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A Cambodian Wedding, or How to Nicely Get Scammed

11 Apr Posted by in Cambodia | Comments
A Cambodian Wedding, or How to Nicely Get Scammed
 

A long wait in Kompong Cham…

I am heading to Kratie, a village in the middle of Cambodia. Kratie is a hotspot to observe the enigmatic Irrawady Dolphin – a highly endangered species of dolphin trying to survive in the Mekong’s waters. This morning at 6am, I hopped on a bus in Siem Reap. The coach was meant to drive all the way to Kratie – 320km – but stopped in Kompong Cham, 70 km from its destination. Seemingly, the passengers have to wait for an unexpected connection in an improvised bus station. It’s been 3 hours now that this connection should have appeared; some people around me say the bus had a flat tyre, others say it always comes at 6pm and others even say there is no connection here… When you travel in Cambodia, you should be ready to leave a place without really knowing when or how you’ll get to the next one… so patiently, everyone is waiting for something to happen…

Vutha’s invitation to the wedding

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

A young guy walks toward me and starts chatting. The young Khmer’s name is Vutha, and he speaks quite good English. He offers me a few lotus seeds and shows me some funny tricks to pop the seeds out of their pod. Khmer people are incredibly eager to speak English, meet foreigners and share knowledge and life experience. Vutha is travelling to a small village near Kratie to go to his cousin’s wedding the day after. We quickly hit it off, and he finally proposes that I join the party tomorrow at the wedding. I feel really honoured and gladly accept his kind invitation.

After 5 hours waiting with no bus in sight, I leave the so-called bus station. I want to try to find a vehicle going roughly in the right direction. I finally get one, and finish the journey squeezed between two bags of rice and a bucket of croaking frogs. I arrive in Kratie later in the evening, just in time to see the beautiful sunset over the Mekong River. Vutha stayed in Kompong Cham waiting there for… I don’t know – I’ll meet him tomorrow anyway…

D-day

Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

The day after is D-day. Vutha told me I had to take a taxi boat down the Mekong and stop after 45 minutes. I don’t really know where I’m going, but with a bit of luck I will find it. The taxi boat sets off. It is 5pm and the Mekong’s waters glisten in the warm afternoon. On the steep shores, children dive and play amongst small herds of cows bathing in the shallow water. After a while the boat driver waves at me. I think I need to get off here. The boat stops. I jump on the muddy soil and start my ascension up the bank. I feel lucky when, arriving at the top, I find myself in front of a group of wooden stilted houses decorated in colourful ribbons. A number of round tables are set in front of the houses and many people are already there. It must be here… I slowly enter the garden hoping to find Vutha among these unknown faces… everyone stares at me… people laugh…

Kiss the Bride and meet Papa

Vutha finally shows up. We shake hands and he drags me to the house on the left. We climb up the stairs and go into the main room. Fans are blowing the warm air around making it slightly cooler. I am introduced to the Bride and Groom and shake their hands. The young couple have to remain hidden in this room until the dinner begins. They wear traditional costumes and headgear, all sewn in golden embroidery. After a short photo session with the wedding party, I am dragged to the next house. I am now introduced to a very welcoming old Khmer man. He hugs me as if I was his own son and gestures for me to sit down on the wooden floor of his humble house. He is the Bride’s uncle and kindly asks me to call him “Papa”. He speaks a few words in French – as do many elder people in Cambodia. He organized the party, and is very proud and happy on this joyous day.

Eating, drinking and dancing.

We walk down to the garden where the meal is soon served. I and 7 other guys settle around a round table. There must be something like 150 people here… Vutha and Papa are sitting a bit further away on another table. No one speaks English around my table; I suspect a little alcohol may help break down this language barrier however. Indeed shortly, a massive stock of bottles arrives and my glass is immediately filled with frothy Angkor Beer and ice cubes. The meal is entirely home made, out of local fresh products, and the table is quickly covered in tones of tasty food. Fabulous “loc lac” – traditional Khmer marinated beef in gravy, soy salad with chicken feet, excellent fish soup flavoured with spices, and loads of rice are shared in common plates. Beer floods and everyone raises his glass greeting “Chul Muy” – Khmer for cheers. It’s just one of the most delicious meals of my life.

When the meal is over at last, my stomach is about to burst. But no time to rest; I am dragged to the dance floor… All the people gather in a circle around a central table on which a flower is standing. Dancing Romvong, people gracefully wave their hands and slowly turn around the table. Everyone is particularly enjoying my application to imitate their moves, and laughter bursts out when I show a bit more creativity…

Time to offer a gift and then leave…

After hours spent dancing and sipping more beer, I notice people gathering gifts. Mainly, they offer money to the young couple. Vutha comes to me and confirms it is time for the gifts. I am happy to participate; I have been a guest after all! I don’t really know how much to give and I guess $10 would do – I am travelling low budget. But Vutha seems embarrassed as I offer him the note… it doesn’t seem to be enough… I don’t really know how to react so I just smile and ask how much would do. $30 would be better according to him. I smile again and agree on the sum.

Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

Shortly after the awkwardness, I say good night to Papa and to my new friends. As a boat drives me back to Kratie under the clear night sky, I think about what happened. When you experience things for the first time, you just don’t know how to do… Was I stingy giving only $10 in the first place? Was Vutha trying to take advantage of the “wealthy” Western guest on behalf of the bride and groom? Was it a bit of both? I can’t really say… But, in any case, I guess $40 is a small price to pay for one of the most unexpected and memorable nights of my life.

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