We have something a little different for you today and I’ve been really looking forward to sharing it with you since April! For the past year, my old pal from school, the lovely Ms. Claire Byrne, has been enjoying an experience of a lifetime. Claire (a journo) and her boyfriend Mark moved to Siem Reap in June of 2011 and like most of her friends, I’ve enjoyed keeping up with her through her blog, Freedom and Freelancing and trust me, between reading about the flooding that had Claire wade through water knee deep with someone shouting crocodile and their day spent house hunting – she has more than kept us entertained! So, when I checked in with her in April only to find her dressed from head to toe in a blue sparkly number wearing so much make up that I hardly recognised her, well… I was amused to find out that she and a few of her friends had decided to get Khmer style make overs. Claire is a great writer and a fantastic story teller so I’m thrilled today that she has kindly agreed to share her traditional Cambodian wedding experience with you all today!
I love weddings. There I said it. I’m not in any rush to get married, I don’t need a ring on it any time soon, but I do have a Pinterest folder. And just, like, you know, every minuscule detail planned out in my head.
My lovely boyfriend indulges most of it, but if he came home to see an array of pictures of me trying on a variety of big white dresses, I reckon there’d be a Mark-shaped hole in the door. For some reason however, I got away with it when I dressed as a bride Cambo style. It’s a bit of a done thing here, dressing up like you’re a Cambodian bride and having a photoshoot to celebrate. Not quite as up there as visiting Angkor Wat, but up there nonetheless.
I’ve lived in Cambodia for a year now and from early on I was hugely intrigued by the Khmer weddings. They last for days, are extremely loud, and pop up where you least expect them. I’ve seen Khmer weddings blocking busy city intersections and on the edge of main roads. Most Khmer weddings take place in a marquee outside the bride’s home, regardless of how much room there may actually be on the street outside. The bright pink and yellow structures are adorned with “lucky” paraphernalia, a paper mache money box, gold plastic bananas; the kind of stuff that would be considered tacky at home, but is equivalent of bunting, a candy stand and fairy light backdrops to Cambodians.
Over three days several ceremonies are celebrated from the hair cutting to the wedding party. Music is pumped out from morning to night, it starts with monks chanting at 5am, (nice the first day, not-so-much the third) moves to some karaoke in the afternoon – man, Cambodian’s love their karaoke – and if you’re lucky, you’ll be listening to a Cambodian remix of some J.Lo choon by nightfall.
Of course for foreigners, a destination wedding in Cambodia can be the best of both, wedding pictures at the temples and a union blessing by a monk, but there’s the help of your stunning five star hotel to sort out every luxurious detail. For your average Cambodian however, nuptial planning is a rather different affair.
It all starts a few months before the big day, an engagement party takes place, which is rather like your average wedding back home. A ceremony in which the bride and groom dress up, offerings are given and rings are exchanged, food is eaten and drinks are drunk – sounds pretty much like a wedding to me, but this is just the proposal. The monks choose a lucky day for the wedding to take place, (on certain auspicious days in the year, you’ll see a wedding on every second street) parents negotiate the cash and the wedding planning gets underway.
Clockwise; Brides Engagement Outfit, Gift Offerings, Exchange of Rings
For a country that is so poor, Cambodians plant big bucks into their weddings. For say a couple who might earn a conjoined wage of $200 a month, their wedding will still cost $3000. The sum is usually paid by the groom’s parents who pay “milk money” which is a kind of dowry to the bride’s family. Much of this money is used for the wedding, and because of this, a lot of weddings take place from December to March, after they money comes in for the rice harvest but before the weather gets too hot.
One of the reasons for all the expense is that Khmer couples invite everyone they’ve ever met, and everyone their cousin has ever met to their wedding. Particularly as a westerner, you’re a coveted guest; a taxi driver once invited us to his sister’s wedding. The reception happens on the final day of celebrations. It starts around noon and guests are treated to course after course of daunting looking fare. I’ve munched on intestines, mystery soup and whole fish at these things, it’s rude not to accept what your offered, and it’s served family style, so you just have to dig in. Drinks are left in the middle of the tables, ice is dished out and you share cans of beer with your tablemates. Tissues are used – for what I’m not sure – but people throw them on the ground after; if the floor isn’t covered in dirty tissue after your wedding, you know you haven’t thrown a good bash.
Clockwise; Menu, Money Box and Money Envelopes
After dinner envelopes are sent around for guests to give money to the happy couple. At home this would be considered rude, but hey, it saves the guest choosing between the toaster or the kettle, eh?
But the very, very, very, best thing about Khmer weddings, (aside from the karaoke and intestines obvs)are the clothes. Khmer brides would put Kim Kardashian and all those brats on my Super Sweet 16 to shame. The average Khmer bride has five, count ‘em, five, costume changes. And not only does she swap from green to pink to blue to purple, but so too do her obliging bridesmaids and unflappable groom.
Outfits one and two
From 5am they begin to powder themselves in thick pale make-up, attach lashes and wigs, then throughout the day, they spend as much time changing as they do circling the room to show off the latest ensemble, taking on and off corsets and heavy skirts repeatedly in 40-degree heat.
Clockwise; Who needs wedding cake, Invitations, Outside the marquee
So this brings me back to how I ended up kitting myself out Cambo bride style; I just had to try this clobber out for myself. Luckily that’s very easy for us barangs (foreigners) in Cambodia. You see Khmer couples get a photoshoot done before the big day so they can put their pictures up around the party (another Super Sweet 16 style diva move).
Man, I have a newfound empathy for those brides. If western brides think they have it bad amid all the the spanks and corsetry, they ain’t got nothing on this ladies. The make-up is ghostly white, Cambodian’s have an opposite tanning philosophy than us pale Irish and so thick that you can feel yourself sweating underneath but it’s somehow being absorbed by all the caking. Gross. Don’t even think of scratching your face if it gets itchy or you’ll feel the brunt of the make-up artist’s hand; I learned this the hard way.
After the kind of crimping Cyndi Lauper would be proud of, hair is reefed up, backcombed and clipped to a wig with rather sharp pins – ever heard of kirby grips guys?
And that’s all before you even get tied into your clothes. And I mean tied quite literally, the sarongs-style skirts Khmer brides wear and tied so artistically that bathroom breaks become a distant memory. Add some witch-like pointy shoes and about four kilos of bling – they’ve never heard that ‘less is more’ quote over here – and you’re ready to go.
A glitter ball, meets beauty queen; it’s uncomfortably fantastic. Even my boyfriend got a hoot out of the resulting, photoshopped-to-within-an- inch-of-their-lives, shots. All in all the Khmer wedding experience is a wonderful one, and would inspire me to curb back on the more luxe details of my own. Who needs a steak or seabass option, a fancy function room and a DJ? Just stick a tent up on the street, and load up SingStar on the telly; I think I’ll be sticking to one dress though myself.
Told you she was a good story teller! Thanks so much to Claire for sharing this with our readers today! I don’t think I’d be cut out for it, especially the 5am start! Be sure to check out Claire’s blog, Freedom and Freelancing, it’s great. Well be back later on today (after lunch) with some more wedding inspiration in the form of berries, taupe and gold.