Wednesday, February 22, 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.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Good Food and a Big Hassle

I needed to go to Vietnam to check on my boat that I had ordered with a Vietnamese company. The deal in Sihanoukville (see post) hadn’t worked out as the partners there had a falling out and broke up. Anyway, we set out from Sihanoukville to Kep where we wanted to spend the night so we could cross into Vietnam at the Prek Chak/Xa Xia checkpoints in the morning and make the trip to An Bien on the coast all the way in the south, west of vast Mekong delta and back in one day.

Since we were passing Bokor we decided to make our way up on that new road. Here is what it looks like now up there.

The old administration building

Entrance to the old royal retreat

The Royal Villa

Old and new administration buildings

Without barrier into the abyss?

The old casino being renovated - no more spooky now

What's this doing there?

The new casino - sure fits into the scenery

The top of Bokor mountain

Kampot from above

Kep as always showed its charming side. There has been a lot of new developments in the area since I was there last about 18 months ago. As opposed to somewhat grungy Sihanoukville Kep looks really nice and clean. Too bad it doesn’t have a sandy beach. We found a new hotel/guesthouse, the Reaksmey KrongKep, at the western end of the beach road. It’s a typical Khmer guesthouse; still clean and right on the ocean. At $25 a good deal.

New Statue at the western end of the beach road

New bungalow hotel - located towards the main market

As everyone knows Kep is famous for its fresh crab and we definitely wanted to sample that. So at dinnertime we did just that. We had grilled fish and a stir-fried crab with different spices. I am not going into a food review here – I am not into that. Let it suffice to say it was excellent. The food came right out of the ocean onto our plate, so to speak. It can’t get any fresher than that.

Keeping the crabs fresh

The crabbers come to your restaurant and sell it right out of their pod.

Fishermen with their fresh catch - right onto your plate.

Good sized squid.

The next morning we started on our way to the border via Kompong Trach. The road from there to the border is supposed to be paved now, but far from it. It’s still a packed dirt road. Actually the reason I am writing this post is to inform people about certain particularities when crossing into Vietnam. Cambodians don’t need a visa. The can enter Vietnam for one month with a valid passport. Now here comes the catch. That passport needs to be valid for another 6 months. This is a rule the Vietnamese immigration authorities introduced a while back. Sure enough, my wife’s passport expires in July 2012 and the Cambodian border police told her, ‘No go.’ So after some longish discussions the Cambodians let her pass to check with the Vietnamese whether they would let her in. She came back after 20 minutes and $10 lighter. So like always, virtually nothing is really impossible in this part of the world. The reasoning behind this rule remains a mystery to me, though. Why do you need a remaining validity of 6 months when are only allowed in for 1 month? Everywhere else, internationally, you need to have 3 months left on your passport – for unforeseen events. The problem, however, was that this haggling set us back more than an hour.

Right in the middle of the no-man’s land a Vietnamese company had built a huge hotel/casino - an ugly structure like you can find them all over Cambodia these days. We had hoped to hire a taxi there but none was around. So off we went on a motodup to Ta Hien. They dropped us off at the bus station. The bus to Rach Gia, near our destination and about 90 km away, was going to take 2 ½ hours. At $10 not exactly a steal when you compare it with the $7 for a ticket from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville in an air-conditioned coach. No air condition in that Vietnamese jalopy. We lost another half hour until we found a taxi. If you thought now that taxi ride was going to be much faster you are in for a disappointment. First, the driver kept saying he cannot go faster than the speed limit, which is 40 in towns and 80 on the highway. Additionally, this is one endless stretch of villages and towns with few cars on the road but even more motorcycles than in Cambodia. He did make it in one hour forty five minutes but we needed to use a ferry to cross one of rivers which took 20 minutes.

The trip back took even longer because when we left the boat yard it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon already. So we were right smack in the rush hour everywhere. At around 6 o’clock and about 50 km from the border our driver sort of in passing informed us that the border closes at 7. We got all jumpy after that piece of news and pushed the driver to step on it. Hey, this is Vietnam and not Cambodia. People seem to be somewhat more disciplined in traffic than here. He never went faster than 70. Also the van was a stick-shift and he shifted into 4th or even 5th at speeds of about 30. You can imagine what kind of acceleration you get this way.

But you won’t believe it. We made it to the border crossing at exactly 6 minutes before seven. The buildings looked suspiciously dark, though, and there was a long line of motorcycles and small trucks waiting. These were the local people that can cross without any documents. We walked up to the barrier and to our dismay found out that the border closes at 6, not at seven. We implored the border officers to just let us through, what’s the big deal. They said, ‘No stamp, no entry.’ Who needs a stamp? Well, the bureaucracy does. So, frustrated, here we were stuck in sight of our car but we couldn’t get across. To his credit, the officer phoned his superior asking whether he could let us pass. Fat chance. So off to a hotel, which surprisingly in this neck of the woods had high-speed internet.

As a former travel professional, of course, these things must happen to me, exactly like the one time when I had forgotten my passport when going on a trip abroad. But then, I was in the travel/hospitality business over 20 years ago.So traveler be informed, all smaller border crossings operate from 8 am to 6 pm. Only Bavet/Moc Bai is open until 8 pm. However, better check again before you go on your trip.