Custom & Tradition
adapting their religions, sciences, and customs and languages. In the early days, they believe in Deva Raja (Hinduism God-King) and the great temple as a symbolic holy mountain.
In a typical Khmer family, the husband is the head of the family, responsible for providing shelter and food . The wife is generally in charge of the family budget and has considerable authority over family affairs. However, both men and women are responsible for working in the rice fields, and taking care of the household. Parents, children and grandparents are generally considered one household of extended nuclear families in Cambodia. Parents still have influence over their children, even while they are married and have children of their own. Overall, each family member shares the work in the household, which creates an efficient family dynamic.
In Cambodian society, men perform outdoor tasks. Traditionally among villagers, men are expected to do laborious works such as fishing, plowing rice field, threshing rice, making and repairing tools, and caring for cattle. Women generally handle housekeeping works such as keeping financial in order (keeping and managing what the husband earns), cooking, washing, mending, food shopping, childcare, and housecleaning. In urban areas, nowadays, both men and women are working, so there are shifts in traditional role. In the rural areas and during the rice cultivation season (July-September), men plow and prepare rice field and women predominantly plan rice. During harvest season (December-February), women harvest rice while men transport and crop rice grain from fields.
Cambodia is still a male-dominate society, even though, it has gradually changed in modern time. Since women perform housekeeping routines, they are in either inferior position or in a relative strength, depends on one sees it. The fact that women control family finances may not be regarded as a sign of superiority but represents real power in practical terms. However, women have much less access than men to the highest positions of political and economic power. They are often are victims of physical violence, verbal and psychological abuse.
Head is considered sacred part of the human body. Younger individual touches or plays the older one’s head is not acceptable. In the western world, it is considered a gesture of friendship and love. In Cambodia and even in the Europe or America, it is considered an insult or disrespect.
Traditional codes of behavior for women are more elaborate and strict than those for men. Man hugs woman, especially young unmarried woman, when greeting or seeing-off may be unacceptable to the elders. They prefer a traditional way which is bowing the head down with palm of both hands together around the chest pointing straight to the other party. Woman body is not to be touched by man even in such a friendly gesture. So use caution. Also, the elders, or even neighbors, construe them as having involving in a romantic relationship if men and woman are found alone together somewhere. It does carry stigma in the society if they do that repeatedly. In the modern day and in the urban areas, this behavior is more tolerable, but stricter in rural countries.
Man and woman living together without marriage is a stigma. They defame family reputation and the woman’s family seems to suffer the most. It is even worse if they carry child out of wedlock. If possible, parents of both sides will arrange the marriage to control the damage of their reputation.
Divorce is rare and when it happens, woman is often to blame without reasonable judgment. For this reason, some women endure suffering from a bad husband. Things have changed in modern time. But women are still suffering.
Unlike western custom, looking straight into the eyes when the young engages in a conversation with the old may be considered disrespect. In this situation, Cambodian prefers the young to bow down while talking. Cambodian people are shy. Even in a normal conversation among families and friends, they do not always look at each other. That depends on how close the relationship is. If you are an American or a foreigner, and you talk to them and they do not look at you, it does not necessarily mean they don’t like you. It is just the way the custom is.
Children are expected to obey and listen to their parents. Arguing with parents is rare in the Cambodian society. Children always do as the parent wishes; even sometimes they don’t like it. Parents are always right.
Cambodian expects guest to take off shoes and hat off. It is a matter of respect to the host. Hat off is also expected when entering a Buddhist temple or talking to the elders or Buddhist monk.
Food Offering to Ancestors
Cambodian believes in ancestors’ spirit. They often practice a ritual call ‘Sen Daun Ta’ or simply ‘Sen’ during which many kind foods are prepared an arranged in an orderly fashion at a dinning room/area. Pictures or ashes of the deceased are usually displayed. They use candle light and burned incent stick while praying. There is a designated leader conducting the praying services while all other family members stand around the table (or in Cambodia, they all sit down on the floor). There are three rounds of praying recital, often free-style and not scripted, in which they invite all those who have passed away (and they call them by name) to come and consume all the foods that they have prepared by their own hand. In the pray, they also ask the ancestors to bless family members who are still alive for good health and prosperity and for a protection from evil. They pause about 4-5 minutes in between rounds. Each round they say the same pray. At the end of the third round, they pick a little bit food of each kind, put them into a dish, put a couple of burning incent stick on it, bring it to usually corner of the house outside and leave it there as a token of sending back ancestors to their own places, wherever it may be.
This ritual is done regularly during New Year and Pchum-Ben. It is a normal practice. However, there are occasions when they just want to do it as a signed that ancestors have not been forgotten. Some people do it because one of the family members gets sick and they believe ‘Sen’ will result in a speedy recovery. Others do it because a sense of guilt of wrong doing and ‘Sen’ is an apology to ancestors.
In Cambodian community, parents are highly respectable. They are the sources of our inspiration and guidance. We rarely challenge their authority. When they talk, we listen. We do as they wish and even if we do not like it, we usually negotiate with them in such a way not to upset them. We usually perform some rituals to appease them and to repay them gratitude. While good behavior and well-discipline are the normal course in Cambodian lives, most have gone far beyond ordinary affairs. Parent Bathing is one of the rituals that is enjoyed by both, parents and children. The ritual is normally performed in hot day mid-April at the Buddhist temple or at home, usually during the Cambodian New Year celebration. Parents are seated on a wooden bed (we will seat them on chairs in this event). The children get buckets of water, sanctified and blessed by Buddhist monks, and bath their parents with joy.
Traditional Cambodian Wedding
The Groom’s Procession
The groom’s procession reenacts the Cambodian tradition based on legend and history.
The procession symbolizes the trip of the first Khmer prince, Preah Thong, to the Naga Palace to ask King Naga’s permission to marry Princess Neang Neak. The prince was a foreigner exiled from his homeland, and during his travels he encountered and fell in love with the Naga Princess.
The procession is also a reflection of Cambodian social affairs. In the old days, marriage was arranged by parents. A man would ask his parents to go and request permission from the girl’s parents for a marriage. The man’s parents, family and friends would prepare a trip, bringing gifts and offerings to the girls’ residence. Parents on both sides had tremendous influence on the decision-making process in the courtship. This tradition has evolved to a more modern practice. It is quite common now that the man and woman have already fallen in love, and the wedding ceremony reaffirm their vow and to honor the tradition.
The family, friends, and guests are seated facing the Achar whose role is to facilitate the conversation. The groom’s family and friends are seated on one side, led by their representative, Chao Moha. The bride’s side is on the opposite site, led by their representative, the Mai Ba, The gifts and offerings are arranged in a matching pairs.
The Groom’s Appearance
This is an engagement acceptance ritual all over again. The groom appears first. The Mai Ba asks Chao Moha the purpose of their presence. A friendly dialogue begins. The Chao Moha states the purpose and introduces the groom to the bride’s family, friends, and guests. The Mai Ba consults with the bride’s family, checks the groom’s character, and asks groom to reaffirm his love for the bride. Live traditional wedding music is playing and a singer sings a lyric song that symbolizes a counting of all fruits and gifts brought by the groom. The Mai Ba customarily satisfies the counting and accepts all gifts.
The Bride’s Appearance
Since Mai Ba already agrees, the Chao Moha and their people have a right to ask for her presence with a blessing from the Achar. She appears and sits next to the groom. At this time, the Chao Moha and his people have their turn to verify the bride’s character and ask her to reaffirm her love for the groom.
The praying to ancestors
The ancestor spirits are believed to be caretakers of the living family. They reward the living with good health and prosperity in return for good behavior and obedience. Getting married without this declaration through this ritual is considered disobedient and may anger the spirits. They may cause sickness and bad luck to the couple or their immediate family.
Family bonds are the most important. A marriage is an inclusion of the couple into their new families. At all important events, family and friends are called upon to share in the celebration and offer their blessing. This ceremony calls forth for those who passed away to offer blessings and observe the wedding, if not in body, in spirit. It is time to reflect on those near and dear to our hearts and remember to include them in the happiness.
Achar leads an offering ceremony. The bride and the groom are sitting with each other in a kneel-down fashion. There are foods, drinks, lit candles and burning incense sticks. The smoke is believed to be an agent that carries the message to the spirit, and wakes them up so that they can witness the marriage. Family and friends are the spectators.
The hair-cutting ritual
Before the bride and groom are officially married in the Khmer tradition, they must be prepared through an elaborate cleansing ceremony. In the old days, both bride and groom and their families were busy farming. Their hair grew long and their body were not clean. The scissors, razors, comb, mirrors and perfume are sanctified and believed to be sent from heaven by the gods. Likewise, a barber and a hair dresser are angels (devada) sent by the gods from heaven. Devada cuts the hair of the couple and shave the groom while the wedding music is playing. They throw away any excesses as misfortune that may have lingered. Parents of bride and groom, immediate family members, and friends will participate in the ritual as well. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Devada return to the realm of white candle, the home of gods and deceased ancestors.
The honoring of parents
Honoring parents is an important aspect of Cambodian culture. “Honor your parents as you do to god” is a typical Cambodian sentiment that is rooted from the Buddhist teaching about not to forget parent’s gratitude called Kun - a kind act or good deed for which ones owes repayment (a debt of gratitude).
The ritual is led by Achar. The bride’s parent sit on the chairs (traditionally on the floor). The bride stands behind with an umbrella to shade them. The groom does the same to his parent. Customarily, a musician plays a solo fiddle and a singer sings a lyric song that describes the good deed and care the parent has given to them since the day they were born until this very day of their marriage. This ceremony is highly emotional that if the couple understands the lyrics, they may shed their tear.
The passing of blessings
In this ceremony, only married couples are allowed to participate as it is believed that they will pass along the special quality or essence which has preserved their union. They are asked to sit in a circle around the bride and groom. Three candles are lit and passed from person to person. Each participant passes his or her right hand over flame in a sweeping motion toward the couple, sending or throwing the candle incense as a silence blessing on them. Achar recites a special prayer. The candles are passed around the circle clockwise seven times to complete the ceremony. At the conclusion, Achar blessed them and may give them advice.
The knot-tying ceremony
Cambodian weddings traditionally have a knot-tying ceremony. Unlike what the name implies, it is the guests who tie the knots. Parent of both bride and groom start the ceremony, followed by close family and friends. They give best wishes and blessings to the new couple while they tie ribbons around each of their bride and groom’s wrists. They were traditionally required to wear them for three days afterwards to the preserve the good luck. The ceremony is concluded with special recitations from the Achar and blessings from family and friends.
The throwing of phka-sla
Phka-sla is a palm tree flower symbolizing the power of blessings. The throwing of Phka-sla concludes the wedding ceremony with jubilation and excitement. The new couple is now officially married. The new couple are led to the room, prepared especially for the honeymoon ceremony where the husband and wife peel bananas and other fruits, and feed each other while friends stand by to watch and applaud. Friends will tease them with every move the couple makes.
The traditional wedding ceremony is followed by a warm, hearty reception where authentic Cambodian food is served.