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Traditional Cambodian (Khmer) Wedding Ceremonies

I had a traditional Khmer wedding that blended American and Korean elements, and I share my experience here!

My husband and I posed for this photo in our traditional Khmer silk wedding attire.

My husband and I posed for this photo in our traditional Khmer silk wedding attire.

My Cambodian-American Background

Although I will be detailing many aspects of a typical Cambodian wedding, I am speaking from the position of a Cambodian-American woman who was raised traditionally but was born in the United States.

I married a Korean-American man, and English is our primary language. Our wedding ceremonies and reception were a combination of our cultures as well as modern Western-style traditions (e.g. white wedding dress). The wedding took place at my family's residence in California, and it spanned two days in the spring of 2008. (Also, I use the word Khmer and Cambodian interchangeably.)

The only Khmer ceremony where we got to sit in chairs . . . the rest of the time, we sat or kneeled on the floor.

The only Khmer ceremony where we got to sit in chairs . . . the rest of the time, we sat or kneeled on the floor.

What Is a Cambodian Wedding Like?

A typical Cambodian wedding is comprised of different ceremonies, lots of music, a dinner banquet, gifts, and, of course, people! Guests are encouraged to not only spectate but also become involved in each ceremony since an emcee (MC) or host guides everyone along with commentary and instructions (and usually some comedy and teasing too).

Music and songs performed on traditional instruments and gongs signal the arrival of the couple to each part of the wedding. There are usually silver or gold trays, along with candles, flowers, fresh fruit, and other decorations that are placed on the floor or on a table in front of the bride and groom. The family and wedding guests usually sit on the floor around the couple, finding whatever space they can (since usually these ceremonies are held at the bride's family residence and space is limited).

Coordinated Clothing

The couple is attired in matching brightly-colored silk costumes and can have a wedding party (groomsmen and bridesmaids) wearing coordinating colors (at my wedding, we each had three attendants). Each ceremony has its own color scheme, so the wedding party has to change outfits in between each ceremony.

For the bride, this usually means changing her hairstyle and jewelry (lots of gold!) as well as the dress each time. Though colors and designs vary widely, I believe the outfits tend to get more elaborate with each ceremony, culminating in an opulent all-gold silk outfit to represent the couple being royalty.

My beautiful bridesmaids and I in lovely shades of pink.

My beautiful bridesmaids and I in lovely shades of pink.

The Ceremony

Guests normally fluctuate between watching, interacting with the ceremony, taking a break, and enjoying food outside. I have so many fond childhood memories of weddings where we kids would run around and play and eat instead of waiting around for the next ceremony. Indeed, at my own wedding, my friends and even my siblings said they spent a lot of time eating outdoors. This is understandable. Each ceremony is about an hour long, but with all accompanying outfit changes, photographs, and breaks, the ceremonies take all day and are typically spread out over two to three days.

Unless otherwise noted, all ceremonies take place with the couple (and the attendants) sitting or kneeling on the floor while attired in their costumes. This is usually uncomfortable and boring, but honestly, I only remember the utter delight and sentimentality I felt at getting married and honoring my culture and my family at the same time. Modern Khmer couples and Cambodian-American families sometimes choose to do only a few of these ceremonies. We may decide to do some ceremonies out of order to fit with the schedule or only invite close family members for the ceremony and have the bulk of the guests just come for the reception. Below, I list descriptions of the ceremonies in the order I utilized for my wedding (Khmer names italicized).

Friday afternoon: Monk's Blessing (Soat Mun)

This is an often skipped ceremony in the US, but I felt it was important since my family is very traditional and religious (we are Buddhist) and I had missed out on a lot of visits to temple (wat) over the years. During this ceremony, monks bless the couple and the attending guests (usually close family) by sprinkling everyone with flowered water while chanting their specific blessings.

This is a solemn occasion, and guests and the couple remain quiet with their heads bowed and their hands in prayer. We didn't have our wedding party in Khmer costumes at this ceremony, but we wore traditional matching silk and embroidered outfits (blue bottoms and white on top). My groom said he couldn't keep his eyes off of me since this was the first time he'd ever seen me in Khmer costumes and very dramatic makeup and hair.

Honoring the Parents (Bang Chhat Madaiy)

Translated as "holding umbrellas over parents," this ceremony honors and thanks the couple's parents by reversing their roles. As their parents have taken care of them over the years, now that they're marrying, it is the couple's turn to shield and take care of their parents. We provided fruit and sugar to our parents as we held golden parasols over their heads (for almost the whole hour) while the MC talked about our responsibility to take care of our parents. The bridal party does not dress up for this ceremony either since it's about the couple's duty to their own parents. My groom and I wore white and light gold silk outfits.

Other than a rehearsal for the American wedding ceremony, we had no other ceremonies on Friday. We had just had a taste of the Khmer ceremonies; the bulk of them would be held the next day.

Groom's Processional/Parade (Hai Goan Gomloh)

The groom comes, literally bearing gifts, to the bride's house to meet her family and see the bride. The parade is usually the first ceremony of the day. Guests are handed matching silver trays of fruit and gifts as they arrive so they can join in the parade, following the groom on his symbolic journey to the bride's house (usually a short distance around the block).

At our wedding, after the trays were brought in and arranged on the floor, a young Khmer girl danced and sang among the gifts to showcase the bounty of offerings and richness of the groom's family. We also did a ring exchange at this time (although in our Americanized hearts, we weren't truly married yet since we did not exchange vows). My groom just wore his suit this time, while I was in a bright pink outfit and matching tiara.

Honoring the Ancestors (Sien Doan Taa)

The bride and groom pay homage to their ancestors by lighting incense, bowing, and offering food and tea, usually to a photograph or altar dedicated to their deceased ancestors. It is also known as a "call" to ancestors to come and view the new family bonds that are being formed and to bestow their good wishes or blessings upon their living family. Khmer people usually do this at every important occasion or event, like the lunar new year, baby welcoming parties (one-month birthday), and harvest moon festivals.

We bowed and offered food and tea to our ancestors.

We bowed and offered food and tea to our ancestors.

Hair-Cutting (Cleansing) Ceremony (Gaat Sah)

The words are literally translated into Cutting Hair, but the symbolism of this ceremony is to cleanse the couple of the past and get them ready to start their new life together. For this ceremony, the couple sits side-by-side in chairs. Two Khmer singers (one man, one woman) who represent heavenly beings dance around and symbolically cleanse the bride and groom of their past. They do this by simulating cutting the couple's hair and pretending to perfume them, all the while telling jokes and teasing the couple. Then family and guests, such as the couple's parents, will take turns doing the same (cutting hair and spraying perfume).

Some guests get carried away and spray too much perfume instead of just miming it. Thankfully, no real hair is cut off! This is my favorite ceremony because of the interaction and humor involved (and maybe because we got to sit in chairs instead of kneeling on the floor!). We wore matching light green silk outfits.

Passing of Blessings (Bongvul Pbopul)

The couple kneels in the middle of a circle of already married couples. Three lit candles are passed around seven times clockwise and their smoke waved towards the new couple. This is to represent the passing of blessings or essence from the happy, successful married couples to the new young couple. It's a great way for guests to be involved because it doesn't have to just be family; your close married friends can also take part in the ceremony. Unfortunately, I don't have any good photos of this part, but I remember we were wearing our gold outfits.

Knot-Tying Ceremony (Sompeas Ptem)

Right before this ceremony, the entire wedding party walks in a circle around the area where they will be sitting while the groom brandishes a sword in protection of his new bride. During the ceremony, the couple kneels down while holding the (sheathed) sword in between their clasped hands. Guests come up and tie red strings around each of their (the bride and groom's) wrists. Sometimes money is given as a gift at this time too.

This ceremony is all about each guest having a chance to personally bestow blessings or well wishes on the couple, and at the same time get a photo with the couple (but, as at any wedding, photos are taken at every opportunity all day long, especially since there are new outfits to marvel at each time the couple comes out). At the end, guests throw pka sla, or the white seeds found in palm tree pods, which are a traditional element in Khmer weddings.

Reception

We decided to do an American/Western-style wedding ceremony after the Saturday morning Cambodian ceremonies. This involved an officiant who read our vows, which we repeated to each other (the "for better or worse" type of vows), an exchange of rings, a butterfly release, and a kiss.

Then guests enjoyed a cocktail hour (with drinks and appetizers) while the wedding party took pictures. We greeted our guests in a reception line, gave them flower corsages, and they entered the reception (which took place outdoors, but under a wedding tent). We had about 300 guests at our reception. A Cambodian-style wedding reception is a banquet that involves a 10-course meal, drinks, and dancing (like a Chinese wedding banquet).

Gifts and Western Customs

At this time, as in the Chinese tradition, gifts of money are usually given to the bride and groom to allow for a great start to their new life together. Actual presents, or a gift registry, is a foreign concept in Cambodia, but with modern couples, any gift is appreciated. Since I had many non-Khmer guests, I decided to do a gift registry at a popular department store (Macy's), but the physical gifts we received were greatly outnumbered by the monetary gifts.

After traditional Western-style moments, like the garter toss (my grandmas were gleefully embarrassed to witness this) and bouquet toss, baby photo slideshow, toasts, and cutting the cake, my husband and I changed into our "hanbok" which is traditional Korean wedding attire and formal wear. In our outfits, we went around the tables to greet each guest and give out wedding favors (a silver box in an organza bag). This is when the guests give us their money gifts.

At a rowdy wedding, some guests will make the newlywed couple complete tasks (like drinking a shot of liquor) or exchanging kisses in order to get the money gifts. However, most guests just want to wish the bride and groom happiness and blessings and hand over their gifts. Most of the money we received went to paying for wedding expenses (that my family incurred) but there was a tidy sum left over for my new husband and me to keep. Let's just say it was enough to cover the honeymoon, new furniture, and a few months' rent. Thank you, my family and friends!