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A rite of passage: Reviving an ancient Khmer ceremony

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A modern day Chol Mlob ceremony, traditionally the rite of passage for young Khmer women. Photo supplied

A rite of passage: Reviving an ancient Khmer ceremony

The traditional Chol Mlob ceremony celebrating a girl’s coming of age was once the norm in Cambodian culture. While it is no longer widespread, it is experiencing a minor revival today, being practiced among a select few families in a ceremony that has evolved to suit the modern age.

Dy Malen, owner of Paradise Wedding Planners, is one practitioner of the ceremony. This past year she has researched Chol Mlob ceremonies extensively.

“Honestly, I didn’t have much knowledge about Khmer history or culture, but I’m committed to preserve our culture and traditions. I have been reading books and met many people who have knowledge about the girl’s rite of the passage. I learned from the elderly and Buddhist clergyman,” the mother of three says.

“I also have a daughter and I have planned that when she grows up, I’ll definitely prepare a Chol Mlob ceremony for her. I really want to preserve this traditional practice, so it will be passed down from generation to generation.”

Malen founded Paradise Wedding Planners five years ago, with the company starting to provide Chol Mlob packages last year.

Sitting in a hall full of glass wardrobes displaying golden jewellery, shiny shoes, colourful silk, embroidered outfits and traditional carved wares, the 29-year-old told The Post: “It is not that the daughter’s rite of passage is only for rich families. The parents who come to me for the ceremony believe it can help inspire their daughter to become mindful and mature. They think that it is also a way to express that girls have high value. Most importantly, to some families, it is a family tradition that they want to continue doing,” Malen says.

Malen says preserving Khmer culture and tradition are the two components at the core of her wedding planning business, but she adds that Chol Mlob is also evolving to suit modern day lifestyles.

“Today, we don’t plant a banana tree to signify the start of Chol Mlob. We don’t wait until the banana fruit is ripe to celebrate the ending ceremony of Chol Mlob anymore. Now we only hold a one-day celebration in which the daughter will listen to teachings from parents and Buddhist clergyman. Then we do a symbolic ritual called Kourch Proloeng [strengthening the spirit] for the girl, so she will not be fearful in her life,” she says.

Malen says the ceremony is held when girls become teenagers and start their first period. The day begins at the girl’s house, where the parents invite monks and four to six clergymen. The monks will preach and give blessings to the girl, while the clergymen will hold a praying ritual by sitting around a basket of unhusked rice.

“The girl will be asked to sit next to the basket of rice that is dubbed the ‘mother of rice’. After the clergymen and the parents tell the mother of rice about the girl’s rite of passage ceremony, she will be asked to bow to the parents, monks and other relatives who are attending the ceremony. This is just one of a few things. There are many other things to prepare.”

Malen says the practice used to be strictly carried out over three to six months in the past, depending on the family and their financial status.

“The girl would be isolated in a room only with the company of a mother or female companion. She was taught about body hygiene. She was not allowed to go out and play on the dirty floor."

“She was banned from bathing in the ponds or streams because her parents were afraid that she could catch germs. The girl must stay under the roof. She must avoid sunlight and dirty wind so that she will get fair skin. The most important is she must avoid any man’s company,” she says.

Malen says the practice started during the Angkor era and remained widespread until the 20th century during the King Norodom reign.

“Nowadays, very few people with daughters still practice it. Though it is rare, it can be seen in Sre Ambil district of Koh Kong province, Batheay district of Kampong Cham province, and Soth Nikum district of Siem Reap province. The practice and celebration are slightly different from one place to another.”

With girls enjoying access to education and progressive gender roles today, Chol Mlob’s role has changed more to a symbolic act intended to preserve Khmer tradition.

“Chol Mlob is still a good chance for the girl to understand about Khmer culture and tradition from the ancient time. It also helps to divert the teenage girl from over exposure to foreign cultures. Being born as a Khmer girl, she should respect her own culture,” she says.

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