On a Magic (Red) Carpet Ride – Gangnam Style
The pickup truck winds along the narrow, dusty roads in Phnom Penh’s Toul Sleng neighborhood, looking but not finding. A moto whizzes by and the passenger on the back waves to us, a sign we’re headed in the right direction so we follow.
We pull up amidst a sea of camera flashes, glamorous people and a red carpet – I adjust my dress and hope my hair hasn’t gotten too frizzy in the heat.
We’re greeted by one of the hosts and ushered to the entrance. We’re staring down the red carpet.
If we were at a movie premier in Los Angeles, this would not seem so strange, but we’re in Cambodia’s capital about to enter a young couple’s wedding. It’s another reminder of how different our cultures are from each other.
We sampeah (hands together at our chest) and “choum reap sur” (formal greeting) our way down the carpet. The parents of the bride and groom sit in thrones at the beginning of the receiving line, followed by the bridal party who create a tunnel into the reception hall. The bride is missing and I piece together that the man at the front was the groom.
We’re quickly taken to a table by the reception staff who are men in black suits with secret service-like microphones. And with that, we’re in!
Cambodian weddings are a grand affair. Hundreds of people are invited, many of whom are friends of relatives or guests of other guests, which is how we found ourselves sitting at a table for 10 dressed in our best traveler outfits. The president of my NGO has 10 siblings and Chamrong, the groom, is the second to last to be married. While the event seemed so formal upon entering, the atmosphere inside is nothing but jovial and rather informal.
Guests are seated at tables according to how they enter and we’re seated among two tables of co-workers all whom are ready to celebrate! The tables are filled with cans of soda, beer and a bottle of whiskey sits on the lazy Susan. Girls with steel buckets come by with giant ice cubes, dropping them in glasses to be filled with any combination of the drinks at the table. Some opt for orange soda, but mostly whiskey and soda gets poured, more whiskey gets added and the clinking of glasses happens incessantly throughout the evening.
We are getting adjusted to our surroundings and spot the bride who is entering the hall after having changed her outfit (she’s been up since 4 a.m. and has likely worn multiple dresses already). She’s sparkling in a lime green and gold dress and her smile lights up the room.
Soon, our lazy Susan is filled with starters – salted cashews, green mango salad, fried fish on lemongrass skewers and plenty of other dishes. I’m warned to go slow, this is the first of seven courses to come. Throughout the next hour, boys in blue button-up shirts and white diner hats change out our food, the lazy Susan gets spun around-and-around and we clink glasses another 10 times. A sizzling whole fish gets placed in front of us and the table goes quiet in delight.
All the tables around us are on different courses. Each table is served as it gets filled with guests, there is no set dinner time like our American style occasions.
Introducing the Couple
The bride and groom change outfits twice more throughout the evening and eventually stand all in white, preparing for their grand entrance. An older pop singer who was once rather famous visits the wedding and is coerced onto the stage to sing a song and to help in introducing the couple to the room. We line another carpet leading to the stage – kids shake cans of silly string and small lotus petals are passed along to throw at them when they walk by. The singer is presumably talking about the couple and they anxiously wait to make the formal entrance to the party as husband and wife.
Cheers ring out and the couple walks down the carpet toward a large table of fruit near the stage. They reach the table and start circling it as sparklers are lit, silly string is sprayed and small cannons of confetti are burst. I’m so sad I didn’t see this before I got married, it’s incredibly fun and congratulatory.
The couple eventually take to the stage with their parents, give a short speech and then turn their backs to prepare to toss the bouquet out to the gathered crowd. Both the bride and groom hold onto the bouquet as the crowd yells, “muy, bi, bye!” (one, two, three) and the bouquet gets catapulted to the shrieking crowd and lands in the hands of a young man. I guess the garter toss is only an American thing!
And then we Dance
The entire evening’s entertainment is filled with popular Khmer songs sung by a band, the songs are often sweet love songs and the volume is deafening. The bride and groom dance together during a song for couples and then the dance floor opens up to Gangnam Style, played twice in a row because the little kids dancing on stage are having too much fun to be stopped. Kids from three to eight are wiggling their hips, lasso-ing their hands and falling down to show off their amateur break-dancing moves. I think it’s just a ploy by the parents to wear out their children before they go home.
Gangnam Style eventually ends and we’re ushered to the dance floor with the girls from our table and taught a few Khmer dances, which involve strategic timing with the movement of your feet and the twisting of your hands. The entire dance floor moves together in the back and forth motion. I’m mostly terrible, but get the movement down at least once or twice to redeem myself.
The guests come and go throughout the party and we decide to head home after a few hours of great Cambodian fun. We deposit our shiny pink money envelope in the giant heart box and say our goodbyes.
My souvenirs are the constant ringing of “Hey…sexy lady” in my head, the memories of watching my co-workers having so much fun celebrating with each other and being so grateful that they are taking the time to introduce us to new things. Oh, and this fantastic red carpet picture!