Twins face double toil and trouble in Cambodia

Phal Sambo and Sambath.
Phal Sambo and Sambath. Eli Meixler

Twins face double toil and trouble in Cambodia

Although Cambodian culture has no specific myth regarding identical twins, opposite-sex twins have wedding ceremonies as babies to prevent future calamities

Sem Samnang and his twin sister Sem Sreymeas were only three months old when, in accordance with Cambodian tradition, they were married.

The ceremony, as lavish as many traditional weddings, was believed to be a matter of life and death, Sem Sreymeas said. “It is our culture that if we don’t complete this wedding, one of us will die,” she explained.

The twins’ parents hired a wedding tent and invited monks and village elders to come and bless the tiny bride and groom as they lay in a small box. Hundreds of guests feasted on fresh fruit, meat and drinks, and were entertained by musicians.

Of course, it was a strictly ceremonial affair, but Samnang, now 21, still gets a laugh out of it occasionally.

“My friends don’t believe me when I tell them I’m already married – they ask why they didn’t hear about my wedding,” he said this week.

“And then I tell them my parents wed me already with my sister,” he said, laughing.

Opposite-sex twins, which account for only a few births out of every 1,000, form when two eggs are present in a woman’s womb at conception and become fertilised by sperm bearing different chromosomes.

But Cambodian folklore has a different, supernatural explanation for the phenomenon that involves thwarted love and reincarnation.

Vong Sotheara, anthropologist and head of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s history department, said it was traditionally believed that opposite-sex twins were lovers in a past life that were prevented by circumstance from marrying. Only by holding a wedding ceremony for them could they live a peaceful life.

Cheang Chong Yean and his twin brother Houy.
Cheang Chong Yean and his twin brother Houy. Eli Meixler

“Most [Cambodian] twins who are a baby boy and baby girl have a wedding ceremony,” Sotheara said. “They believe that in a previous life they were an unsuccessful couple [who] would dedicate their next life to being together.”

Blessing the twins through a wedding was said to bring good luck, he added.

Pech Soy, the mother of Samnang and Sreymeas, said community elders and monks encouraged her to throw a wedding party fit for genuine newly-weds. About 700 people showed up and it cost her at least $3,000, complete with food and live music.

Her neighbours, however, could not decide if the twins were deceased lovers or if they had some other relationship in their past lives.

“Many old people and monks who I knew congratulated me and told me to celebrate the wedding for my babies, because they believed that the twin boy and girl used to be a couple, close friends or siblings, so I needed to celebrate for them to bless and bring good luck for them and the family as a whole,” she said.

The twins’ wedding, Soy said, brought her family good fortune.

“I am 100 per cent sure they brought luck to our family. My family has been happier, and we have had a better family condition than before,” she said.

So Maly, a 31-year-old market vendor who lives in Siem Reap, is another fervent believer in the tradition, though for much more tragic reasons.

She blames her family’s failure to perform a wedding ceremony for the death of her twin brother, who drowned in the Olympic Stadium’s swimming pool when they were 16 years old.

“After I myself was met with that accident, I really believed in the tradition,” she said. “My brother knew how to swim and he should not have died because of drowning, so we needed to accept it as bad luck of our family.”

Sem Samnang and Sreymeas as toddlers.
Sem Samnang and Sreymeas as toddlers. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Coincidentally, Maly was involved in a motorbike accident immediately before hearing news of the drowning, leading her to believe one of them had been destined to die that day.

The grief caused her to contemplate suicide. “Some people in my village told my family to wed my brother and me … but my family wanted to make it when we were 18 because they thought we didn’t [need to] celebrate when we were small,” she said. “Because of the bad luck, my brother passed away at the age of 16.”

It’s not unusual that Maly blames her parents’ failure to conduct the ceremony for the tragedy, said Yim Sovotra, psychiatrist at Phnom Penh’s Sunrise Mental Clinic.

He said people often resorted to superstitions as coping mechanisms.

“In Cambodia, Khmer people prepare with ceremonies to prevent black magic. They are not harmful – this is their belief, their culture,” he said. He said he does, however, try to assure patients that a lack of proper ritual observance is not to blame for personal calamities.

“We try to get them to reduce the beliefs, but we cannot tell them to not do the ceremony,” he said.

Maly said her fear for the plight of twins, whether they are of the same or opposite sex, had only increased since her brother’s death. She blamed the suicide of one of her aunt’s relatives, who had an identical twin, to their lack of proper ritual observance.

“Even [same-sex] twins, they need to have a special ceremony after birth in a short, specific period because there are many cases of [bad] things affecting one of them,” she said.

Sem Sreymeas and Samnang.
Sem Sreymeas and Samnang. Eli Meixler

But, Sotheara, the anthropologist, said he was unaware of any unique traditions regarding identical or non-identical twins of the same sex.

Indeed, identical twins Phal Sambo and Sambath, both 26-year-old master’s degree students at Pannasastra University, said nothing unusual had happened to them – despite having had no special ceremony.

“[We] had a ceremony to pray for the ancestors … but that is general to not only to twins, but any children,” said Sambath.

Sambo did say, however, that they sometimes get irked at comments they receive. “We get a little [annoyed] when people say, ‘Hey! You look alike!’,” he said.

Likewise, Cheang Chong Yean, a 19-year-old student at Phnom Penh’s International University, said neither he nor his identical twin brother have had any misfortune resulting from lack of rituals. Having been born amid Khmer Rouge rebels in 1995, his family did not perform any traditional post-birth blessings.

“I don’t believe in it – I think it is really ridiculous,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sem Sreymeas, Samnang’s twin sister, said she was unsure whether or not opposite-sex superstitions had basis in truth, adding that neither she nor Samnang could recall memories from a previous lifetime.

“I just heard it from the old people,” she said.

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