This week I was invited to a Cham wedding through an American connection I made when we took Paula to her surgery. Despite learning a lot about Cham people in recent years, they still seem foreign and exotic to my western eyes and last night’s wedding did nothing to expel this notion.
Our arrival at the right hotel was confirmed by the vision of an archway adorned with white bougainvillea, underneath which a couple wearing golden clothes borrowed from the pages of an Arabian fairy tale were posing for many photographers. My American friend met me at the hotel gate, dressed in satin turquoise from head to toe – a hijab fitted tightly to her scalp, a skirted paplum bodice bouncing out from her waist and fitted skirt flowing over her toes so that she appeared as an exquisite floating angel. She guided me to the bride and groom to pose for an entrance photograph before parading along patches of cellotaped red carpet, past rows of family members reverently welcoming us inside. Her five or six sisters and their mother were all dressed in matching attire, identifying them as part of the official wedding party.
Dozens of round dinner tables were arranged either side of a central passage of bougainvillea-garnished arches leading from the door to the stage where two gilded thrones waited underneath a multi coloured fluorescent light. I was seated at a table beside a Cham woman who spoke some English and welcomed me warmly, teaching me to say As-Salaam-Alikum and it’s meaning, peace be upon you. The other table guests were less inclined to speak English with me but seemed to understand some of what I said and even replied in English a few times. When I asked was the soup fish (“trey?”), the man beside me struggled to find the English word before replying in Khmer that it was “k’dam” (crab). I nodded in understanding, causing a domino of laughter around the table. I was unable to explain that the reason I understood such a random word, is the hours I have spent at Phsar K’dam (Crab Market) in the seaside resort of Kep. At our table alone, the ten people wore a rainbow of Islamic colour – combinations of green, gold, pink, blue.
Platters of delicious food flowed to the table in a succession of multi courses of salad, seafood, rice, chicken, soup and a dessert of lotus seeds floating in a sugary syrup. I kept thinking of the Cham people on their shabby wooden boats floating riverside nearby and wishing those going to bed hungry could experience such an amazing feast.
Mostly Islamic-sounding a capella music played in the background but at one point I found myself enjoying a beautiful rendition of Silent Night which seemed entirely appropriate to the time, culture and occasion.
The aunt and uncle who distributed books to the village children with me in Kampong Cham last month appeared, as did some other American contacts I was not expecting to see. It’s a small world especially in the Cham community of Cambodia, which carried over today at work when one Cham colleague asked me if he had just seen my photograph on Facebook at a Cham wedding and another informed me her brother was at the same wedding!
As dinner came to an end, the table dispersed and I figured that the hour I had asked TTM to wait for me was probably up, so I made my way to the door. I placed some money in an envelope with my name and put it in the golden money box, a practice that substitutes wedding gifts here.
Many more introductions were made to various guests asking about the weird foreigner in their midst, and I heard my friend talking about Paula a number of times as her way of explaining how I came to be here. One woman wrapped from head to toe in golden swirls on black silk, wanted to tell me about a family struggling to understand their genetic heart disease and trying to keep afloat in the debt they have incurred so far, trying to keep their children alive. We agreed that the user pays system here causes an immense amount of unnecessary suffering and premature death in an already stressed population. And on that note I bid my farewell, boarded the tuk tuk and drove through the quiet streets of Phnom Penh, past homeless and scavenging people surviving on the dark streets, to my comfortable home.