Hatches, Matches and Dispatches
Of the many Khmer ceremonies that are celebrated; births, weddings and deaths are the ones a visitor to Cambodia is most likely to bump into or participate in; for better or worse or death do you part. Cambodian ceremonies sometimes have tents thrown up on streets; not to be confused with a mobile phone sale. Some ceremonies have raucous music and chanting lasting for days where other traditional Cambodian activities can be observed. Be prepared, as these events have longevity, even in death.
Most if not all Cambodian Ceremonies have a certain longevity and volume attached. We suggest you go with the flow and join in when invited and appropriate. Ask at your hotel or volunteer organisation how to be best prepared for these extended family affairs.
Traditions and customs begin early in the game in Cambodia; even babies are included. Superstitions abound after delivery and they start on the first day of pregnancy. Mothers and traditional healers play a pivotal role in maintaining traditional practices in Cambodia and are considered the true experts by many women who deliver at home. Traditionally, giving birth is a very convoluted affair with three parts to the process: before birth, during birth, and after the baby is born.
Before giving birth, a Cambodian mother will always make sure that she is in top shape and ready to give birth. To this end, a mother follows many traditional practices that adhere to specific instructions and prohibitions. For starters, a pregnant woman should avoid eating spicy food because locals believe it puts the infant’s survival in jeopardy. Porridge is off the list as the superstition is that eating porridge during pregnancy gives the infant a bad complexion: dull not bright. Milk is another no-no as the belief is it will make the baby “fat” and problematic to deliver.
No tight clothes for the expectant mother or attempting to remove something from a high shelf. Lunar and solar eclipses are a problem and if they occur, the mother must rub calcium carbonate on her stomach to narrow the baby’s eyes and prevent it from seeing Rahu, an evil ugly-faced Hindu demon. Failing this, her baby is born lacking intelligence because the demon frightens the baby, resulting in a loss of intelligence and memory. Many pregnant women refuse to sleep on their left side as they fear the baby will have a “flat” face or nose.
But it Doesn’t Stop There!
The mother is forbidden to take a nap or bathe at night because the baby will grow bigger, which could mean a difficult delivery. Additionally, a pregnant woman must get up before her husband, otherwise the baby will be lazy and not have the energy for delivery. Instead, the mother must push harder making birth difficult.
Many women still believe that drinking beer during the last months of pregnancy will “lighten” the baby’s skin. Some even drink rice wine to have “smaller” babies that are easier to deliver. Cheers!
Post Birth in Cambodia
After the delivery, a mother is usually kept warm from three to seven days. But, it really depends on the money available to buy charcoal. A custom, named Ang pleung, is performed where a small fire is placed under the mother’s bed to keep her warm. “Hot” food–lots of salt, peppers, and almost no fruit – is prescribed, and every family has its own magic recipe. The mother stays at home for at least a month.
Cambodians call post-delivery sor sai kchey, which literally means “weak blood vessels”.
The Cambodian idea of maternal health is based on restoring the ‘hot’ state of the mother, who is believed to have lost heat during delivery; suddenly left in a weak state. Failing to regenerate the mother’s heat in the following weeks exposes her to health problems known as toa in Khmer.
Post Natal Wine Drinking
It is not uncommon for women to drink up to ten litres of rice wine in the month following delivery, even when they breastfeed. Many are simply drunk for weeks and, since there’s no quality control of the wine, severe intoxication is frequent.
And the custom of Ang pleung also leads the mother to drink more wine.
The baby’s first hair is cut or sometimes its head shaved to symbolically remove all the bad luck from the previous life. A small holy red string is put around the baby’s arm to keep the mother from the baby’s previous life from returning and telling stories about that life.
Last but not least, the midwife has to be paid. If the family doesn’t pay, then the mother will become the midwife’s assistant in the next life. A grim end indeed.
Cambodian Ceremonies | Weddings
As Cambodian ceremonies go, weddings are elaborate affairs, and typically last a couple days. The wedding season accompanies the dry season. But more obviously, you know it is wedding time by the tents that pop up around town. Khmer weddings are accompanied by (very) loud music and a crowd of hungry people, there is a festive atmosphere to this event, and an elaborate event it is. Wedding ceremonies will often start at 6am and last until well after midnight.
The wedding begins with the groom and his family traveling to the bride’s home with the bride’s dowry. Relatives and friends are introduced, and wedding rings exchanged.
The Wedding Ceremony
The first part of the ceremony is three traditional songs. The first song announces the arrival of the groom, the next is the giving of the dowry, and a song to invite elders to chew betel nut. This is followed by the Tea Ceremony, where bride and groom offer tea to the spirits of their ancestors.
To prepare the bride and groom for married life, their hair is symbolically cut to represent a fresh beginning to their life together. The MC makes the first cut, then the couple’s parents, relatives, and friends take turns to cut the couple’s hair and give them blessings and good wishes.
The finale is where family and friends take turns to tie the couple’s left and right wrists with “blessing strings”. After this, people wish the couple good health, prosperity and a long life. This is accompanied by a loud gong and cheering. Guests then throw palm flowers over the couple accompanied by another traditional song. After the couple is pronounced husband and wife, the newlyweds go into a bridal room while a traditional song is sung.
Cambodian Wedding Party
Then the party begins. Usually many round tables have been set up for guests. As guests arrive they hand over their envelope with cash inside. The amount is recorded, and an account made.
Some weddings will go for days. Typically, day one is for the immediate family, relatives and rich friends who cough up fat envelopes for the newlyweds; day two is for those with smaller bank accounts and day three and beyond, well, it’s for the rest.
Cambodian Ceremonies | Funerals
Funerals in Cambodia, like most ceremonies, involve a lot of preparation and ritual. The first sign of a funereal is the black and white tent and accompanying kitchen tent being flung up on your or a neighbouring street. That street is usually blocked to cars with traffic congestion ensuing for the next couple of days. Tables and chairs are set up, a picture of the deceased placed out front of the tent, and a stack of beer cans put in place. But there is more.
Cambodian Deathly Superstitions
Deathly superstitions abound in Khmer traditions. One critical superstition is about keeping the body away from animals because if the deceased hears an animal cry, their soul attaches to that animal. It gets worse. Don’t let a cat jump over the body. If it does, the deceased’s soul becomes an evil spirit and doesn’t enter the rebirth cycle.
Having sorted that out, members of the immediate family wash and dress the body then place it in a coffin surrounded by flowers and photos of the deceased. White flags, called “White Crocodile Flags”, are usually hung outside the home to show a person has died.
The body is left al naturale, as any disfiguration could negatively affects the rebirth. Traditionally, the body stayed at home for seven days or longer, but now it’s usually only three days. While the body is at home, monks visit during the evening to chant by the body. Mourners, usually the deceased’s spouse and children, may shave their heads to symbolise their grief. Other mourners may wear white clothing as a sign of grief.
Often chanting can go on for a couple of days. Chanting even begins very early in morning.
People often send flowers to the funeral or donate five up to one hundred dollars. The amount depends on the relationship to the deceased. It is not appropriate to give food or a bottle of wine as gifts.
Cambodian Funeral Procession
After the chanting and the acceptance of offers of respect, a funeral procession takes place. A Cambodian funeral procession is made up of a priest; also known as an achar; monks and family members, who take the body to a crematorium in a local temple. The family carries the coffin around the temple three times during the third to seventh day of the funeral. The oldest daughter drops coins behind her back and doesn’t look back during the procession.
After the cremation, everyone collects and cleans the ashes and bones. They may be put in a stupa inside a temple that’s close to Buddha and the monks to help begin the rebirth cycle, or the family may choose to take the ashes home.
Final Honours After Death
On the 7th and 100th day after death, other Cambodian ceremonies take place to honour the deceased. Khmer traditions gives huge respect to their ancestors.
Help Support Cambodian Charities
As a visitor or volunteer to Cambodia it costs you nothing to helps us help rural communities throughout the Kingdom. Even if you are not traveling to Cambodia you can support us by booking flights, accommodation or travel insurance through our global partners. You will find, Booking.com, Agoda and Expedia – it all goes to our charity in Battambang.
If you need some inspiration and further evidence that Cambodia should be on your bucket list have a peek at our travel blogs and Cyclebodia. And there is always the worlds number 1 heritage site of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap.