Origins of the Khmer Wedding

Khmer weddings symbolize the beautiful legend of the origin of Cambodia and parallels the marriage of the first Khmer prince, Preah Thong, to the naga princess, Neang Neak. The prince was a foreigner exiled from his homeland, and during his travels encountered and fell in love with the naga princess. As a marriage gift, the father of the naga princess swallowed a part of the ocean, and thus formed the land of Cambodia.

A traditional Khmer wedding is one of the most joyous occasions for a Khmer family and typically lasts from three days to an entire week. It is a grand affair, full of color and festivity, as well as steeped in tradition. Family, friends, and other members of the community come together to share in the celebration. Musicians play throughout the day on traditional instruments, and the couple is dressed like royalty. The bride may change her outfit several times in one day. If the wedding were a weeklong affair, she could declare the color of her dress each day and the guests would dress only in that color.

Unlike most Western weddings, guests are usually highly animated during the ceremonies, with elders typically explaining the significance of the various customs to the younger generation. Please feel free to turn to a neighbor if you should have questions or comments about what is occurring. You may also stand up and leave the room if you need to stretch your legs. Guests freely move in and out during ceremonies, which is not considered rude.

Khmer Pre-Wedding

A Khmer wedding in Cambodia and those living overseas are not just a union between the groom and bride, but also a union between families. If a man is interested in a woman, he must first inform his parents, who may or may not consider his choice to be. In modern days, some young Cambodians may have already begun dating before approaching their parents. Once parents from both side of the family agreed, the presentation of dowry begins.

Presentation of Dowry

Cambodian weddings begin with the groom and his family traveling to the bride's home bearing gifts to the bride's family as dowry. Family members and friends are introduced, and wedding rings exchanged. Three traditional songs accompany the presentation of dowry:

Neay Pream He Kaun Kamlas (Arrival of the Groom): A song telling the story of the groom and his family's journey to the bride's house bearing meats, fruits, pastries, drinks and desserts of every variety to be presented on the wedding day.

Chambak Rouy (Presenting the Dowry): A dialogue between the matchmakers, parents, relatives, and friends of the bride and groom in which the groom's family and friends officially present the dowry gifts to the bride's family.

Pak Paeuk Pisa Sla (Inviting the Elders to Chew Betel Nut): Presentation of the betel nut to the bride and groom's elders. In turn, parents of both the bride and groom ask for blessings and well-wishes for their children.

Khmer Wedding Ceremony

Cambodian weddings are long and intricate affairs that consist of multiple ceremonies and songs. Below are examples of programs used at two different Khmer weddings to help explain to guests some of the customs and meanings behind the various activities and performances that take place. Although regional and personal differences in wedding rituals do exist, both these programs detail the key elements of traditional Khmer weddings.

Traditional Wedding

Traditional Wedding is a bit more elaborate and takes much more time than Modern wedding. However, both are excellent examples of traditional Khmer weddings.

  • Hai Goan Gomloh - The Groom's Processional

At the beginning of the day, the bride customarily waits at her parent's house while the groom gathers a procession of his family and friends. The procession symbolizes the journey of the prince Preah Thong to meet his bride the princess Neang Neak. The groom's procession approaches the bride's home bearing wrapped platters of gifts, usually fruits and Khmer desserts, and is led by a band of musicians and singers.

Here comes the groom, 
This is the song for you. 
Now, at the break of dawn, 
We rise to the place of celebration. 
Holding up high, the wedding flowers 
The groom is coming. 
With the achar as a witness 
Granting his good wishes 
According to tradition. 
Holding up the umbrella high, 
As we journey through places bright 
This day is the perfect day 
No better to be chosen. 
The procession is coming with our gifts, 
Offerings for the parents of the bride. 
Weaving in and out as one, 
We come to the place of celebration.

Traditionally, the mai ba (a well-respected member of the bride's family who serves as its representative) comes out to greet the procession. The different number of fruits and desserts are counted - the more, the better. If found to be satisfactory, the mai ba and ma ha (representative for the groom's party) run through a humorous verbal parlay which ends with the groom and the rest of the procession being invited into the bride's home.

  • Sien Doan Taa - Call to Ancestors

  • Today is a beautiful day 
    And the arrangements are ready. 
    We offer these gifts 
    Inviting you to join us 
    And shower us with your blessings

    In Khmer culture, family bonds are the ones that are the most important, and a marriage is the inclusion of the couple into their new families. At all important events, family and friends are called upon to share in the celebrations and offer their blessings. This ceremony calls forth for those who have passed away, both family and friends, to offer their blessings and observe the wedding, if not in body, in spirit. It is a time to reflect on those near and dear to our hearts and remember to include them in our happiness.

  • Soat Mun - Blessings from the Monks

    Out of respect and reverence for the monks, we ask that you remain silent while the bride and groom receive their blessings during this ceremony. Traditionally, three to five monks or as many as seven will invoke blessings which have been specifically chosen for the couple by the monks.

  • Gaat Sah - Cleansing Ceremony

  • O beautiful lovebirds, 
    Let us look at your faces 
    Perfect shapes, all aligned. 
    Teeth as white and bright as ivory.

    Before the bride and groom are officially married in the Khmer tradition, they must be properly prepared through an elaborate cleansing ceremony. The singers, representing visiting devada (deities who watch over the mortal realms), dance around the bride and groom. Their songs represent their enchantment with the beauty of the new couple, and they agree to personally cleanse and purify the bride and groom to bring them good fortune, beauty, and grace for the rest of their lives. The devada cut the hair of the couple and shave the groom, throwing away any excesses and misfortune that may have lingered. The new couple is also perfumed. At the conclusion of this ceremony, the visiting devada return to the realm of tansuor, the home of the gods and deceased ancestors

    O, look at the bride, 
    The gods must have helped prepare you! 
    The gods cut first, 
    Your parents afterwards 
    Then the achar to finish 
    It is all good now, and fitting, too.

  • Bang Chhat Madaiy - Honoring of the Parents

  • "Rumleuk kun madaiy oeupuk." 
    "Remember your obligations to your parents."

    "Honor your parents as you do the gods." This common Khmer sentiment is rooted in a Buddhist parable about not forgetting "kun" - a kind act or deed for which one owes repayment (a debt of gratitude). A monk explains to a temple visitor that without parents, one cannot be brought into the world to honor the gods in the first place.

    The traditional song that is performed is a reminder to the bride of the hardships of raising a child. It is a song of parental duty and fulfillment, which the bride and groom will one day experience for themselves. During this ceremony, the bride holds an umbrella over her mother, a gesture that symbolizes the reversal of the protective role of her parents.

    O sweet daughter of mine, 
    Come out to honor me. 
    Daughter with the smooth, bright face, 
    Your mother is waiting 
    To give you away 
    And do as tradition says. 

    While I was heavy with child, 
    O daughter of mine, 
    I was so worried -- 
    Food with salt or spice, 
    I dared not eat. 
    And when I neared my term, 
    O daughter of mine, 
    My body would tremble and shake. 
    I was afraid I wouldn't cross the waters, 
    O daughter of mine, 
    That I wouldn't cross 
    And reach the other side. 

    As for your father, he worked so hard 
    O daughter, he worked day and night, 
    Without thought for himself.

    O beloved daughter, beloved daughter of mine 
    You are fulfilling your mother's dreams 
    O daughter of mine 
    Now that a husband you have.

  • Bongvul Pbopul - Passing of Blessings

  • "Mun ouy laing leah, mun ouy prort preah." 
    "Do not separate, do not part ways."

    In this ceremony, currently married couples are asked to gather in a circle around the bride and groom. Three candles are lit and handed from person to person. Each participant passes his or her right hand over it in a sweeping motion towards the couple, sending or throwing a silent blessing to them. Only married couples are asked to participate, as it is believed that they will pass along the special quality or essence which has preserved their union. The candles are passed around the circle clockwise seven times to complete the ceremony.

  • Sompeas Ptem - Knot Tying Ceremony

  • Khmer weddings traditionally have a knot tying ceremony, but unlike what the name implies, it is the guests who tie the knots, not the bride and groom. Close family and friends are invited to come forward to bring their best wishes and blessings to the new couple by individually tying ribbons around each of their wrists. These knots are tied on both the bride and groom, who were traditionally required to wear them for three days afterwards to preserve the good luck. This ceremony has customarily been considered an ideal opportunity to take a picture of each guest in attendance with the new couple.

Modern Wedding

Modern wedding is shorter than Traditional wedding. To be exact, it only takes one day to complete. In the modern era, time is of the essence. Many working Cambodians do not have the time to set up a very long wedding ceremony. In addition, it saves money and possible head aches.

Presentation of Dowry

  • Presentation of Dowry

    Cambodian weddings begin with the groom and his family traveling to the bride's home bearing gifts to the bride's family as dowry. Family members and friends are introduced, and wedding rings exchanged. Three traditional songs accompany the presentation of dowry:

    Neay Pream He Kaun Kamlas (Arrival of the Groom): A song telling the story of the groom and his family's journey to the bride's house bearing meats, fruits, pastries, drinks and desserts of every variety to be presented on the wedding day.

    Chambak Rouy (Presenting the Dowry): A dialogue between the matchmakers, parents, relatives, and friends of the bride and groom in which the groom's family and friends officially present the dowry gifts to the bride's family.

    Pak Paeuk Pisa Sla (Inviting the Elders to Chew Betel Nut): Presentation of the betel nut to the bride and groom's elders. In turn, parents of both the bride and groom ask for blessings and well-wishes for their children.

  • Tea Ceremony

  • A tradition practiced by Cambodians of Chinese descent in which the bride and groom offer tea to the spirits of their ancestors.

  • Hair Cutting Ceremony

    To prepare the bride and groom for their life as a married couple, their hair is symbolically cut, representing a fresh start to their new relationship together as husband and wife. The master of ceremony performs the first symbolic hair cut and wishes the couple happiness, prosperity, and longevity. The bride and groom's parents, relatives, and friends then take turn to symbolically cut the bride and groom's hair and give them blessings and well-wishes. (In the old days, the bride and groom's hair were really cut during this ceremony, but in modern times it is only done symbolically.) Two songs accompany this ceremony:

    Sarika Keiv Vong (The Beautiful Cardinal Bird): The bride's beauty is extolled and compared to that of the beautiful cardinal bird.

    Trapeang Peiy (The Village Pond): This song describes a pond with clear water where the bride was brought to take her bath. It also symbolizes the bride and groom working together in beginning their new life as wife and husband.

  • Pairing Ceremony

  • In this final and most memorable stage of the wedding, family members and friends tie the bride and groom's left and right wrists with blessing strings. The praises and well-wishes of happiness, good health, success, prosperity, and long-lasting love are acknowledged and witnessed by the loud sound of the gong and joyful cheer. The ceremony concludes with a shower of palm flowers thrown over the new couple. Four songs accompany this ceremony:

    Phat Cheay: A melody inviting the bride, accompanied by her bridesmaids, to the pairing ceremony. A distinguished female relative leads the bride into the room.

    Kang Saeuy: A melody accompanying the offering of gifts to the ancestor spirits and asking for their blessings.

    Bangvel Po Pil (Seven Rotations): Only married couples are permitted to sit around the bride and groom as the sacred flame is rotated seven times around the new couple. The flame of the pure bee-wax candle represents anger, which the couple should avoid as it can disrupt the marriage relationship. The smoke of the flame, however, is sacred enough to protect them from all evils if they are sincerely committed to each other. Family members who receive the candle motion their hands over the flame to guide the smoke of the sacred flame over the bride and groom.

    Bay Khon Chang Dai (Tying the Wrists): While the bride and groom's wrists are tied with the blessing strings, the following song is sung: "We tie, we tie three strings to each wrist of our children. We wish for true happiness and success to this couple, who will always be together like wet grass seeds. We tie your left wrist to make you remember your parents. We tie your right wrist to make you carry on the family lineage and traditions."