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Cul­tural knowl­edge cov­ered, from wed­dings to fu­ner­als



As a stranger in a strange land, an in­vi­ta­tion to a Cam­bo­dian wed­ding may cause some trep­i­da­tion for new­com­ers to the coun­try. Last­ing any­where from a day to a week and loaded with al­lu­sions to Kh­mer mythol­ogy, even the most hum­ble cer­e­mony is an ex­pen­sive un­der­tak­ing, and guests are ex­pected to bring a cash of­fer­ing in an en­ve­lope con­ve­niently in­cluded with the in­vi­ta­tion. For­eign­ers should ex­pect to part with any­where be­tween $20 and $50 on the day, but give what you can af­ford. Don’t be put off by the hawk-eyed rel­a­tives not­ing down ev­ery gift – by do­ing so, the fam­ily en­sures it meets the of­fer­ing in kind when it’s your turn to get hitched. With a sit-down din­ner and plenty of booze to ease the tran­si­tion from ac­quain­tance to con­fi­dant, a Cam­bo­dian wed­ding can be an ex­cel­lent chance to make new friends and try out a few tra­di­tional dance moves. Wed­dings take place be­neath enor­mous pink and gold tents – of­ten in the mid­dle of the street if in a city.

Do: Dress in semi-for­mal at­tire. Men should wear dress shirts with long sleeves. Women should wear ei­ther a skirt or a dress, al­though a tra­di­tional Kh­mer dress is thor­oughly en­cour­aged.

Don’t: For­get to raise a glass along with ev­ery­one else at your ta­ble. A whole­hearted “chul muy!”, the Cam­bo­dian equiv­a­lent of “cheers”, will be called for ev­ery few min­utes.

Spirit Houses

Per­haps the most eye-catch­ing ex­pres­sions of Cam­bo­dia’s rich re­li­gious tra­di­tion are the of­ten-gar­ish minia­ture tem­ples that stand guard be­fore al­most ev­ery home and busi­ness. Th­ese spirit houses, or rean tevoda as they are more prop­erly known, are tra­di­tion­ally placed in one of the front cor­ners of the prop­erty, their open shelf an­gled to­wards – but never di­rectly be­fore – the main door­way to the house. On holy days, of which Cam­bo­dia’s lu­nar cal­en­dar has many, the shrine is loaded with vo­tive of­fer­ings of in­cense, lo­tus and jas­mine. The rest­ing place of the tevoda, a form of guardian spirit, the spirit house’s cen­tral­ity to Kh­mer cul­ture pre­dates the spread of Bud­dhism, with roots in the lo­cal an­i­mist re­li­gion that filled the woods and fields of an­cient Cam­bo­dia with lo­cal gods, an­ces­tor spir­its and demons to be pla­cated. From its hum­ble ori­gins, in the vil­lage the spirit house has evolved into a sym­bol of sta­tus, piety and wealth, with pros­per­ous Cam­bo­di­ans spend­ing as much as $5,000 on elab­o­rate baroque mod­els in scar­let and gold.

Do: Be re­spect­ful. Just as you would tread lightly among the al­tars and reli­quar­ies of a church, treat the rean tevoda with ap­pro­pri­ate reverence.

Don’t: Take any of­fer­ings from the shrine or, heaven for­bid, knock one over.


Mod­elled on the sa­cred ge­om­e­try of the stupa – whose bell-like shape still dots the tem­ple com­plexes of South­east Asia – the pagoda serves as the cen­tre of re­li­gious life in Cam­bo­dia. From the gem-stud­ded golden Bud­dhas of Ph­nom Penh’s Sil­ver Pagoda to the more spar­tan tem­ples dot­ting the coun­try­side, the pagoda is an oa­sis of tran­quil­lity re­moved from the ma­te­ri­al­ist world out­side. Long the prime dis­pensers of ed­u­ca­tion and char­ity in Cam­bo­dian so­ci­ety, pago­das re­main a place where boys can ad­vance their learn­ing – and mar­riage prospects – by be­ing or­dained as Bud­dhist monks and ed­u­cated in mat­ters of scrip­ture, cul­ture and lan­guage. Un­like West­ern holy or­ders, not ev­ery mem­ber of the sangha – the body of monks within Bud­dhism – is ex­pected to re­main in the fold un­til their dying day. Re­splen­dent from Cam­bo­dia’s re­cent years of rel­a­tive pros­per­ity, most of the coun­try’s pago­das shine in am­ber, gold and white, with writhing naga snakes en­twined with sa­cred garuda ea­gles lin­ing the eaves and pil­lars of th­ese mag­nif­i­cent tributes to the di­vine.

Do: Dress ap­pro­pri­ately. Both men and women are en­cour­aged to cover their legs and shoul­ders to re­spect the sanc­tity and dig­nity of the tem­ple grounds.

Don’t: Act ob­nox­iously. Th­ese tem­ples are places of wor­ship and re­flec­tion for the Kh­mer peo­ple. Re­move your shoes and show re­spect.

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