An Affair to Remember

Rice-Farming Newlyweds Are Treated Like Royalty

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of stories about life in Put Sar, a typical Cambodian rice-growing village, about 30 km from Phnom Penh.  The stories follow the course of this year’s rice crop. The village is home to 1,408 people in 320 families and lies 6 km from the nearest market. Eighty percent of the villagers are poor, and virtually all grow rice. We hope to show the importance of rice to Cambodia’s mostly rural population, to describe the hardships and rewards of village life, and to listen to voices not often heard.

put sar village, Takeo province – The wedding music blaring from the town loudspeaker is so loud it seems to skip the ear entirely and cut straight to the bone.

It blasts through the wooden stilt houses and far out into the dry rice fields, where the fat, green stalks of the rainy season have crisped to a golden stubble.

The families of Kun Ieng, 22, and Chev Kim Sruon, 19, want the world to know their children will be married in March.

The engagement is the fruit of two months of careful negotiations between the families, including visits to monks and fortune-tellers to pick an auspicious time for the wedding.

Kun Ieng and Chev Kim Sruon have known each other all their lives, but that had nothing to do with this match. It was arranged by their parents for a complex series of reasons, including suitability of income and location of rice fields.

Chev Kim Sruon is too shy to talk, but Kun Ieng, a rice farmer like his father, is happy that he will start married life with land and not one but two cows.

It is a substantial stake for a rice farming village as poor as Put Sar. “I am satisfied,” he says with a smile.

• • • •

The fine red dust coating every surface in Put Sar signals the arrival of the dry season, the traditional time for weddings.

The wet rice has been harvested; the dry rice won’t be ripe for months yet. Families have a little time to breathe and, if the year has been lucky, a little extra money.

Weddings have long been major events in Khmer culture; some say a wedding is the most important event in a couple’s life, a time when a young man and woman dress—and are treated—like royalty itself.

A generation ago, the Khmer Rouge, intent on creating a classless society, abolished traditional weddings in favor of forced marriages between strangers, pairing scholar and illiterate, city dweller and farmer.

Groups of black-clad couples only exchanged kramas, overseen by stern cadres, and they were married. Parents and families had nothing to do with the ceremony. Cultural affairs officials say the practice “insulted nearly every value Cambodians hold dear.”

Today, children of that generation increasingly opt for old-style weddings, which can last for three days and involve up to seven changes of clothes. In Phnom Penh, it may be compressed into one hectic morning.

But in the countryside, people take the time to savor the experience.

• • • •

Down the road at Sorn Soeun’s house, several dozen children are too excited to sit still. A huge blue tent, festooned with red and gold bunting, fills the entire yard.

The children fidget on plastic chairs, set up in a hollow square in the tent’s bluish light. At its center is a table loaded with gifts, ranging from a tree made of cigarettes to elaborate arrangements of flowers and fruits.

Sorn Soeun’s eldest daughter, 18-year-old Chan Thorn, is marrying Kom Khorn, 22, from the village of Boeng Kyang, about 5 km away.

This is the second and busiest day of a three-day event. The children—indeed, most of the village—are waiting for the hair-cutting ceremony, which was supposed to be held at noon but is running an hour late.

Since dawn, the couple, their friends and relatives have kept to a demanding schedule of ceremonies, prayers and changes of outfit. There was a ornate procession, as the bridegroom’s people carried silver platters of gifts to the bride’s family.

There was a touching interlude when the couple, resplendent in bright silk, knelt before their simply dressed parents, asking for their

blessings and squeezing their work-roughened hands.              And there was a somber discussion inside the bride’s home, where the walls had been covered with white paper and scores of colored wedding photos clipped from magazines.

As a capacity crowd hung on every word,

representatives of each family agreed to the terms of the marriage settlement, spelled out in detail. Those who couldn’t fit into the house heard the proceedings broadcast over a bank of loudspeakers outside.

The tent is like a sauna by the time the bridal couple and their attendants—two young men and two young women—emerge to take their seats.

They have changed clothes yet again, this time to traditional Khmer tunics and lengths of silk wrapped into trousers. The wedding musicians begin a long song about gods and goddesses coming down from the heavens to attend the wedding.

At this moment, in the hot, still air, the six young people are ethereally beautiful in their shining silks and perfect makeup, as if they too have floated down from heaven.

• • • •

The wedding of Chan Thorn and Kom Khorn is both a traditional and a very modern affair.

It is a love match; the young people met at a festival and chose each other.

“My son knew her and loved her for one year,” says Kom Khoun, Kom Khorn’s father. He’s taking the wedding in stride, he says, although the boy is his eldest child and the first to marry.

“I’ve been through it before, with my brothers and sisters,” he says with a laugh. “I enjoy weddings.”

The two families have agreed to spend 3 million riel (about $750) on the wedding, one-third to be paid by his family, two-thirds by hers. The 400 guests will probably contribute more than that, giving between $2.50 and $5 apiece.

And while some ancient traditions will be faithfully observed, the sheer amplification of the event is decidedly 21st century. Two four-foot stacks of electronic equipment control enough speakers for a minor rock concert, not to mention video and CD players for the karaoke that will grind away for most of the night.

The families say it is a medium-sized wedding for the area and that essentially the whole village has been invited. “We have lived together for a long time,” says Kom Khoun.

The wedding is one of three that the family of Um Roeuy, 48, will attend today. Her husband is at one and her children at another, she says.

“We will go to more than 10 this month alone,” she says. “Yes, it gets expensive, but they call me [to come] and when my children get married, I will call them back.”

She has six children to marry off, she says, and it is important for poor families to support each other. “We save for the dry season, because we know there will be a lot of weddings.”

Country people take such responsibilities seriously, she says. “I could not say no unless I was destitute. Even if we had no money, we would sell rice, to maintain our friendships.”

• • • •

Under a tarp behind the bride’s house, dinner for 400 is rapidly flying together. The chef and his four serving boys, hired for about $38, are the only paid employees; the other dozen helpers are volunteers.

Two fire pits the size of washtubs have been dug in the earth; two oil drums, cut into cookers, support enormous woks. Wood fires, kindled hours ago, fuel all four cooking stations with beds of glowing coals. Rice bubbles over one fire pit, and soup over the next. In the woks, cooks sauté vegetables and dunk whole ducks and chickens in sizzling oil.

Neighbors chop mounds of garlic, carrots, mushrooms and bamboo shoots. A tub of tiny boiled shrimp sits ready to garnish platters; what seems like a truckload of cabbage will soon be sautéed.

Despite the sweltering temperatures, the cooking crew works together cheerfully. They’ve done a lot of weddings together, and they are clearly having a blast.

• • • •

Weddings provide glittering interludes in what can be very hard lives. Last year’s record flooding created problems for many Put Sar farmers. Sao Eng, the farmer who in August hoped for a good crop, lost about half his rice, says his wife, Sok Eng.

He will not attend the wedding today; he is out planting dry season rice, she says. “We hope we can raise enough in the dry season to feed the family,” she explains.

Two houses over, times are even tougher for the family of Sao Eng’s cousin, Phad Phat. Marng Khan, Phad Phat’s wife, had  complained bitterly of his drinking.

Today her head is shaved, and her eyes are full of tears. The previous week, she says, Phad Phat drank so much that his body swelled up and he died, gasping for breath.

Her two oldest children, son Phad Soeun, 22, and daughter Phad Khan, 19, have gone to Phnom Penh to work. The family pig, bought in August to raise for sale, will be served up tonight at a village feast because she could not keep feeding it.

Marng Khan blinks back her tears, and smiles. She will survive, she says, with the help of her four younger children. But they will not plant dry season rice this year, she says, “because I am all alone.”

• • • •

The wedding musicians are deep into the song about the hair-cutting ceremony, which is intended to ensure good luck and a fresh start in life for the young couple.

It’s a performance full of jokes and silliness, and the children are shrieking with laughter. Heads poke through the tent’s side panels; passersby stop to listen and giggle.

Chan Thorn and Kom Khorn sit statue-still as the wedding photographer bullies first one, and then the second set of parents behind them, posing each with scissors and comb.

The couple’s eyes meet, just for a second. They don’t dare to laugh, or grimace, but the connection sustains them.

So it will go for hours yet. Villagers will come and go, bearing envelopes stuffed with riel to be carefully noted in the guest book. Children will fall asleep across the plastic chairs only to bounce back re-energized when the air grows cooler.

Music will throb late into the night, as the guests drink and dance, laugh and maybe quarrel, make up and dance some more.

At about 4 am on the third day, when the hubbub has finally died down and the weary guests have wandered away, Chan Thorn and Kom Khorn will gather with the priest and with their parents to bring the ceremony to a close.

They will thank their parents one more time for their years of love and devotion, for giving them life and food and protection and such a splendid start in married life.

Everybody will probably cry, wracked with deep and private emotion in the silent hours before dawn. Then it will be done, and no one will ever forget it.



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