Cambodia: A Christian-Khmer Wedding

February 17th, 2008

It’s wedding season; just about every corner of every block has the tent set up, the loudspeaker going, the non-stop 12 hours of music. (at right: the cake, the cross, the hearts.)

Jaya (pronounced like Zhaya), the director of Transitions Cambodia, invited me to a wedding on Saturday. Jaya has worked in the sex trafficking aftercare industry for quite some time and knows a lot of Khmer staff at some of the other NGO’s. James calls her his big sister and I have found her to be one of the most caring and giving individuals. And she’s a damn good cook.

The wedding was for a driver who works at Agape Restoration Center; James and Athena founded ARC with Don and Bridget Brewster. The two California couples, guided by faith and a desire to make a difference, built a state-of-the-art facility and, after extensive research into pre-existing NGO’s, designed their own aftercare programs. (at left: bride and groom with wedding guests)

Later, James and Athena started another NGO, Transitions Cambodia (TCI), built on a model intended to help 15-19 year old sex trafficking survivors to find their own voice again and recapture their dreams. Some of the older ARC girls went into the TCI program. Jaya, who had worked with James, also joined with TCI.

In some ways, this wedding was a bit of a reunion. The Brewsters and 38 of their ARC girls were there as were some of the TCI staff and girls.

It wasn’t the wedding I was expecting; I’d heard Cambodian weddings are quite the oddity–and a booze fest. (at right: the bride greeting guests)

A friend of mine, Alicia, went to one last year and said “it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. The mother of the bride was crying and hugging us when we left, and we met the most hilarious semi-mute, flamboyant blue silk shirt with rainbow stars wearing individual. I loved the tradition where the parents of the bride and groom exchanged champagne glasses full of Jim Bean Whiskey and drank them down in one gulp. The beer girls circulating in mini skirts to keep our glasses full, and our lazy susans laden with the latest feasting course were also a classy touch.”

This one was quite different.

I toured the neighborhood–a “city” as they call it here. Essentially a gated community, it was row up on row of uniform houses and uniform SUV’s. It felt a little like suburbs in Phoenix or Vegas, except greener, more humid, with more concrete homes, steel gates, and the odd rat or two. Sewer smells escaped from the gutters drains. Eventually some guy on a moto told me to stop taking pictures. Security. (at left: the neighborhood)

I returned to the wedding, watching as the bride and groom changed outfits (at least three times in the two hours I was there), all the while greeting the flood of guests. The ARC girls sat in the back and, having filled the tables, were quickly served. Little did I know, the strategy is to sit at an almost full table if you want to be served. I eventually got the clue, but not until it was too late. I was supposed to be at Apsara Arts but was desperately hungry; I had some appetizers, a coke, and glutinous fishy soup and had to run. (at right: finally sitting down for dinner)

Mixed with all the Khmer traditional styles were prolific displays of Christian accouterments and, I could be wrong, but the recorded Khmer voice in between the songs kept on finishing with “amen.” For me it was different on many levels; for instance, at what wedding have you been asked “don’t take pictures of some of the girls. We’ve got several who are in an on-going court case with an American pedophile.” And, to top it off, there was nary a drop of alcohol. Which might have been a good thing, because it probably wouldn’t be kind to show up half drunk to watch kids perform traditional Khmer dance. (at left: TCI center director Jaya on the left and on right, resident Srey Neth)

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