Discover’s guide to Cambodian cultural events

Been invited to a wedding? Wondering about the ubiquitous small houses stuffed with burning incense? Let us help you delve deeper into a few of Cambodia’s cultural rites

A Cambodian wedding
Photo: Thomas Cristofoletti

Weddings

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.

A Cambodian spirit house
Photo: Thomas Cristofoletti

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. 

Pagoda
Photo: Thomas Cristofoletti

Pagodas

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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