Mary has lived in Cambodia for a few months each year, working on education projects.
Khmer Wedding: A Complex Festival of Rituals and Rites
Khmer weddings are marvelously complex 3-day festivals of rituals and rites with the bride and groom going through more outfits than a runway model. Unless the couple has saved for many years or have wealthy parents, it can front-end load married life with serious debt.
But as in other cultures, Khmer society has its own way of making these elaborate weddings possible. Khmer wedding places abound where the bride and groom can rent the costumes and most couples do this. The Khmer bride and the groom have one costume each custom made for themselves to keep as part of their wedding souvenirs. The rest are all rented unless of course you are part of the Cambodian elite.
Traditional Rites in Khmer Wedding
Why All These Rites?
Yes, but why all these rites? These rites accompanying a Cambodian Khmer wedding have their origins in ancient Khmer tradition and are binding not only to the two individuals but their families and communities as well so there are serious expenses matching major commitment. The negotiations are conducted between families with grandmas prominently featured in the process. Unless the two families agree, the wedding cannot really take place.
The first Khmer wedding we attended in Cambodia was of this couple in the picture. It was held in the bride's house in the outskirts of the city. The village folks in their fine Khmer costumes were there giving toasts to the bride and groom. It was a big surprise to see the bride and groom changing costumes several times as they went through the many rituals of the wedding.
This picture is of my friend's wedding. Although the groom has already lived in the United States for years and my friend is far from being conservative, they still followed traditional rituals in their wedding.
The Khmer Wedding Date - What is Most Auspicious
Auspicious Time for Khmer Wedding
Choosing of the appropriate time to marry is quite an elaborate affair among Khmer in Cambodia. They consult fortune tellers, feng shui masters and Buddhist holy monks not only for the best date and time but even on how to prepare the bride's room, from the bed to the pillows and blankets. The Khmer believe that all these stand permanently in the way to happiness of the would be couple.
To ensure happiness of the couple, the Khmer fortune teller, based on the groom and bride's age, date of birth and the astrological elements, calculates the best date and time for the wedding. Based on the fortune teller's findings on numerology or astrology, offerings are made to further enhance the compatibility of the couple. Sometimes, the wedding has to be called off if the stars just can't be aligned.
In many cases, it is really the wisdom of the fortune teller that prevails. As the wisest of these fortune tellers said, when it is obvious that the bride and groom really love each other, the blessing is given immediately.
Khmer Wedding Date: Determined by Feng Shui Masters
Cambodian Khmer really ask for the Feng Shui Masters to help them ensure the happiness and prosperity of the couple. The masters look at what needs to change in the home especially the bride's room, to ensure a happy marriage.
If an auspicious date is important to you, get some tips from this book on how you can also rearrange your own house. Who knows.
Parents in a Khmer Wedding
How Khmer Weddings are Arranged - Watch the Grandma Mafia
Tying the nuptial knots in Cambodia does not only involve the groom and the bride. In fact, many times, they are not hugely involved. Their parents, in particular, the mothers or maybe grandmothers, make all the necessary arrangements.
The families are major participants from the engagement to the wedding. And families can be huge. The tradition is for the groom's family to visit the bride's family and ask for her hand in marriage. Then, the formal engagement period starts. When this is done, the Monks and Grandmas conspire to choose an auspicious day for the wedding.
But before the parents meet about this wedding, they first find out about each other's family background, the character of the person, even the date of birth of the future bride and groom as astrology plays a part in the choice of marriage partners. The grandma mafias dig as far as can be dug and all is reported. When the parents are satisfied that this will be a good match, then, the future groom's parents approach a middle person to arrange the meeting with the future bride's parents. Again, much ritual huffing and puffing surrounds the approach. In this meeting, the negotiation is often on the dowry.
Family is Central to the Wedding
Arrangement of Khmer Wedding
A colleague described how the marriage ramp up was a long, often maddening process. First, when he found his potential lifetime partner, he asked his parents to see the lady's parents. Sadly for him, when his parents came back, they told him that the girl's parents did not accept the proposal as they wanted more money than what his parents could afford.
He was disappointed so he went to see the lady and asked her again. He talked to the lady's grandmother who finally gave her yes. But when the lady's mother returned, she again put a stop to the wedding.
Meanwhile, through the matchmaker, another family invited our friend as they wanted him for their daughter. They served him a good lunch and our colleague emphasized that they gave him Tiger beer, a prized commodity in Cambodia at that time as it was imported from Singapore. But our friend insisted to this new approach that he was still in negotiation with the other family and he wanted to keep his word. The first family finally relented and agreed to the marriage (a bird in the hand...etc.) Our colleague has now three children and has learned a great deal about negotiations!
Another colleague, a very good international consultant, told us during a meeting that he finally found the girl he was interested to marry. He saw her once in a gathering but did not approach her. Instead, he started asking people about her and when he found out she was from his village as well, he asked his father to approach the family. The father of the girl asked to first meet our colleague so he could assess him. Our recent update was the proposal was not accepted and our colleague was really hurt. He didn't know why.
In the past, even the community was involved. From what they knew of the two, the community determined whether they were compatible or not.
This practice is changing now, of course, but in many families, this is still the norm. We just attended an engagement ceremony with all these traditional rites, even though, the bride and groom are graduates of Western universities and occasionally looked somewhat bemused by the process.
At the Core of Cambodian Khmer Wedding - The Three Jewels of Buddhism
Cambodian Khmer consider 3 to be an especially auspicious number because of its association with the "three jewels" of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Sangha (brotherhood of monks), and the Dhamma (the Buddha's teachings). Thus, the 3-day wedding celebration. But, nowadays, many in the urban areas have shortened the ceremony to just 1 day and a half for all the ceremonies that have to be performed. The intrusion of cities and factories and time clocks is having its predictable effect. But in the rural areas, the Khmer still stick to the three days.
Just the engagement alone already requires a full day of celebration from early morning to late at night. I attended one recently and I had to prepare two dresses, one for the morning ceremonies and another for the evening party. But who wants to miss the fun?
Groom's Family in Procession to the Khmer Bride's House
Cambodian Khmer Traditional Wedding Rites
The rites that comprise the wedding ceremony also have their roots in the Khmer ancient traditions.
In the past, there were two venues for the ceremony, the groom's house referred to as the Vivahamongkul and the bride's, Avahamongkul. Village life ground to a halt for these events so weddings had to be held in the quiet season for agriculture.
It seems that in the past, Khmer wedding can only be held in 31-day months (May, July, October, December, January, and March) and these cannot be held on their birthdays, religious days, lunar or solar eclipse and Khmer New Year.
Weddings are also not held during the rainy season. In the past, it must have been difficult to organize one.
Traditional Cambodian Khmer Wedding Songs - For each rite in the Cambodian Khmer wedding
Each of the rituals in traditional Cambodian Khmer wedding has its own traditional song and music accompaniment as you can hear in the following videos.
Offering fruits and sweets to the Cambodian bride's family
Groom's Family Bear Gifts for the Bride's Family
The Khmer groom's family and community of relations and friends descends early in a well orchestrated procession to the bride's house bearing meats, fruits, pastries, drinks and desserts of every variety. Depending on their wealth, these trays can really become expensive.This is accompanied by chanting and banging of pots and pans. We had been in some of these processions and felt proud about being part of a big family.
Acceptance of the Gifts by the Khmer Bride's Family
With his three best men, his family and clan, the groom waits at the entrance of the bride's house where two banana trees laden with fruits have been placed as pillars.
Wedding Gifts from the Khmer Groom's Family - Trays of fruits and sweets
Cambodia Khmer Wedding Gifts
Once these gifts are displayed, the master of ceremonies, a singer cum jester describes the gifts and asks the bride's family if they are satisfied or they want more. This always causes laughter as the bride's family always nod their heads in approval of the suggestions of the groom's...ahhhh cheapness.
This is followed by breakfast of traditional rice porridge (Bor Bor), fruits and sweets with the master of ceremony keeping the guests entertained with folk songs. .
As guests look on, the bride and groom feed each other. Only after the bride and groom have finished their breakfast will the guests start eating. The real fun is all the children peering through the curtains to catch the action. The giggles are as loud as the singing. Quality Assurance is managed by the Grandmas, of course.
To the bride's family, enough or not?
Table for Gifts
The fully laden trays are neatly arranged inside the bride's house or on a decorated table outside in a wedding tent.
Table for the Cambodian Khmer Wedding Gifts - Uniquely Cambodian
Rite of Acceptance in the Cambodian Khmer Wedding - The Khmer Bride's Family Welcomes the Groom's Family
The Khmer bride's family accepts the gifts from the groom's family and the wedding master of ceremonies cum jester asks the bride's parents if they are satisfied with the gifts to which the answer is always no to the laughter of everyone present. All good fun. You can see this in the following video.
Welcoming the Groom's Family in the Cambodian Khmer Wedding
To the chimes of a gong, the bride's family greets the visitors with the traditional Cambodian greeting Sampeah. Then, an older lady carefully chosen from those who are successful in life and blessed in marriage leads the bride out to welcome the groom. The bride and groom helpers, 3 for each, must come from families with both parents happy with each other. The Khmer believe that these blessings will then be passed on to the bride and groom.
Once the acceptance is made, the Cambodian wedding rites start with the master of ceremonies telling the story of the meeting of the bride and groom and the challenges encountered by the groom's family in their journey to the bride's house. This can be good fun as the challenges are often made up now that wars and rivers and dragons don't get in the way. Each rite in the Khmer wedding is accompanied by a Khmer traditional song.
Khmer traditional greeting ritual
The ritual for honoring parents in the traditional Khmer wedding
The groom's family bring in their gifts and the priests present these to the bride's parents. Meanwhile the bride has gone to her room and stays there until she is called back.
After the groom's family have presented the gifts of fruits, cakes, vegetables, household items, meat, drinks, sweets and a new set of clothes for the bride and groom, the bride is brought back and together with the groom kneel down in front of the beautifully decorated altar to pay respects to their parents and offer prayers.
Honoring Parents in the Cambodian Khmer Wedding
Khmer Bride and Groom Place Garlands on Each Other
The groom and bride then place garlands on each other after which they walk into the house carrying a silver bowl with flowers from the areca nut tree and other offerings. As they pass, young girls throw jasmine flowers along their path.
Another carefully celebrated ritual in the Khmer wedding
First Day in the Khmer Wedding
The first day is set aside for the bride and groom to ask for blessings from the monks. This is a more private ceremony with only the couple and their families and the village elders present. The bride and the groom and also the family members with them wear the traditional white worn to go to the temple. The blessing takes place in the bride's house.
After the monks blessing, some families do a Buk Leak ceremony where they hide the red dye and the groom has to search for it.
Monks' Blessing in the Traditional Cambodian Khmer Wedding
Presentation of the Dowry
After the Neay Pream He Kaun Kamlas or the Arrival of the Groom ritual, the presentation of the dowry or the Chambak Roy follows. The song that accompanies this rite tells of the dialogue between the matchmakers, the parents, relatives and friends of the bride.The dowry is currently more in the form of jewelry or money but in the past, it took the form of land such as rice fields, buffaloes and cows.
Other Rites in the Cambodian Khmer Wedding - Presentation of the dowry
Master of Ceremonies in the Cambodian Khmer Wedding - A singer-cum-jester
The master of ceremonies in the Khmer wedding, the singer-cum-jester, and his lady partner directs the wedding event through songs. When they arrive, they say they are from heaven and that they heard the music and the hum of celebration so they decided to come and check this out.
They have other songs to present their role and mostly they are funny but very well suited to the occasion. At the reception. they continue to entertain the guests crooning and dancing in a traditional slow rhythmic tune accompanied by a band hired for the occasion.
Chewing of the Betel Nut - Symbolizes the Agreement Between the Two Khmer Families
Then, the Pak Paeuk Pisa Sla (Inviting the Elders to Chew Betel Nut) follows. This symbolizes the agreement between the two families as they chew betel nut together.
This rite came from the mythical story, Som Sla Kanseng. This is the story of two men who enjoyed feeding their buffaloes together that they wanted so much to become relatives. So, because one had a son and the other, a daughter they decided that they can be related by marriage. To hold each other to their words, they took their betel nuts carefully wrapped in their kroma (scarf) and shared these to chew with each other. This is still more or less what families here do. They choose practically whom their children will marry.
An important Cambodian wedding ritual in the past
Bongvil PoPil Rite in Cambodian Khmer Wedding - The Seven Rotations Ceremony
On the second day, before the sun rises, the groom in traditional attire goes to the spirit house and facing east prays for blessing and asks for good time for the ceremony. Once the sun rises, this is taken as the coming of the good time for the ceremony. The priest hits the gong three times to signal the good time for the ceremony to start. This signals the bride to pray three times in her room to get the blessing and happiness in the future. Then, the priest brings the groom inside the bride's house accompanied by a traditional Khmer band playing the song, Sdech Yeng which translates to "the coming of the King".
The groom then stands at the entrance and the priest asks if he can bring the groom inside. All the bride's relatives have to say, it is alright for the groom to come in. The groom then stands on a small stone at the entrance of the house to symbolize his patience and readiness to forgive. In the past, the priest calls the bride's lady assistant to bring water in a tal (a traditional Khmer water container) and wash the groom's feet and gives him the betel in a handkerchief. Then, she ushers the groom to sit down while the bride goes back to her room. At present, the bride does this ritual of washing the groom's feet. The Khmer believe that this ritual will ensure that they become steadfast in their marriage in spite of problems.
Then the groom takes the betel to the parents and bows three times followed by offering Kasla flowers to the bride's parents and relatives accompanied by the song, Pha Theay, calling the bride out to sit with the groom and the parents and relatives. Then, the gong is hit again and the musician shouts out, Chey Hong Sur Hong and Sok Hong (success and happiness in everything) and the others follow. Then, the bride comes out and sits beside the groom.
At this point, the priest invites persons who have good background and marriage to sit around the bride and groom. Once they are seated, he asks the parents of the bride and groom to light the first candles and give these to the bride and groom. Then, the priest blesses them three times and then passes on the candles to the left 19 times. After the seventh time, the lighted candles are blown off and placing the betel leaves on top, the smoke is guided towards the bride and groom who breathe the smoke in as blessing for a future of deep love for each other.
The PoPil (Formerly Popi meaning 2 blessing) ceremony comes with two blessing, one from the god Eyso and the goddess, Okma Pheak Vatey, for the couple to have many healthy children. This is still strongly practiced because the Cambodian king, Jayasurya was a student of Eyso and he promoted this practice all throughout the kingdom.
The ceremony continues with the singing of Mouan Rongneav (chicken crow) or Phat Jeay or Lomneang. The musician then takes the sword out with the shouts of Chey Hong Sur Hong and Sok Hong and then sings, Daov Euy Daovdek (Sword). The holding of the sword at the Khmer wedding came from this mythical story of a high ranking knight in the Peareansey Palace who deposited a bar of gold as a dowry for the lovely daughter of a villager and with it his promise to return in three months to marry her. Three years after, he failed to come so the villager married his daughter to a neighbor. On the night of the wedding, the Knight appeared and killed the groom so since then to dismiss all bad things, the sword is worn at the wedding.
Cambodian Khmer Bride and Groom Asking for Blessing - Blessing from Ancestor Spirits
Blessing from the Community
In the past, weddings are community affairs. People come and bring their produce. But during the ceremony, they give advice to the couple given what they know of them. They advise them on how they can make their strengths and weaknesses work in harmony so their marriage becomes lasting. The community takes weddings very seriously as they take responsibility when the marriage does not work.
Today, the ceremonies have relegated this community responsibility mostly to giving money in an envelope. The ancient wedding rites have been replaced by global trends and somehow commerce has taken its core. Many though still follow the basic tenets of their culture.
The Exchange of Rings - Between the Cambodian Khmer bride and groom
Tying of the Red Thread at the Cambodian Khmer Wedding
After the Popil ceremony, the priest ties the thread around the hands of the groom and bride and gives them blessing and advice. Then, the parents do the same thing. As the bride and groom's wrists are tied, this song, Bay Khon Chang Dai is sung: "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." Then both parents come to tie again followed by close relatives who give rings or chains in addition to the usual words of advice and wishes of happiness, prosperity, good health, success, and love. The praises are acknowledged and witnessed by the loud sound of the gongs and joyful cheer.
Then, the groom and the bride stand up and the groom holds the bride's scarf with one hand and the sword on the other. The bride holds a container with rice and both walk inside the room. Then the song, Prek Thong Neangneak (King Prince and Princess of the Dragon). Then the gong is hit to signal the end of this part of the wedding.
Wedding Rings in a Cambodian Khmer Wedding - Beautifully Presented
Hair Cutting Ceremony Ritual
Breakfast is followed by the hair-cutting ceremony, a traditional rite handed down from the old days not only to make merry at the wedding but to symbolize the new life the couple are getting into. In the past, the hair-cutting was for real. The master of ceremonies and his partner pretend they are angels who heard the singing from heaven and they came to partake of the celebration. They bring a bottle of perfume and a jeung bin (tray) with a pair of scissors.
Nowadays, a mock hair cut is staged. The bride and groom are seated on decorated chairs. The master of ceremony then teases them adding to the delight of those present. Carrying a tray with scissors, a comb and a bottle of hair spray, the first person given the honor to cut their hair pretends to clip the bridegroom. Then, she retrieves a gold ring from the hair which had earlier been placed there by the monk. She does the same to the bride after which the hair spray is used. Other elders repeat this same ritual. Retrieving the gold ring signifies the couple's prosperity in life.
Cambodian Khmer Wedding Invitation
Wedding Envelopes Properly Accounted for
In this picture, you see the table with heart boxes at the back of the reception room. This is where the invitation envelopes which you fill with money go. Members of the family assigned open the envelopes and list in the book the names of the guests and how much each of them gave. This book will be kept for generations and it gets consulted when invitations for weddings come. Whatever the family who invited them gave in their own family's wedding, the same amount will be placed in the envelope.
A friend planning his wedding wanted to put a dragon in gold, a symbol of power and this horrified the others as it should have a symbol of love.
The letters are usually in gold and inside is the map of the place where the reception will be held.
The envelope with your name is where you are to put your money for the bride and groom. The amount usually depends on the status of the one getting married signified by his job, position in the office, status of the family and closeness of the relationship. Some add more when the food served is good so they wait until they have finished eating before putting their envelopes in the carefully embellished box. But make sure your name gets into the record. When your own children marry, this record will be reviewed for appropriate contribution.
Cambodian Khmer Wedding Cake - Looks yummy
Wedding Gifts for Cambodian Khmer wedding? - Wedding favors are practiced, too
The practice, though, is for close relatives to give chains or rings to the bride and groom. The guests regularly put money inside an envelope and beautifully wrapped boxes are provided in the wedding venue to place these envelopes in. Depending on a number of factors, the amount varies. If the parents of the bride or groom have given $100 for your own child's wedding, then, it is sort of expected that you have to reciprocate in exactly the same amount. The minimum amount is usually $10 and guests usually increase this amount a tiny bit when the food served is better so keep those envelopes first until after you have eaten. There is a group assigned to collect these envelopes and every contribution is listed so in the future, the amount will be reciprocated.
Cambodian Khmer Wedding Reception - Wedding Places for Khmer Wedding
Khmer Wedding Feast
A feast follows and more songs and dances for everyone's entertainment. Just before the reception, the couple and their entourage go to nearby parks or the palace grounds often turned out in western wedding gown and tuxedo to have pictures taken. A classic media event.
It must be noted that many families have already shortened this event to a day and a half compressing the rites. However, lately, as more Khmer want to show what the family has achieved, the three days seem to be observed again.
These days, there are wedding places hosting these celebrations convenient for families, so both ceremonies have been merged. Now, they have all the rites in one day. However, the rules are still followed as written in the book of Oknha Mahamontrey Nhek Nov, Khmer Wedding Rules. Okhna Nov wrote that the rites are arranged according to the rules drawn up by King Preay Chey Chesda Thebdey who interestingly related these rites to mythical stories.
Listening to the stories of the younger generation makes one know that this tradition will live on for some time and the Grandmas are perched like warrior Phoenixes just waiting to pounce on any breach.
A Cambodian wedding feast
Each time we are at a Khmer wedding reception, it always amazes us at how pragmatic it is. Khmer families have to attend during the peak wedding season several receptions in one evening. They split to the various occasions but sometimes this is not possible. Many last night came from the office straight to the reception. To make it easy for many families, as guests arrive they are ushered to a table and once this table is filled up, service starts.
There is no head table as the parents and the bride and groom are there at the door receiving guests, having pictures taken or saying goodbye to those who came early. In the reception hall, service continues and when the table is done, signalled by the soup at the end, the guests leave and new guests claim the table. No one other than the families of the bride and groom lingers. We left our place at 5 and were home by 7:20 pm. We thoroughly enjoyed it. By the way, in this video, you can see the grandmas at work.