Many words could be used to describe Cambodia, but this week nothing is more appropriate than “beautiful”, or in Khmer, “sah aht”.
Apparently I arrived here for the wedding season, just as the tropical rains end and young couples lavishly celebrate their planned futures with family, friends and colleagues. During a month in Kampong Cham I have cycled past many wedding receptions and even been woken in the very early hours of the morning when a neighbourhood wedding apparently began at 3am!
The receptions are held at hotels or restaurants whose frontages are temporarily decorated with candy coloured canvas trimmings, or pastel pavilions erected in the street and all day people can be observed arriving and leaving. The men dress very smartly and many of them are ridiculously handsome. But the women steal the show, dressed in traditional long and tight wrap skirts with matching fitted bodices, in bright materials sprinkled with glimmering jewels. They almost always wear their straight black hair long, and for the occasion have it styled at the hairdressers with make up that transforms them beyond recognition.
This week I attended the evening wedding reception of a Cambodian colleague. Except for seeing and hearing a number of weddings as a bystander cycling past, I had no idea what to expect and turned up with my housemates and quite a bit of trepidation. I wore the best dress I had, which seemed fairly glamorous before I was confronted with the radiance of twinkling colour illuminating the room.
We walked through the gates of the hotel into what must usually be a carpark, which was transformed into a glitzy entrance pavilion with a canvas roof high above us and red carpet underfoot. A grand golden framed photograph of the couple dressed in traditional costume not unlike the stolen photograph below was displayed on a golden easel. A table next to it was manned by people receiving gifts. Waiters dapper in black wearing bluetooth earpieces greeted and escorted us into the reception room. We entered an enormous indoor space furnished with at least ten large round tables seating ten per table and set with rotating turnstyles, a large dance floor, a stage with a live band singing Cambodian pop, rock and traditional music and a large cinema screen on the front wall beside the stage, showing video footage of the stage, dancefloor and tables as well as wedding photographs.
The table we sat at glimmered with beautiful women in shining jewels. I felt as though these stunning women who were smiling at me knowingly were somehow familiar, but at first could not place them. It took me about five minutes to identify each and every one of them as my colleagues who I have been seeing daily for the past month! I don’t even know how to describe how exquisite they looked. Two were in similarly coloured bright sparkling green, one in purple, one in a flowing white, one in apricot. I don’t believe I had ever been dazzled before sitting at that table!
Waiters wandered the room with cane baskets adorned with pink ribbons, delivering beer, water and soft drink on demand. Plates of food were served constantly onto the turnstyle and we dished our own servings of chicken, noodles, fried prawns, soup and other, sometimes unknown ingredients (some of which I admit to being unwilling to try!), into little white bowls with chopsticks. At least three cameramen were positioned around the room, taking footage being displayed onto the cinema screen. Dotted about the room were people I knew, and after a bite to eat and some beer for Dutch courage, I accepted someone’s suggestion that we hit the dance floor.
Just when it seemed that the opulent costumes couldn’t be topped, some hilarious dance floor shenanigans revealed the true highlight of my night. Dancing merged with hilarity to make for a very lively and entertaining evening. Occasionally the rock and pop was switched with slow traditional ballad music. The insanity would stop while everyone faced the same direction and moved together in a slow graceful rhythm of four steps forward, four small steps back, so that the throng slowly danced in unison around the centre table which was adorned with flowers and fruits. These foot moves were combined with graceful hand motions that are a little like the Hawaiian hula, only slower and more methodical. Video cameras focussed in on individuals and eventually someone would win as the best traditional dancer, at which time flower petals showered the crowd and tropical fruit prizes were presented to the winner as the wild music fired up again.
A number of my colleagues ascended the stage at various times of the night and took control of the microphone, there were solo acts, duets and group acts, all of them tuneful, some of them very funny and all of them highly entertaining. The only other country I’ve visited that could closely match this level of impromptu musical revelry, is Ireland. So I have dobbed Cambodia as the “Ireland of Asia”.
As yet I have no insight into the actual wedding ceremonies here, but I know weddings regularly last for up to three days, and include time in a Buddhist temple. Apparently monks determine the date(s) for individual weddings, which they administer.
Cambodian beauty is not just seen in the splendid fashion, landscapes, villages, gentility and kindness I see all around me, but also in the peoples’ ability to merge modern with traditional festivities and really rock the room.