Say Phala is swimming in a sea of sequins, silk and taffeta.
With her arms wrapped around husband Kuy Dara, the newlyweds swivel and pivot around in their first dance to adored crooner Sin Sisamuth’s mellow love song Aye Na Tov Than Sua, or Where is Paradise.
The tune is a well-loved favourite at Khmer weddings.
Dancing to the ditty is strictly reserved for loved-up pairs, and Phala, in her bejewelled white gown, spider-leg false lashes, Barbie-pink lips and swept up Dallas beehive, and Dara, in his three piece suit are surrounded by a stunning array of glitz and glamour and rainbow, swirling dresses.
Phala’s wedding is undoubtedly one done in a traditionally Khmer style: some 400 guests ( more guests or friends reflect “good morality” and solid relationships within the community), tables laden with Anchor cans and bottles of whisky, neon flower arrangements and a lot of bling. She and her husband have just sliced through their wedding cake, then stuffing lychees into the mouths of both of their parents - a symbol of gratitude for raising them.
Welcome to wedding season in Phnom Penh. Come November, flamboyant wedding tents start sprouting up all over the country- satin canopies of coral, saffron and fuchsia often appear suddenly in the middle of busy streets, outside restaurants, homes and flanking major highways.
Despite most of Cambodia’s wedding rites and rituals enduring, many young Khmers are enthusiastically embracing the froth and frivolity of western style white weddings.
Phala’s wedding party is a typically middle-class one, held in one of the scores of ‘Lucky Star’ reception restaurants flanking Street 336, otherwise known as ‘Wedding Street.’
The 29-year-old radio producer has spent the last twelve hours in a mad procession of blessings, rituals, offerings, and being slipped and strapped into a staggering 10 glittering dresses.
“My wedding is traditional,” a tired but cheerful Phalla says, “We spent an afternoon of blessings yesterday afternoon, my groom marched from his house to mine with fruits, and then we cut each others’ hair which blessed us (and also symbolises new beginning). Tonight (the evening reception) is my favourite though- a gathering of friends and family for a party.”
Phala says the happiest moment of her wedding, however, was the one which made her feel like a queen - when her guests formed an aisle to welcome her to the room, tossing fragrant jasmine petals over her - indeed a ritual steeped in ancient, royal tradition.
Khmer weddings are long, multifaceted affairs, traditionally loaded with three days and nights of ceremonies and celebrations (three being a propitious number illustrative of the three jewels of Buddhism) with roots steeped in ancient, pre-Angkorian royalty.
A specialist in rituals and ceremony at the Ministry of Cult and Religion, His Excellency Vay Vibol, elucidates the folk tales entwined with Khmer weddings: “They are mimicking the marriage of the legend first queen of Cambodia and Naga princess, Neang Neak to exiled prince Preah Thong- when her father swallowed the ocean and created Cambodia...there are many variations of stories we talk about when it comes to weddings”
“Khmer weddings now also emulate the King’s coronation - that’s what we see when the guests line up to welcome the newlyweds - they regard the bride and groom as King and Queen for the night, they revere them,” he says.
Traditions are rapidly changing, however, Vibol explains: an effect of globalisation, a young population and a rapidly developing society shunning the old and embracing the new.
Phalla says she wanted to incorporate something modern in her wedding- although she rented nine gem-hued, glittery gowns from a wedding salon, she had her own, white, diamante encrusted princes gown tailored for her to keep, and spent the majority of her reception in the dress.
“I felt much more comfortable- the traditional dresses are hot…but I also wanted something special, to keep, something I felt a connection to.”
Traditionally, a plethora of dresses indicated wealth and prosperity, Vibol says, with a different colour attached to each day of the weel.
“That has completely changed now and is purely dependent on aesthetics and personal taste, even in the provinces,” he says.
Seng Takakneary, owner of Phnom Penh’s illustrious Sentosa Silk, said brides and wedding guests often requested special silk and embroidered fabrics for traditional wedding gowns, then carting them off to one of the numerous wedding tailors around town.
“It’s a royalist tradition - the most important and special colour is gold and with sequins and beads so that it flickers,” she said. “More and more women are choosing to buy gowns now rather than purchase them, so they will wear less. They are always tailored exactly.”
Cheaper wedding bodices and Sampots and reels of fabric are available at Olympic market and on the first floor at O’Russey market, where beaded corsets range from $25-60 and silk Sampots start from around $40. At markets around the city’s fringes, prices plummet even further.
A trend towards a more pared down, relaxed wedding is something Phnom Penh based bridal designer Anneliese Helmy has detected, with a recent influx of young Khmer brides desiring her elegant, pale couture gowns.
She recently opened Anne Noele bridal couture on Street 294, having designed bridal couture in Sydney since 2000 - Phnom Penh an ideal location with its expanse of quality silk and fabrics.
Initially intentioned as a flagship store to export overseas, she was surprised to find a growing number of Khmer clients coveting her gowns.
“Many of our customers have a connection to a Western country, whether their partner is from there or they’ve been educated there and have returned.
I knew there were a lot of Khmer people getting married and that there were many choosing white dresses, so we did some research and thought it would be worth giving it a go and trying the market.”
Dresses range from $800 to $1500 for a fully beaded silk gown.
“I expect to see more girls keeping the traditional element, I think it will stay but be scaled down a little bit, what I do think will increase is girls coming in to get that additional, dream dress. I think that will continue to become more and more popular.”
“Some girls say well my family want to do this, and they’re happy to go with traditional, but many are having a further separate, smaller ceremony with a white dress- she’ll wear the white dress to both weddings.A bit of both worlds.”
Opulent hotels are popular wedding locations for the Khmer-riche, according to Bruce Koenig, marketing executive at the Sofitel.
“We have some of the biggest weddings in town, it’s a very important part of our business and we’re getting more and more. They do include traditional elements but are using the ballroom to add interesting twists - a new service we have is to enter the ballroom with a Rolls Royce,” he says.
Even the food is changing: many young women are eschewing the traditional single large cake in favour of a distinctly untraditional alternative: cupcakes.
Heng Pangha, the Khmer owner and chef at Udaya cupcakes says the shop gets about 30 or 40 orders for weddings per month.
“Before, people would not accept it and would not want to let foreign trends in from other countries. But the young generation love this style. The old generation too, but it is going more slowly with them.”
At 26, Mollyta Orel faced the ire of her parents when she revealed she would wed her Russian fiancée in a small, intimate 90-head dinner party at swank boutique hotel The Plantation.
She says her mother was left aghast when she learnt her daughter would only wear three dresses - all sleek, slinky and sexy - no sequins in sight.
“I wanted something for me, that I liked. My husband actually wanted the traditional style but I didn’t- I wanted something fresh and comfortable.
“I had no monk, no blessings, I designed my dresses myself and in the end my mum conceded it was a fun night.”
“My friends all were amazed and some said they want a similar style,” she says
But for Phala, it was more important to honour her parents and marry someone they accepted and advised her to wed.
“We’re in love, some may say we only met romantically this year (in February) and that’s not a long time, my husband…before engagement, he never walked me with him as a sweetheart, so that’s why he asked to marry me. This is to show that he respected Khmer tradition. We don’t want neighbours to say that we don’t follow tradition.
“I can say my wedding is normal for a normal couple like us. The rich spend much more than ours and change things, but what’s important is that we still have happiness.”
When it comes to traditional wedding music, ‘modern’ style must not be confused with the danceable sixties pop of Ros Sereysothea – or the likes of Gangnam Style.
Rather, it refers to the sweetly beguiling string and percussion that leads the bride and groom through the customary rituals of haircutting and ribbon tying.
“Modern music is from the 15th or 16th Century,” Cambodia Living Arts’ Sarin Chhuon, explains. However, “nobody knows exactly how old Classical wedding music is.”
Predating modern is the rich ‘classical’ wedding music, a style so ancient that even the appearance of wedding instruments in the bass reliefs of Bayon temple is not an exact indication – they are older than that, Chhuon says.
Nowadays the ten-piece ensembles are fewer in number – though their music, on rare flutes and xylophones and stringed tro – is thought to be finer.
“It seems like the rich use classical music and average people in the countryside seem to use modern wedding music... it involves less musicians and it’s easier to find.”
For a melodic soundtrack to the reception, another traditional music – a mahaory ensemble - might be employed to entertain guests.
One of the city’s hundreds of hardworking wedding cover bands provides the soundtrack to the knees-up after the ceremony, playing playful pop and nostalgic Sin Sisamuth.
Many weddings conclude with a DJ, for the Khmer and K-Pop hits favoured by the young.
Traditional Khmer wedding studios are found all around Phnom Penh, but most are clustered around the city’s Lucky Star wedding complex on 336.
The bride and groom will be dressed in an array of kaleidoscopic costumes like those worn by the Royal family - the bride in ruby, emerald and sapphire beaded bodices and silk Sampots (silk wraparound skirts).
Posing in traditional positions and postures, the sessions take about half a day. Photo packages are around $300 and are airbrushed and then photo shopped against backdrops such as the Royal Palace.
But according to photographer Chengkheang Chhuon, owner of G-Rise photography, couples “have no control” over traditional wedding images and are increasingly rejecting the studio snaps in favour of a more natural and modern aesthetic.
“I’m seeing couples wanting emotion in photos, a natural, real look. When I started about five years ago people were shocked at my price tag ($1000 for a premium, full day package), but now I’m very busy.”
Chhuon sends his images overseas for printing on “glossy, high quality” paper and compiles the collection into a magazine style album. “Brides are requesting a natural, light look and are choosing simple, white dresses. They want an intimate experience.
The parents are usually ok - as long as the couple include a few traditional shots.” He says bridal parties will often fly him overseas - to Bali, Singapore and Australian for “destination pre-wedding shoots.”
He has ten staff members, all trained in video, which costs a further $1000. “This is a big trend now - couples want a six or seven minute short film - the story of how they met and their love…it shows more people are marrying for love rather than arranged marriages,” he says.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]