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Please crash my wedding day, Cambodians say

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Julie Masis

(Read caption) A Cambodian couple poses for their wedding day photo. Huge marriage celebrations with hundreds of people are normal here, and even newly arrived foreigners can find themselves attending numerous weddings.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Westerners who move to Cambodia are likely to find themselves invited to more weddings than they would be back home. While traveling by motorcycle on a rural road for a half-hour on a recent Saturday afternoon, I passed at least five wedding tents. They are easy to spot – decorated with pink curtains, ribbons tied around chairs, and the names of the bride and groom engraved above the gate.

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Hart Feuer, a researcher who has lived in the country for a year, says he has attended at least 15 weddings – including some with more than 1,000 guests and meals served in shifts.

Why so many weddings? It might have something to do with the fact that 64 percent of Cambodians are under the age of 30. And it is culturally unacceptable for Cambodian men and women to live together before marriage, says Rabbi Bentche Butman, who runs the Jewish Center of Cambodia. Another reason is financial. When attending a wedding, it is customary to give money – approximately $20. Because of that, hosts invite many people, and sometimes even people whom they have never met.

Un Chanta, a cook, recently invited all of the employees at her company to her daughter’s wedding – including some foreigners who had arrived in Cambodia just days before.

“It’s prestigious to have a Westerner at your wedding,” says Naomi Robinson, the managing editor of Cambodia-based magazine AsiaLIFE Guide. “And also you’re expected to give money – and if you’re a Westerner, you’re expected to give more.”

Whatever the reason, the enormous number of weddings can be a financial burden.

Phnom Penh college student Dorn Phok, whose monthly salary is $100, was invited to five weddings in February, of which he attended three, but sent money to all.

“When I get married," he says, "I want to make a big wedding to follow Khmer traditions and because everyone owes me money."