Thursday, February 23, 2012

'Tis the Wedding Season

Actually it has been going on since the dry season started around mid-October. It seems like it started slowly but the farther we progress into the dry season the more weddings take place with a culmination shortly before the Khmer New Year in April. After that it sort of peters out again. But of course, it all depends on what the fortuneteller deems a propitious time and day. The reason it takes place early in the morning is that the bride and groom are supposed to receive the spiritual blessings (suesday somnaang) before sunrise. The strange thing is, though, that all fortunetellers seem to agree on that time of day. Possibly they don’t even address that issue any more as it has become such a fixture in Khmer tradition.

One can say it starts with a big bang. Just the other day, one of my neighbors married off one of his children. When we saw the tent being erected in our street we anticipated with dismay the next morning. Sure enough, at exactly 6 o’clock they started the generator which they had so considerately put right in front of our house and the tape started blaring wedding songs. But who am I to complain? I am the foreigner here – different folks, different strokes.

Roang Kaa - Wedding Tent for the morning ceremonies

How refreshing - the generator a few meters from the tent - together with music, wedding chants - cacophony at its best.

Normally, the religious ceremonies last until midday or 2 o’clock. The wedding reception for all the friends and people deemed worthy of being invited is held later in the day, usually starting at 6 o’clock, at a restaurant or venues that specialize in this, like the Mondial center on Mao Tse Tung Blvd. or the new center at Koh Pich. Depending on the status of the parents this can be a most lavish affair ranging from 10 tables to well over 100 tables. A table usually seats 8 or 10. The parents’ purse also determines how many dishes will be served. Anything less than three is absolutly impossible and three is already considered stingy. The upper class will serve up to 10 different dishes, including small crabs, beef with mango salad, duck, etc.

A big difference to Western weddings are the gifts. Of course, the bride and groom receive a more or less large present from their parents, and some smaller ones from the closest relatives. Normal guests, however, hand over money at the reception in an envelope that is included in the original invitation. No other gifts are given. The amount depends on the social standing of both the parents and the guests. Naturally, as can be expected, the higher the status the more money. Cambodia’s neighoring countries have the same customs in this respect, but the amounts are somewhat more moderate in Vietnam and in Thailand. The Nouveaux Riches in Cambodia know no bounds here either. A wealthy couple attending can easily hand over $500 or even $1,000. This generosity will be returned, however, when a child of that couple gets married. And there is no way around it. I attended a wedding in Vietnam once. The envelope there was neutral, that is, it had no name on it - not so in Cambodia. The preprinted envelope is clearly marked with your name, so the parents can clearly identify you for a miser if you give less than is usual and customary. The benefit of that system, of course, is that the parents might even make a profit as the guests practically pay for their own meals. And this is the exact reason why so man people can hold these wedding parties in such style, many a time well above their social or professional standing. Saving face and showing status is paramount in Cambodian, as in all Asian, societies.

Just imagine a Westerner holding a wedding reception for 1000 guests. Consequently, you don’t see too many of those in the West. If the Khmer parents were to pay for everything out of their own pockets they would easily have to shell out up to $25,000, and sometimes more, for morning ceremony and wedding reception, band, and other entertainers. A nice tent in Phnom Penh including the wedding singers, the musical and electronic equipment can cost around $2,000 - $3,000; more modest ones around $1,000; people in rural areas are luckier – it’s about $300 there. So, altogether, if they had to pay with their own money we would probably see a lot fewer weddings along the streets and roads.

It’s a hassle for the guests, especially the ladies, too. They need a new dress, or they rent one. Make-up and hair-style will take hours; everything for just 2 -3 hours as most receptions end at 8 or 9 o’clock. My wife was invited to the wedding of the son of an ‘Excellency’ just this week. The ladies (look chumteauv) try to outdo each other on these occasions. My normally rather Westernized wife fell back into her traditional Khmer attitude, and felt she needed to look particularly special, not she doesn’t look special every day. This is also the occasion where the ‘successful’ businesswomen, say wives of rich government officials and high-ranking military people, show off their jewelry. While Westerners like to enjoy travel first and head off to a honeymoon in far and exotic locations that can also cost a fortune, Cambodian women appreciate jewelry over everything else. (Sometimes it also serves as consolation for her husband’s infidelities.) Some people receive so many invitations they have to attend 2 or more in one day. Another government official whom I happen to know said he has wedding invitations for virtually every day of the week. Poor guy.

My wife and stepdaughter ready to compete.

When will she get maried?

Thankfully, we have received only two invitations so far. I bowed out of the Ayadom’s (Excellency’s) invitation but attended the simpler one in the town where I have my ‘weekend’ house. This is a small town and I am the only foreigner there. I needed to show my face so as not to offend these good people, and good they all are. They are all very friendly and helpful.


Anonymous said...

You have never mention the words " Beware of empty present envelops". Is that one of the Borey Peng Hout's villas? I don't know why Phnom Penh city has never attracted me as I find it too hot, congested, traffic nightmare, guns everywhere,and most of all, the bribery attitudes starting from PP Airport.

KJE said...

I don't really know what you mean with 'Beware of empty envelopes", as this is simply not done. These people would lose their face and be ostracized from then on.
But you are right; Phnom Penh, although better than similar cities in SE Asia, is becoming less attractive due to traffic.
Sure, the officers at the airport or at the border all ask for a little tea money, but only from Khmer, both overseas and native. Foreigners only get hassled once they are in the country. But if you know your way around, even that can be avoided to a large extent.

Anonymous said...

"An empty envelop" is a wedding gift envelop in which had no money. It did happen to someone lower class. However, it would probably never happen to a middle or higher class family. How would you know if a friend of an invited friend come along while the house had no knowledge of that guest.

lui-in-penh said...

i have the same observations about weddings. at first it was a novelty, but now its driving me nuts (the envelopes! haha) and its also driving our budget out of course.

im married to a khmer guy, and during wedding season, we get a minimum of 20 invites/month and can you imagine how much is that already? i can only sigh.

and they do keep the 'register' and pass it around the family for them to take note how much their 'invitee' gave.

philip phan said...

As always, a nother nice piece from you. Thank you.

Cambodia news said...

I like wedding season, everybody is well-dressed and nice.

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