A few years ago, I had to ban my attendance at all weddings.
I was living in a rural village in Takeo Province in the south of Cambodia, the last remaining member of a defunct NGO that went awry when the founder was unexpectedly called back to US. Given the friendly nature of Cambodians (and being the village novelty), wedding invites started to flock in.
Weddings are a big deal in Cambodia. Of course, they are big deal everywhere but out in the rice-farming villages, entertainment is gleaned from slim pickings. The people here don't often get to see a live band, eat five kinds of meat in one sitting, or drink until even the most wayward dance moves seem appropriate.
Wedding season is from December to May. After all, no one wants to get married during the monsoon. So there I was, a mosquito-tattered "barang" (Khmer for "white person") invited to a wedding every other day. It would have been fine but I wasn't used to the diet. Or the intense drinking. Khmers drink like the British—as if their livers had done them some terrible injustice. They even have a proverb that roughly translates as: "Drink not drunk? Then drink for what?"
I just couldn't deal with the indigestion and hangovers in 38 degree Celsius are particularly intolerable. Not wanting to cause offence or show favouritism, I opted for a self-imposed wedding ban.
So it was with a sense of excitement that, at the behest of my friend whose cousin was marrying, I attended my first Khmer wedding in three years. I had to return to Takeo from my current place in Phnom Penh, a two hour drive away. It's remarkable how much life in rural Cambodia resembles a British music festival: dodgy toilets, bathing outside, the constant thud of distant sound systems.
It was hard to ascertain how many guests were there. It depended on which drunken uncle was asked. Collating reports from multiple drunken uncles, I estimated the number of guests to be around 600. The cost? At least $10,000—well over a year's salary. Eight-seater tables awaited under a marquee. Food was served whenever a table was full. So if your party is less than eight, you must wait for other guests to join your table before you can eat.
And what a feast awaited. There was green mango salads pricked with fried pigs' ears, prawn-bobbing Tom Yam soup, foot-long fish crusted green with spices, steaming beef stew, smoked fish in sour tamarind soup, fish sweet-roasted with mango, fried rice, normal rice, and smashed rice jelly in sweet milk for dessert.
The catering chefs had been hard at work all day, flicking through sheets of dehydrated pork skin like some ancient book before adding water, chopping, and stir-frying them with vegetables. Indeterminate pork offal was chopped and fried in famous Kampot pepper, which, like certain high-altitude coffee plantations, is prized for its rich, fiery flavour. Around the table wandered small children, earning a buck or two by collecting empty drink cans.
But in wealthy Phnom Penh, weddings are getting increasingly elaborate.
"I have four master chefs, 12 assistant chefs, and more than 200 staff in total," says Ratha Touch, general manager at Seng Hok Heng Catering. He's also noticed a preference in recent years for more foreign dishes.
"Chinese dishes dominate the menu," he adds. And it's not uncommon for wealthy families to order a mountainous Western-style cake. A "few" traditional Khmer dishes remain popular however, especially fried crusted fish.
While Phnom Penh elites might enjoy French wine, in the countryside the brew of choice is beer—served warm or with ice (there are no refrigeration units out here). There might also be a bottle of whisky on the table.
Cambodian drinking rules apply. No-one is allowed to take a sip without first instigating a cheers. So you say: "Lu kompong" ("Lift your can"), touch cans with your table, and then drink. The trouble is, whenever anyone on the table wants to drink, everyone has to drink. The rate of consumption escalates wildly. If you are caught taking a solitary sip you are deemed to be "very thirsty" and have to down it.
Once everyone is drunk, the dancing begins. In front of the stage is a large round table piled high with fruit. Guests dance in a circle around it. Everyone moves in the same direction performing something like a line dance. A friend of mine calls the table "the Cambodian handbag" because they always dance around it, like British girls at Oceania on a Saturday night.
As I joined the melee, curling and flipping my hands in the traditional way, I was glad to be once again dancing in the Cambodian countryside where smiles are unrestrained and the food is rich and hearty. Even more so now I have figured out the polite way to refuse a drink (put your hands together in the traditional Asian sampeah gesture, thus preventing drunken uncles from shoving beer cans in your hands).
Suddenly, the dancing stops and the guest surround the fruit-laden table, eyeing each other like sprinters before the gun. The drummer cracks a drum and everyone rushes and grabs for the fruit.
That's tomorrow's breakfast sorted then.