association with the 3 jewels of Buddhism; the Buddha, the Sangha (brotherhood of monks) and the Dhamma (the teachings of Buddha). Now, it has been reduced to 1 day in big cities as urbanites get caught up with their hectic city lives.
(Photos – The procession. Bottom left: A young girl carrying two bottles of Johnnie Walker. Bottom right: Two smiling ladies carrying trays of dessert.)
A wedding typically starts off with a short procession where the families and friends of the bridegroom carry trays of meticulously wrapped gifts of fruits, dessert, dried food and drinks to the bride’s house. This practice is more of a symbolism now compared to previous times or in the village where the groom comes with a large entourage of people bearing gifts as dowry to the bride. For those who are curious and keen to participate in this, do remember to wear comfortable footwear. (I was not warned beforehand and did suffer a bit walking on my high heels although it was just less than 200m).
(Photos – The team of musicians, master of ceremony and singer entertaining the guests, leaving them in roars of laughter and delight.)
Once all the guests are settled in the house, married couples gather around the main ceremonial area (usually in a dining hall) in the presence of monks who will officiate the ceremony and the couple’s parents. Traditional music and songs are very important during a wedding for their auspicious meanings and moral values concerning couple relationship, obedience and respect for their parents.
(Photos – Carefully arranged gifts, ceremonial items and offerings for the altar.)
While waiting for the bride and groom to make an appearance, I couldn’t help but notice how every single ceremonial item was delicately arranged, wrapped or painted, from the flowers to the offerings. Needless to say, all guests were dressed in their best custom-tailored traditional costumes. I often wonder how many pairs of tailored dresses do the women own and how many times must one pay a visit to the hair salon to get their hair and make-up done? Yes, hair salons are big business in Cambodia where weddings are still considered as a scared part of their lives.
(Photo – Breakfast)
While the couple and monks get ready for the ceremony, all guests were treated with breakfast, served under a canopy set up in front of the house (and this explains the road congestion if a wedding is held in busy locations). I had one of the most sumptuous breakfast that day when I dug into generous helpings of hot rice noodle soup, served with condiments like bean sprouts, dried shrimps, pickled vegetables, lime juice and yau char kuey (deep fried long pieces of flour dough, usually in pairs). As dessert (yes, dessert even for breakfast!), I tucked into bite-sized sticky rice with desiccated coconut and palm sugar individually wrapped in banana leaves (a bit like the Malaysian version of pulut inti) and an assortment of fresh local fruits.
(Photos – Left: The couple giving blessings to each other. Right: A very elegant, beautiful and happy bride.)
Once my stomach was filled, it was time to sit in for the long ceremony. To narrow it down, I have chosen two main rituals; hair cutting and pairing ceremonies. The ceremonies are usually participated by close relatives and friends who are married only, while being observed by other guests. I was given the privilege to partake in the ceremonies due to the host’s hospitality, extended to a foreigner who appreciates live cultural exchanges.
(Photos – Left: Hair cutting ceremony. Right: Tying of the couple’s wrists by the bride’s parents.)
The hair cutting ceremony represents the fresh start to the couple’s lives as husband and wife. The bride and groom’s hair are symbolically cut first by the master of ceremony, then the couple’s parents and followed by their close relatives and friends. Blessings and wishes for the couple’s happiness, prosperity and longevity are given at the same time. To make their life fragrant, perfume is also sprayed on their hair. The groom will be hard pressed to know that the ignorant foreigner did actually cut off a small piece of his hair!
(Photos: Gifts for the couple during the string tying ceremony.)
Then, came the more arduous ritual, the pairing ceremony which consists of two parts; tying of the couple’s wrists and seven rotation. I really admire how the couple remain composed, elegant and graceful under the watchful eyes of guests, camera crew and not to mention uncomfortable seating positions and the heat.
Strings that have been immersed in holy water are tied onto the groom’s left wrist and the bride’s right, accompanied by the song that goes like this “We tie your left wrist to make you remember your parents. We tie your right wrist to make you carry on the family lineage and traditions." During this time, relatives take the opportunity to shower the couple with gifts such as jewelleries and money.
(Photos – The seven rotation ceremony.)
Once this is completed, a monk lights up a few bee-wax candles which are passed from one hand to the other around the couple seven times. The flame of the pure bee-wax candle represents anger, which the couple should avoid but the smoke of the flame is sacred enough to protect them from all evils if they are sincerely committed to each other. Family members who receive the candle, motion their hands over the flame to guide the smoke of the sacred flame over the bride and groom.
The ceremony was concluded with shower of palm flowers thrown at the new couple.
Albeit being long, I had thoroughly enjoyed this rare occasion. I feel that I had attended the wedding as an ignorant foreigner but returned as an enriched person. I thank the couple and their families for presenting me with this opportunity and wish all of them a lifetime of happiness, peace, good health and prosperity.
(Photos – Left: The parents of the bride watching the ceremony with mixed feelings; pride but at the same time a hint of sadness as their daughter starts a new chapter of her life. Right: The groom following the bride to mark the completion of the ceremony. In Cambodian culture, the groom stays with the bride’s family once they are married.)