Annual mock weddings in Battambang province, which are intended to raise money for local pagodas and communities, are becoming more strictly monitored, following reports that young lovers have been using them to elope and avoid the sometimes hostile reactions parents show towards their love interests.
Doeum Sovann, deputy director of Battambang province’s Department of Tourism, was reluctant to talk about the issue, saying: “We don’t have statistics about how many girls and boys became real couples after they volunteered for pretend weddings.”
If sparks ignited during the fake marriage, the youths should hold off until they held a traditional wedding, he added. “If they fall in love with each other while they volunteer for a pretend wedding, it’s not a problem: They can get engaged and marry each other after the fake wedding finishes.”
But at Banan temple, about 16 kilometres from Battambang town, youths are now required to sign a contract pledging not to regard themselves as a legitimately married after the fake ceremony concludes, mock wedding organiser Sat Saet said. Still, despite the contracts, he insisted that the mock weddings had never been used as an excuse to enjoy a wedding night.
“We have never had such cases happen at the temple since we started mock marriage ceremonies, but we have to protect the practice. If girls and boys who volunteered for this fake wedding love each other, they can get married later on,” Sat Saet said.
Volunteer grooms and brides are announced on the first day of Khmer New Year, and four or five couples participate a day for the rest of the four-day festival. They collect funds for one hour at the entrance of a pagoda, where they stand in wedding attire to greet the visitors. They also solicit donations from local shops. After collecting money, the pairs then return to the wedding hall for a traditional ceremony and musical performance.
According to Doeum Sovann, mock weddings began in Battambang in the 1950s. Local villagers say they began around the same time flower dances did. These dances saw unmarried girls raise funds for the community by selling flowers in exchange for a dance. Proceeds were given to pagodas or invested in community projects. The flower dances died out, but songs about them still abound and they remain well-known nationwide.
The mock weddings are less well-known nationally, but are becoming increasingly popular in Battambang where they are spreading to more and more villages.
Doeum Sovann said the mock weddings were a good opportunity for youths to overcome their shyness, explaining that they “help to build the confidence of our children”. “Boys and girls will learn to understand their feelings for each other,” he added.
More than 10,000 people a day showed up for the mock weddings at Banan temple. Bride and groom Dy Kaly, 18, and Phal Sokunthe, 20, were among the star attractions. Dressed in matching orange wedding attire, the pair greeted visitors to the temple with a blush of enthusiasm on the second day of the New Year.
Dy Kaly said she volunteered to be a bride because she wanted to entertain visitors to her community. “I saw many young people volunteer for pretend weddings last year, and I became excited. That’s why I volunteered to be a bride this year. It’s so funny! But I have to overcome with my shyness because everybody stares at me,” she said.
While holding an umbrella over her, volunteer groom, Phal Sokunthe, 20, said he was motivated by money – but not for himself. “I don’t think about it as anything other than a way to raise money for the community,” he insisted.
Sat Saet said that the mock weddings were in their sixth year, and that they offered an alternative to ancient temples. “We don’t want ancient temples to be the only thing visitors see. We want to show the community’s traditional games to people as well, especially mock weddings.”