Battambang artist Mao Soviet figured he and his new wife Sophorn had already offended enough sensibilities to care much about what he was about to say in front of his crowd of wedding guests.
Nine years after meeting as students at the Phare Ponleu Selpak art school and living together for six, the couple were tying the knot. Now, at the traditional wedding their families and neighbours had always wanted for them, he told them what he thought of the conventions that had bore down on them throughout their relationship.
“I said, ‘Hello everyone, I’m very happy all of you came to our wedding but I’ve been wanting to tell all of you... that I don’t like Khmer tradition,’” he recalls with a chuckle.
For many young couples in Cambodia, a sexual relationship can become a clandestine affair. Taking the unorthodox step of moving in together can mean driving things further into secrecy or living under constant disapproval from family and friends.
Mao and Sophorn chose the latter, even if it meant only visiting his home village after dark, to avoid nosy neighbours and inquisitive questions.
“In the first two or three years it was very hard. Our family said, ‘ok’ but the neighbours talked about us. They said it was bad for Khmer culture... It’s very hard to fight it.”
Many who live together opt not to defend it at all but live with their partners in secret, says 24-year-old Kiri*, who lived with her Western boyfriend for a year without telling her parents.
She was 20 and visiting Olympic Stadium with a friend when she first met him, a 28-year-old American NGO worker. She translated for him when he tried to speak to a street seller.
They dated for three months before moving into a flat together in Phnom Penh.
“With a Khmer man that would not happen,” she says, four years later and single again. “I explained to (my boyfriend), ‘I don’t want somebody who will control my life.’ I think I was old enough to know what to do.
“I loved him and we had an equal relationship, we paid the same rent, spent the same money for food.” During their relationship she worked as a cashier at a hotel restaurant, took on the household chores herself and “took care of him”.
They cooked together, she says.
Kiri, whose family lived in Kandal province, only let a select few in on her living arrangements (although she felt freer to tell Western friends) but says their relationship was happy and lasted a year before he moved overseas again for work. This time, she accepted her family’s wishes and decided not to follow him.
Lying to her mother, in particular, was something she never felt comfortable with and four years later Kiri still hasn’t told her, though she plans to.
While living together before marriage is by no way socially acceptable, she says it is an increasing phenomenon among young Khmer- foreigner couples in Phnom Penh – and says money isn’t necessarily a deciding factor.
More than 70 per cent of Cambodians have been sexually active by the age of 25, according to 2011 Ministry of Health statistics, but the figures also indicate that most activity is typically made after marriage. Though courtship might carry out over years, sex before marriage is strictly frowned upon.
Twenty-nine year-old Phnom Penh professional Chantha says parents should shift their expectations away from thinking first-time relationships are inevitably orbiting marriage.
As the eldest of three sisters in a “conservative” family, she didn’t plan on letting her family know about her live-in western boyfriend at all, telling them instead her Phnom Penh mysterious flatmate was a female friend. Then her sister dropped around unexpectedly and Chantha found them both chatting together in the house.
“(My family) kind of understood and accepted it because I’m old enough. I tried to persuade them that life has to go in different ways compared to 30 years ago,” she says.
Hiding her boyfriend from her parents was also hard because she thought they would like him if they got to know him.
“I was not even thinking about marriage. My boyfriend and I were at the same open-minded level and we respected each other. We treated each other like partners...I found that this is what love means.”
Although she believes cohabitation is something only middle-class couples currently have the security to do, in the future she thinks it will become more acceptable for young couples in general.
For 21-year old Leav Kimlay, a member on Cambodia’s UN Youth Advisory Panel for local NGO People Health Development, the prospect raises many concerns: not necessarily for professional couples living comfortably, but vulnerable migrant workers uneducated about sexual health and contraception.
“I think that is a European concept,” he says, “but I also think they don’t really know what married life is like. What happens to the thousands of girls who don’t have something afterwards? They are actually cheated.”
For some of the thousands of garment workers, living in cramped industrial housing on the city’s fringes, cohabitation is impossible so, like young people in shared housing around the world, sexual activity is carried out via discreet scheduling arrangements.
This does not lead to commitment or marriage situations, he argues.
“In terms of culture, we cannot prevent (sex out of marriage). Cambodia is not a European country however. We have a very different culture and now that is being influenced. My message to young people is: don’t try to get involved in sex before marriage. Nobody is prohibited but it’s not the right time.”
Now aged 32 and married with a baby, Mao Soviet says the decision to live with wife Phin Sophorn, though they had to put up a fight, allowed them to develop a stronger bond.
Chantha says that after two long-term relationships, including her Western boyfriend, she now knows what she wants from a marriage.
Does that make her live-in relationship ever seem like a wasted sacrifice?
No, she says with feeling.
“It’s ok, I experienced pain (when we separated) – but that’s life.
“I am convinced most Cambodian women have to look through different ways to explore what they want and what speaks to them, rather than just obey conventions. They should fight for what they want and they will get it.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at [email protected]