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Love among boat dwellers

Unusaul wedding and courtship traditions are still kept alive among the floating villages of Tonle Sap lake.

Here, rather than parents having a say in young love, the village chief in Prek Toal steps in to register young people as a couple before they officially get married.

Keo Sovann points out that privacy is hard to come by in a floating village, where there are no public places for boys and girls to meet. Most of the time youngsters carry out their courtship by going fishing together in one boat – and sometimes their parents disapprove, he says.

“Actually, we do have engagement ceremonies before the wedding, the same as people living on the land. But a wedding ceremony normally costs about US$2,000 and that takes a long time to save. So some young men and women break Cambodian traditions by coming to me first.

“Most of them come to my house at night time, normally at 10pm or 11pm. Anybody whose daughter or son gets lost will probably come directly to my house first before looking somewhere else.”

He signs a piece of paper certifying that the young people love each other, allowing them to live together before a wedding.

“It doesn’t conflict with the law, and the laws will protect couples if they let authorities know in advance,” says Keo Sovann.

When he draws up the contract between the two young people saying they love each other and agree to take each other as spouses, they sign their thumbprints, making it a legal document.

“Parents of the girl sometimes come to bring their daughter back, but we don’t allow them to. They have no more authority after the girl signs the agreement to take the boy as her husband,” he explains.

Keo Sovann allows the couple to stay at his home or nearby after they have signed the contract, leaving negotiations with the parents for the next day.

He then calls the boy’s parents to ask them to guarantee that they’ll take the girl as their daughter-in-law and will later host the wedding.

Most of the time, the families agree – because they themselves often got married this way, Keo Sovann points out.

At least 40 couples each year use his unusual marriage-broking services – allowing love to bloom for new generations of water villagers.

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