“I do” in Cambodia: Cultural lessons on the edge of sanity

The music started sometime around sundown in the little space between buildings. A marquee, brightly decorated with fairy lights, billowy silks, and an abundance of flowers was the scene for the nuptials and the raucous celebration that surrounded it.

A massive set of mega-amplifiers generously shared the happy couple’s joy through music to all within at least a 1km radius. They partied until midnight on the first night, and started up again at dawn the next day. The Cambodian wedding was in full swing by 6:30 am, with more music, chanting, perhaps a sermon and more music. Then the auction started — or maybe it was the wedding vows. It sounded like a high intensity cattle auction with lots of banging of pots and pans, whoops and cheers. It was still going strong when we left that afternoon, and I’m sure the festivities went on well into the night.

A Cambodian wedding couldn’t possibly be held in secret, and we were fortunate enough to first experience this cultural phenomenon as though it were happening right in our hotel room. In fact, it was right in our hotel room, given the volume of the music, the chanting, and the general hubbub of joy. We were, in theory, part of the party.

There are two ways one can choose to react to something like that. One, is to get in a huff about your beauty sleep. The other is to marvel at the stamina of a Cambodian wedding party, and immerse yourself in the culture you’ve come to experience. I’ll take culture.

That first Cambodian wedding was in Siem Reap. Little did we know, it would be far from our last.

Wedding season
The end of harvest means its wedding season in Cambodia.  The rice is in, the stalks have been harvested, and the land prepared for the next stage. The work is done, and now it’s time to celebrate.

We saw and heard weddings going on nearly every day of the week, in the village, in Siem Reap, Battambang, Phnom Penh, and across the countryside. Up and down the country, couples were getting married and their communities were celebrating.

If we thought that the wedding in Siem Reap next to our hotel was loud, we were in for a shock from the wedding that took over the small village. A trailer full of giant speakers was brought in to keep the guests entertained, and a set of loudspeakers blasted the constant music out in both directions across the countryside. It was louder outside of the wedding than in.

We were invited to join in one of the several feasts of the wedding, and were honoured to attend. We had about 30 minutes notice, and the two dresses I have had been fermenting in the bottom of our dirty clothes bag for about a week. No way were either one of them going on my body, so I improvised with a sarong and a top, but I was woefully underdressed next to the family and wedding party in their colourful silks and richly detailed embroidery and lace.

The bride changed clothes four times just in the few hours we were there. From an ornately decorated one shoulder royal blue gown, to two similar ones in aqua and yellow, and finally into a bright red short party dress. The last being the most age appropriate, given she was likely about 18, and her petrified groom about the same. It was beautiful, and clearly, no expense had been spared. This wedding was meant to be a great display, and that is exactly what it was.

We joined in on day 2 of the wedding, at about midday — it had of course been going since dawn. The ceremony had taken place earlier, and it was time for the feasting to begin.

There were two types of guests: actual invited wedding guests, and the people the guests invited to come along. Wedding gifts for the bride and groom consist of one thing only – cash. Each person gives what they can afford, but its somewhere in the $10 – $15 range (or so we were told). The invited guests invite more guests to come along as a way of raising more money for the bride and groom – and I’m sure that gives them extra credit somewhere along the line! Our host at the school invited us along – it was his cousin’s wedding and we were keeping him from the festivities!

We were shown into a tent with round tables that had been set up where the ceremony had been held earlier. This was clearly the guests of guests section, as the people in the fancy clothes were in the adjacent tent. We sat at the table, which had been piled high with green Fanta and warm beers, and we were kept supplied with big cubes ice served in pretty little plastic bags. Cambodians drink their beer on ice – with a straw – something Mark found out the night before when he joined the heavy drinking session as part of the earlier wedding festivities.

The heavy drinking continued through the day, and there was more toasting than a Polish wedding – but fortunately it was iced beer and not vodka this time! One platter after another was brought to our table piled high with gorgeous food.

We started with little nibbles – pressed prawns, crab sticks, and beef jerky floss. The next course was chicken served with a sauce whose name we understood over the maximum dB music to be “chit”, and it pretty much tasted like shit from cows who are fed fish.

We were served a gorgeous baked fish, still simmering in its own juices and topped with jackfruit, followed by beef and tempura battered morning glory, then a wonderful sour soup and rice, and eventually more chicken and chit.

Some bites were incredibly difficult to swallow and still be polite. That chit was awful, but they were lapping it up with anything they could find to dip in it. I managed to choke town a fraction of a taste, and spent the next 30 minutes eating whatever I could to erase the rancid flavour. The last thing we wanted to do was to offend our hosts, and most of it was truly delicious.


We cast sidelong glances at one another as we tried to politely communicate “did you see that crazy shit” without being found out. Eventually, we were served desserts: an envelope served with a little cake – the envelope being for the money of course. We signed our names, and our host signed his above ours, making sure he got full credit for bringing the westerners. The bride, groom and the wedding party then stand at the entrance, hands permanently pressed together in a “thank you” as the guests filtered out and gave the happy couple their congratulations and their money.

There was dancing, more an more drinking, and many many more toasts. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from the toasts, but our Tuk Tuk driver had arrived to take us back to Siem Reap, and it was time to say good bye to the school and the community. We loaded up for the 20k ride back into town, and waited as our driver “suffered” through several rounds of toasts with his mates at the wedding.

It was a fantastic cultural experience, and one we never could have paid our way in to. It was only through the generosity of our host at JB school that we were invited to experience the spectacle of a Cambodian wedding.


About the author: Shalena

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