Khmer Wedding Crashers
Glasses clink around me.
People shout, “Chul Muy!”
Someone scoops more ice into my cup of beer. Everyone smiles.
‘Chul Muy’ is the Cambodian word for ‘cheers’ and there was no lack of cheer my last night in Phnom Penh.
My guide, Run Phyros had invited me to his neighbour’s wedding. I was at an authentic Camboian wedding and it was a party.
Prior to the invitation, I had been lethargically depressed. The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison left a dark imprint on my mind.
When Run asked if I wanted to attend a wedding with him and his family I quickly obliged. Run picked me up shortly before sunset. We drove through the crowded streets for about 15 minutes before pulling up in a darkened alley.
Music and talking echoed off the dirt and brick walls. After walking through the winding through the passageways for a couple minutes we stumbled upon the celebration. Three bridesmaids in silvery blue silk dresses greeted us at the entrance.
The wedding was literally unfolding in an alley, scrunched in between the back entrances of the neighbourhood’s homes. Flamboyant ribbons, lanterns and other decorations dotted the space. Run explained his home was situated in the thick of the celebration and he leads me into his house to meet his family.
Run’s father-in-law — a frail withered man with a gentle smile — was resting in the main living area. I’m then introduced to Run’s wife and children who were awaiting our return. Everyone was in a happy mood and despite the language divide they were excited to have a foreign visitor.
The wedding was in its banquet stage and people were being seated as we remerged back into the alley. We quickly found a seat at the back of the reception near a loud fan. The father of the bride came around to our table to collect gifts to the family. I gave the man $30 USD.
Then came the food. Steamed fish, cashews and other vegetarian dishes were served along with many cans of Angkor beer — and buckets of ice. One positive thing about Canadian winters is that keeping your beer cold is never difficult — there’s always a nearby snowbank to chill your frothy goodness in. In Cambodia, people put ice in their beer to keep it cold. I can’t say I’m a fan of this method, as your beer gets diluted after awhile. But in the face of Cambodia’s sticky, hot climate, we weren’t left with any choice. It just made me drink my beer faster. After about three or four watered down brews, you forget it ever was an issue.
Ants scurried across our table and children crowded around me, begging to have their photos snapped. I’m sure I was one of the first Canadians they ever saw, and was definitely the only one in attendance. They took turns posing on a pile of unsuspectingly fashionable pile of bricks by our table as I took their photos. This went on for about an hour until Run started chasing them away.
We ate until we could eat no more. Run introduced me to the bride, groom and their parents. Later, I was dragged onto the dance floor to shake it with the locals. What happened after this point is a blur. The entertainment came in the form of a free-for-all makeshift karaoke with a single keyboardist supplying back-up harmonies. Kids took turn singing songs on stage while dancing hysterically.
After much harassment, Run’s eldest son convinced me to pick up the microphone and entertain the crowd. I’m not someone who normally does karaoke. This was a peer-pressured performance.
The keyboardist indicated he wanted me to select a melody to accompany my vocals. A former pianist, I sloppily punched some keys, mimicking the instrumental from Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode.” This would surely be suitable background noise. Before I knew it, the twangy instrumental was blaring over the speakers. Everyone looked at me. So I rapped. No one could understand me but they danced, clapped, cheered and laughed.
I continued to clink glasses with people. I must have ‘Chul Muy-ed’ a 100+ times. Cambodians sure loved to cheers. Someone gave me a purple nurple. Things were getting rowdy.
Run drove me home close to midnight. The alley had cleared out and only about a dozen people were left on the dance floor. I thanked Run and his family for their hospitality and let him know how much fun I had. When he dropped me off I was still hungry so dropped into a café with a patio beside my hotel on Preah Sisowath Quay for a late night snack.
As I devoured a curry dish, I purchased some bracelets from two little girls selling them on the street. After joking with them for a few minutes, I paid my bill and purchased three packs of Marlboro from the restaurant for just $3 USD. The servers also gave me a large package of incense.
I enjoyed a cigarette on the street outside my hotel before turning in. No one propositioned me for cocaine or solicited me for sex like the first night I arrived in Phnom Penh. I was relieved. The streets were bare. Only a few people begged me for money. I was starting to become accustomed to the strangeness around me.
Despite Cambodia’s tattered past, the place has a unique charm about it that extends to the country’s people; this had been one of the most fun nights I had had in Asia. As I reflected on the night’s experience I thought of how boring North American weddings were. I knew no one outside Run’s family prior to going. No one spoke English. The wedding was in an alley. Yet, this was likely the best wedding I had ever been to. I wished I could have seen the entire ceremony, though, so I could have gotten a better feel for all the customs and rituals.
My head hit the pillow. Siem Reap beckoned.
Connect with Dorian Geiger, editor of Sleepless in Singapore.