Four Cambodian Weddings and My Funeral – part 2August 15, 2007
I was up at 4.30 the next morning, three hours after my poor wife. After the Chinese ceremonies, sometime after nine I was able to consume a small bowl of rice porridge. My wife had no time for a mouthful of anything for another four hours. My three best men were excluded from the first ceremony so I had no idea what was going on, including why we were offering a cheap can of beer to the gods, but once they joined us the professor of Cambodian religion filled me in. What is very very wrong about Cambodian weddings is that guests only ever attend the reception, which is just a meal – there are no speeches or entertainment other than dancing.
Thus it is that whilst Cambodians will attend a wedding every other weekend, unless they are an immediate relation, best man or bridesmaid, they never witness the ceremony. Even my own wife, a 25-year-old woman, had no idea what to do. What’s wrong about that is that the main ceremony, called the ‘hair cutting’ ceremony is a wonderful occasion which really should be enjoyed by all; the reception, in contrast, is simply a matter of sitting at a table for ten, eating, drinking and maybe later dancing.
Unless guests arrive together in a sizable party, they are liable to find themselves at a table of strangers. Bizarrely, there was no ‘top table’ for the wedding party – or maybe not so bizarre, since we spent almost the whole period of the reception greeting arriving guests and had no time to sit and eat. Even there, Chakriya got off quite lightly because she insisted on no further costume changes – normally the bride changes two or three times during the reception which in practice means the guests see very little of her. She did allow the last guests a comical sight when she changed out of her gown – padding about her own wedding reception in pink pyjamas with all the over-the-top make up and wig.
Now to the magic – and the secret behind my pen-name. I suppose you could say it was my contribution; something that meant so much to me that I hadn’t anticipated would so deeply affect others. Whatever face was lost the previous evening was regained a thousandfold as father was made ‘famous’ in the community. Our wedding has become an immediate local legend and will be talked about for years to come.
The director of the orphanage I’ve supported all this time together with his wife had promised to bring the kids to dance at our wedding. One of the staff was one of my best men. After three hours’ kip, Sunday morning had gone okay but on balance I’d have to say it was 75% ordeal to 25% enjoyment. But the main ceremony, the hair cutting, began with my little apsaras doing their blessing dance. It was a bigger, more elaborate version of the one I’ve seen a hundred times already and I have to say it was possibly the most beautiful moment I’ve ever experienced in my life. My wife, my family and all those present were utterly mesmerised. Out in the countryside, Cambodians know about the sacred spirits of their country but they never see them. Here, for the one time in their life they did and it was absolutely perfect. Apparently, only the chief of the province has ever had apsaras perform at his wedding and of course that was due to status, not love.
The hair cutting ceremony, which lasts a couple of hours, involves a male and female comedian teasing the wedding party and the relatives snipping a blade of hair, then a bunch of rituals which are lovely but I won’t go into. I thought my heart was having palpitations until I realized that my phone was constantly vibrating in my breast pocket – given that I was effectively ‘standing at the altar’ I had to ignore it which led to some transportation problems with guests leaving the city at that point, but they (nearly) all got there in the end.
With the guests seated and eating, the apsaras repeated their dance on the stage we’d constructed, and the other kids did their repertoire of traditional and folk dances. My gamble paid off; the family and guests forgave my break with convention, foregoing the usual post-wedding piss-up. It was all over by 2.30 (p.m.!) – one minute before the monsoonal downpour hit, thanks to those blessings – also one minute before my missus’ batteries totally ran out – she was barely conscious by the end. The whole community had had a unique experience that they will associate with both me and my father-in-law pretty much forever. My wedding was so much more than the joining of two individuals – as well as repairing a few long-standing strained inter-family relationships and connecting me with my new family, it was the point where my wife adopted ‘my’ children into her heart. I will be forever grateful to the staff and kids of the orphanage for their role in our day.