Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Gilded Bananas: or How I danced in Front of 300 Cambodians

In a traditional Cambodian wedding the bride changes her entire outfit upwards of seven times.

When we first arrived at the wedding in the village of Ko Ki Thong, the bride was wrapped in silver silk: a silver sarong, a beaded silver bodice and satin silver heels.  Not to mention a silver necklace, large gold anklets, bracelets and earrings and a pearl studded tiara.

An hour later, the bride appeared to have been painted green.  The sarong, bodice, even the satin heels looked the same, except they were now a brilliant lime.  An hour after that, she was a vision in yellow.  By the time eating had given way to dancing, the bride had exchanged traditional Khmer for a billowing white gown.  By 10 pm dresses were abandoned all together, and the Bride danced the night away in jeans and a striped shirt.  She did, however, keep the tiara in her hair.

In the country less than a week, I found myself preparing that first Saturday afternoon, for a wedding out in the countryside.  My roommate Houng’s cousin was marrying and I was to be one of three western women in attendance.

To be specific we did not attend the actual wedding ceremony, only the extended reception and party.  But not even Houng could tell me precisely when vows had been exchanged – the party was the main event.

From the start we were a spectacle. Our car’s arrival at the reception was recorded on film, our presentation to the Bride and Groom exhaustively photographed.  We came early and were ushered past a line of colorfully dressed men and women and through a palm froned archway hanging with banana bunches spray-painted gold and silver.

For weddings and other major celebrations, Khmer women wear a silk sarong folded in the front and an elaborately beaded, gilded and lace-sewn bodice.  Everyone visits the hair salon for crimping, spraying and curled extensions. Although I had too little time to be fitted for a dress, I did submit to large quantities of purple eye shadow and fake eyelashes. 

Khmer wedding celebrations follow a particular pattern.  First there is food: plates and plates of steamed fish, fried chicken, grilled chicken, cashews, boxes of raisins, freely flowing beer, orange soda and sugary iced coffee.  Elaborately made up women wove between the tables distributing rice, while men did the same with cans of beer.

At our table Houng’s uncle sat across from me and monitored carefully the quantity of food on our plates, encouraging and then admonishing us with a waggling finger to take more.

Soon after we arrived, an oxen drawing a wood cart equipped with a generator pulled up and the live band -- with dancers, strobe lights and a perfumed fog machines -- started up in full force.  From then until early in the morning, Khmer music blared.

As the sky darkened the tables near the stage were pushed aside, all except one that sat in the very center. Around this table at least a hundred revelers danced.  Khmer dancing does not respond to the tempo of the music, rather it exists at one slow stately speed: A few steps forward a few steps back, much twisting of the hands.  The continual sway is like the lapping of seawater on the beach.

As the night progressed so did the intoxication of the men, who became more persistent in their attempts to persuade us to dance.   Rather than decline one just to be asked by another, I befriended Houng’s young cousins. With ten small children circling we made our way into the throngs on the dance floor.

While the men had no success cajoling me onto the dance floor, Houng somehow succeeded in convincing me that I must dance on stage.  I’m still not quite sure how this happened, but I am susceptible to the silly adventures that come with being a tall white American in South East Asia.  So there I was at 10 pm, dancing on a wedding stage in perfumed fog and strobe lights in front of 300 Khmer. 

Hours later, we slept under mosquito nets in Houng’s house.  The house, like most in the countryside was raised on stilts with one large room where everyone slept together.  The bathroom, which housed one hairy tarantula, was out back, surrounded by a collection of water urns for bucket showers and dish washing.

The next morning was for lounging, for eating noodle soup at the local market down the road and for playing badminton in the yard with the collection of kids who had adopted me the previous night.  Time at the stilt house in the countryside grew lazy. There was a second breakfast (hobbit style) of forest chicken – grilled and chopped by Houng’s grandmother – and of course large bowls of rice.  When the kids tired of badminton, they went in search of wildlife, returning to the yard with an endless collection of crabs, one snake and a cat.  The crabs became instant pets with impromptu leashes made of string secured to their claws.  The snake was prodded.  The cat smartly ran away.

We stayed as long as we could, relaxing under the shade of the house. In the end though, we needed to return to the dust and bustle of Phnom Penh.  And so we made our goodbyes, piled into the car and headed back to the city.


  1. What a riotous parade of imagery, from layers of silk to tarantulas, pounding music, slow dance, and perfumed fog...thanks for sharing this, and so exquisitely!

  2. Great job capturing these wedding traditions and high-energy festivities. I love reading about your experiences!