The lavish ceremonies enjoyed by a newlywed couple betray the clash of tradition and modernity that many young lovers must endure in the Kingdom. Disneyland for lovers. Huge colourful archways festooned with flowers, enormous cut-out hearts and life-sized photos of the happy couple. Tuk tuks edge their way along Mao Tse Tung Boulevard in Phnom Penh, through the throng of cars, motos and people determinedly headed for the same destination: The Mondial Centre. Imagine a Vegas wedding minus the Elvis look-alikes and Zulu chieftains. All the flashy lights, gaudy decorations and over-the-top wedding nuances are present, but there’s an aura of deep tradition at Mondial not present in the showy ostentation of Las Vegas nuptials.
It’s also the realisation of a dream for many Cambodian girls. It’s the day when, in most cases, they will become respected members of the community through their unions with their life partners. There’s nothing sedate about a wedding in Cambodia. There are sparklers, champagne fountains and Johnny Walker for everyone. At the Mondial Centre, however, any couple’s fairytale celebration will be just one of many. There are currently 13 rooms for weddings seating up to 800 people apiece. In their busiest month, they host 200 weddings. And it’s not cheap.
The cost of a table with 10 chairs is $17, plus an additional $5 for a tablecloth and skirting for the chairs. Add to that an outdoor canopy and seats, as well as floral displays bursting from the backdrop and costing $120 to $1,000 or more. Then there’s food. And booze. And a dowry. And outfit rental (women often change five times or more during the party and an additional five times during the day, adding another $500 to $1,000 to the tab). When the bride appears under the wedding archway, she has been meticulously and liberally powdered, puffed, painted and sprayed, decked out in glitter and satin. She is now ready for the final sprint of her one- or two-day wedding marathon. While it may seem an over-the-top celebratory union of two people, the process leading up to it is a serious matter. It’s a story of age-old tradition and custom where men are men and women are, well, waiting for the men.
According to tradition, once a man has spotted a woman, his mother approaches the girl’s mother to ask for her hand. If the parents approve and the girl has no objection, it’s full steam ahead toward a wedding. Everyone checks out everyone else to make sure there are no proverbial skeletons in closets, a date is selected during “wedding season” (November to May) and the families start to negotiate the girl’s dowry. The only potential impediment along the path of roses would be disapproval by the parents, which could put serious brakes on the planning. Take Theavy Lim, for example. She’s a 27-year-old woman who has been in a relationship for three years with Chang, also 27, who comes from a traditional Chinese-Cambodian family.
Several years ago, a fortune-teller told Chang’s family it would be bad luck for their son to marry a girl of the same age, so he respected his parents’ wishes and hasn’t asked Theavy to marry him. “A girl has no rights. She just waits to be selected,” said Theavy. “I will wait one more year to see if he changes his mind. If he doesn’t, I will break up with him.”
There’s an unwritten code of conduct that says girls should not defy their families when it comes to marriage, and, in the chbap srey (women’s law), a written rule that says a girl should not ‘disappoint or ignore your husband because he is the head and you can’t disobey him’. According to Cambodian convention, marriage is not so much a bond between a man and a woman as it is a bond between two families. If a family disapproves of the match, it’s pretty much out of the question.
Newspapers and local people still tell stories of tragedies that have befallen those ill-fated Romeos and Juliets. “A girl in my neighbourhood wanted to marry a man she loved, but her parents didn’t approve,” said Socheat, a 32-year-old woman living in Phnom Penh. “They locked her in her bedroom. She jumped out and killed herself.” In another case, a young couple jumped off a bridge because they weren’t allowed to get married. He survived but she died.
When Kim Serekith, 46, got married in 1990, he’d seen his wife only a few times before his wedding. His uncle took him to a pagoda and asked what he thought of the pretty girl standing across from him and, before he knew it, engagement plans were underway. At the time, there were few men in his village, since most were fighting in the army, giving Serekith his choice of women. The Khmer Rouge had killed his father, so his uncle was helping raise him and he felt pressured into finding him a bride. “I was afraid,” Serekith said. “I just finished university and had no job. I was not planning to get married yet. How could I support a family?”
Twenty-one years later, Serekith and his wife are happily married with three children. “She was good and pretty, but we did not have a relationship when we met,” he said. “It took time to fall in love.” Serekith now has a 20-year-old daughter, and his attitude about her finding a marriage partner is different. “I don’t know if she has a boyfriend, but she goes out with groups of friends,” he said. “Her mother is concerned she’s getting older every day, but I trust she will marry the right person and that it will be a good man that we like.” While there are still many marriages in Cambodia that are arranged (35% in 2005, according to the Cambodia Democratic Health Survey), times are a-changing in urban settings as young people attend university, get jobs and find partners on their own.
“There are changes happening in Cambodia, mostly related to economic empowerment,” said Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia. The average age for marriage is higher for the urban population than in rural areas and, in 2008, was 28 years for men and 25.5 for women (compared with 24.8 and 22.5, respectively, in rural areas), according to the survey. “As young people become more educated and are able to earn a living, women are not so dependent on men,” said Sopheap. “The historical culture of this country has dictated that women are powerless, but I believe it is wrong for women to be subordinated.”
In the provinces, the role of a young woman is primarily to cook, take care of the house, work in the rice fields or local food service and wait to be selected by a man. Her dowry (paid in cash in urban areas), tends to be a small plot of land, cows or water buffalos. Traditional customs – both in villages and cities – are maintained from generation to generation and consist of several days of celebratory rituals that would exhaust even the hardiest Westerner.
On the first day, monks appear at the home of the bride to bless the couple and their families. Day two begins very early when the groom, with his family, relatives and friends, walks to the home of the bride-to-be, dressed to the nines carrying fruit, flowers and other gifts while musicians play Cambodian tunes as they wend their way through the streets. When they arrive at her home, gifts are presented and the ceremonial traditions begin: hair cutting, tying a red thread around the couple’s wrists, washing of the groom’s feet by the bride-to-be and any other customs they wish to observe. And then there’s the mega-party, when everyone eats, drinks and celebrates together.
by Gabrielle Yetter
From Southeast Asia Globe