It’s a rare expat that doesn’t get invited to a wedding or three in their first few months in Cambodia.
Weddings are important events in Cambodia. Rural Cambodians often use matchmakers and have arranged marriages, while city kids increasingly choose love matches. Premarital sex is considered unacceptable — for women, at least — and divorce, while easy to obtain, is uncommon. Most Khmer young people marry before the age of 25, and women in the provinces often get married as teenagers.
A traditional wedding is a complicated and expensive affair that can go on for days, requiring multiple intricate outfits and lots of very early morning wake-up calls. A wedding usually lasts three days, with many different ceremonies relating to ancient mythical Khmer stories that are done in a specific order to join the bride and groom in matrimony. Some weddings can last a week while others are only a day long, determined usually by the wealth of the parties involved.
Even if you don’t know any Cambodians when you first arrive, you’ll find that you’re often invited to weddings. Unlike Western weddings, where the guest lists are closely monitored, Cambodians will often invite all and sundry to their weddings, hoping to make the affair as large and impressive as possible. When foreigners are invited to weddings they are usually only invited to certain portions that are meant for an audience, or to the final evening celebration. In the cities, these are often held in large halls or on the street under a canopy.
If you’re invited to a Khmer wedding, with your invitation you’ll be given an envelope in which to put the cash gift you’re expected to give the happy couple to help defray the wedding’s enormous cost. Give according to your means; the average gift from a foreigner is around $20, but give more if the bride or groom is your employee or close friend. On entering the reception you may be surprised to find an eagle-eyed mother-in-law manning the reception table, writing down the names of all of the guests and the amount that they’ve given. It’s not greed that dictates this behavior; rather, they want to make sure they know what the appropriate amount is to give when you invite them to your wedding later down the line.
Dress for guests is usually semi-formal. Men are fine in long-sleeved dress shirts, and skirts or dresses for women are acceptable. It’s usually best to go with clothes that are conservative and do not show the shoulders, particularly in the provinces. Women often wear traditional Cambodian dress to weddings, but this is not required.
Most weddings include a sit-down dinner and lots and lots of drinking. When drinking beer, Cambodians will clink glasses before every sip, saying, “Chol muoy!” There’s also lots of dancing, which will include dances with steps that you don’t know, but as the foreigner you will be good-naturedly forced to participate. If you’re lucky, you may also be asked to be in some of the wedding photos, even if you’ve never met the bride or groom before. Although you might be tempted to demur, don’t! Weddings are among the most pleasant insights into Cambodian culture available to expats, photographs and all.
This is an excerpt from Move to Cambodia: A guide to living and working in the Kingdom of Wonder. To learn more about 100+ topics that pertain to Cambodia expats, please consider buying the book.