This edition of multicultural wedding spotlight highlights a wedding of cultural proportions. It’s a seductive screenplay of “he said – she said” in which the unsuspecting heroine is a Cambodian-American, “DIY” bride named Julie Chea pulls off the ultimate fusion wedding to her beau Justin Arnoldy.
“I hoped for a simple wedding that would reflect Justin and I as a couple.” Julie said. “To us, the ‘theme’ of the wedding and all the little details did not matter as much as having our close friends and family at the wedding. ”
As a friend of mine once said, you don’t realize how many people you can offend until you try to plan your own wedding.” – Julie the bride
Cambodian Wedding Tradition
Young men in Cambodia generally marry sometime between the age of 20 and 25, whereas young women – between 17 and 22. Traditionally, parents decide the future spouse for their kids.
More recently, due to globalization, many young Cambodians marry according to their own will and traditional customs in this direction are limited to the countryside, where population is more conservative.
There is a difference between the Cambodian traditional wedding and a contemporary wedding. Initially, weddings lasted for three days and nights. Today, most of them only take one day and one night (the banquet), just like western weddings. However, there is a special program many newlyweds still respect today.
Three is considered to be an especially auspicious number by Cambodians because of its association with the “three jewels” of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Sangha (brotherhood of monks), and the Dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings).
The first day is set aside for blessings from the priest for the couple and their family. In Sokhin’s and Rel’s case, the Buddhist ceremony was held in the temple. As it is a rather private and religious ceremony, the only guests present during this ceremony are close relatives.
The wedding program is based on the legend about the marriage of the Khmer prince Preah Thong, to the naga princess Neang Neak.
It consists of 7 steps:
- Hai Goan Gomloh – The groom, accompanied by his family, goes to the house of his future-to-be wife and presents his gifts.
- Sien Doan Taa – A tea is served, to honor the ancestors. This step is rather optional.
- Soat Mun – The bride and the groom are blessed by monks.
- Gaat Sah – A cleansing ceremony symbolizing a new, fresh start. It implies a symbolic haircut, though this step traditionally employed a real haircut.
- Bang Chhat Madaiy – The bride and the groom honor the parents.
- Bongvul Pbopul – The bride and the groom are being blessed by married couples present at the ceremony.
- Sompeas Ptem – A special ceremony symbolizing the binding together of the new couple, called the knot tying.
For the wedding ceremony, the bride typically goes through 10 dress changes and takes time off to pose for photographs. The wedding begins early in the morning, with the bridegroom dressed in traditional Cambodian costume when he arrives at the bride’s house.
On the way to the bride’s house, the groom’s procession typically bangs pots and chants, this noisy group sidesteps sleeping dogs and cyclo drivers, while serenading the backstreet population of Phnom Penh. Smiling people watch from balconies. Some send down a shower of flower petals.
Flanked by two best men, the bridegroom waits at the entrance where banana trees are tied to the pillars. To the chimes of a gong, the bride and her family approach their visitors, greet them by cupping their palms, following which the bride and bridegroom garland each other.
The couple walks back into the house carrying a silver container containing flowers from the areca nut tree and other offerings. It’s important for the couple to kneel down and pay their respects to the bride’s parents before offering prayers at a brightly decorated altar. After which, members of the bridegroom’s family troop in, carrying gifts on silver trays.
In Cambodian tradition, the number of gifts are an indication of the wealth of the bridegroom. Some families are known to have brought in 60 trays containing numerous items including several types of fruit, biscuits, cakes, sweets, soft drinks, beer, meat, vegetable and household items.
Some bridegrooms have been known to bring as many as 200 trays of gifts while those in the lower-income group are satisfied with about 10. These gifts and jewelry have replaced money as dowry, which the bridegroom usually pays.
The trays of gifts are neatly arranged to fill the hall of the house when the master of ceremonies, a singer-cum-jester, begin to croon a song while a female dancer dances in a slow rhythmic manner to a traditional tune played by the band in attendance.
Three traditional songs accompany the presentation of dowry:
- Neay Pream He Kaun Kamlas (Arrival of the Groom) · A song telling the story of the groom and his family’s journey to the bride’s house bearing meats, fruits, pastries, drinks and desserts of every variety to be presented on the wedding day.
- Chambak Roy (Presenting the Dowry) · A dialogue between the matchmakers, parents, relatives, and friends of the bride and groom in which the groom’s family and friends officially present the dowry gifts to the bride’s family.
- Pak Paeuk Pisa Sla (Inviting the Elders to Chew Betel Nut) · Presentation of the betel nut to the bride and groom’s elders. In turn, parents of both the bride and groom ask for blessings and well-wishes for their children.
A female dancer then collects samples of the gifts and places them on a tray as the singer, through his song, describes the gifts and asks the bride’s family whether they are satisfied or it is necessary to pick up more.
After the Wedding Ceremony…
The solemnisation of the wedding follows with the bridegroom, after another change of clothes – this time dressed like royalty, approaches the entrance of the house where the bride, in a dazzling outfit (typically red with gold embroidery), awaits her groom.
The washing of the feet ceremony is held where in the old days the bride placed the groom’s feet on a tray and washed them. These days, however, she merely sprays cologne over the feet.
The priest holds their hands together and chants. And after blessings from the parents, the couple put their hands on a pillow and a sword is placed across their closed palms. The parents then tie red thread around the left hand of the couple and sprinkle scented water on their hands to solemnize the wedding.
This ritual is repeated by others present.
A few other wedding traditions include:
- Phat Cheay — A melody inviting the bride, accompanied by her bridesmaids, to the pairing ceremony. A distinguished female relative leads the bride into the room.
- Kang Saeuy — A melody accompanying the offering of gifts to the ancestor spirits and asking for their blessings.
- Bangvel Po Pil (Seven Rotations) – Married guests sit around the bride and groom as the sacred flame is rotated seven times around the new couple. The smoke of the flame, however, is sacred enough to protect them from all evils if they are sincerely committed to each other. Family members who receive the candle motion their hands over the flame to guide the smoke of the sacred flame over the bride and groom.
- Bay Khon Chang Dai (Tying the Wrists) — While the bride and groom’s wrists are tied with the blessing strings, the following song is sung:
“We tie, we tie three strings to each wrist of our children. We wish for true happiness and success to this couple, who will always be together like wet grass seeds. We tie your left wrist to make you remember your parents. We tie your right wrist to make you carry on the family lineage and traditions.”
The colorful wedding ends with a sumptuous dinner later at night with more songs and dances to entertain everyone.
Both Julie and Justin succeeded in infusing culture, respect and family into each loving moment by walking that delicate tight rope between the demands of a traditional Cambodian wedding (a month later) and an indie-hipster affair.
The indie-hipster affair was for the earlier ceremony (such as homemade treats, repurposed props for decor and gothic cake toppers inspired by musical artists like Grateful Dead).
The colorful Cambodian wedding ceremony steeped in tradition is an interesting yet seemingly exhausting experience. For most Cambodians, such nuptials represent more than a nod to the traditions of the past.
Each marriage in Cambodia is a moral victory, and another hope for the future.
- Western Wedding Photographer: Fresh in Love;
- Cambodian Wedding: Rachel Grace Photography
- Officiant by Gwen Durston
- Florist by Palmer Flowers
- Hair/Make Up by Sugar Mill Productions
- Cake: Sweet J’s Cakery
- Venue at The Inn at City Park; Catering by Treppeda’s Italian Ristorante, Woodys Wings ‘n Things, Family
- Dress: Modern Trousseau (Anna Be Bridal Boutique)
- Shoes by Ninas
- Groom by Brooks Brothers
- Hat by Goorin Brothers
- Shoes by Nordstrom; Bridal Party
- Attire via JCPenneys
- Tent, Benches Tables by Robin Event Rentals
- Lei: Hawaiian Lei Company
For more information on Cambodian wedding traditions, click here.
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