Monday, November 12, 2007

Trapped between two weddings

Families following a Gina Ford style approach to parenting should not come to Cambodia right now. I’m not just talking about a holiday, either, though I am still unsure how anyone bound by such strict routine manages to get out of the house, let alone board a plane. Living here with children who require silence and blackout blinds in order to sleep might be problematic at any time of the year. But this month is the start of the wedding season in Cambodia. I am talking serious noise pollution.Take this weekend. Exhausted and recovering from a concoction of nasty viruses, we left Phnom Penh early on Friday morning (Independence Day), and headed for the sleepy, seaside town of Kep.

There really is nothing much going on in Kep apart from a few restaurants by the beach and a number of hotels dotted around the surrounding hills. In the 1960s it was a popular resort for the French living in Cambodia and was full of holiday villas overlooking the sea. But these were soon abandoned in the time of the Khmer Rouge. Now the blackened, mouldy shells of these houses stand eerily empty behind crumbling walls. Pretty wrought iron gate posts lead the way into overgrown jungles that must once have been beautiful, lush jasmine-scented gardens.

Actually, they are not quite abandoned. Most appear to be quietly occupied by poor Khmer families judging by the tell-tale signs of washing hanging out to dry along the walls, or a skinny white cow tethered among the weeds. There is not much to do other than swim, take a boat to one of the islands, eat seafood with picnicking Khmer families by the beach and watch the sun set over the water. Perfect for a lazy weekend with the kids. I intended to catch up on some much needed sleep.

On our way out of the city we passed so many wedding breakfasts that we lost count somewhere after 30. All over town bright canopies, usually red, orange and gold, are set up in the street outside the bride’s family house, slowing down the traffic as they take up half of the road. Underneath, round tables are laid for breakfast, each with its centre piece of a huge wrapped basket of crackers, sweets and fruit.

To one side, in the open air, the catering staff light charcoal fires and stir huge vats of rice porridge flavoured with tiny pieces of meat or chunks of fish and shiny round mushrooms. Later they will prepare more dishes for dinner, all to be eaten with neat little mountains of white rice. Whole baked fish covered with herbs (sweet basil and others I do not recognise, some more pungent and less delicious than others), hot and sour Tom Yam soup, stir fried peppers and cabbage with fat oily noodles, fried shrimp, pork, and chicken with green beans, Vietnamese spring rolls and perhaps Amok, the famous Khmer fish curry made with coconut and steamed inside banana leaves. Smells of fish sauce waft in the air, so familiar and yet this is something I will never get used to, let alone learn to love. Although we were relieved to be leaving the weddings behind for the weekend, I do love to watch them as we drive by.

At this time of day the tents are full of families, though the men often sit apart from their wives and children. Men often dress casually, but the women will always be stunning, if unrecognisable under so much make up, their black shiny hair perfectly sculpted on top of their heads. For breakfast and the day’s ceremony and visit to the temple they wear cream lacey tops and traditional sarong style long skirts woven with gold or silver thread. In the evening they will exchange their blouses for matching tops, or elegant, vibrantly coloured dresses, made of thick, raw silk, with short sleeves and long narrow skirts. If you ask any of the Khmer women we know to see the pictures of a wedding they recently attended, they are likely to pull a small photo album out of their bag. However you might be disappointed if you want to see the bride or groom, who sometimes wear up to 13 different outfits in one day. These albums are usually full of photos of the owner only. They will show you 20 different pictures of just her, in a range of outfits and poses. Srey Mait looks like an uncomfortable super model in hers, but she is far, far prettier in the unpainted, unadorned flesh.

After breakfast the tents often stay empty until 5pm, when the party reassembles for dinner. Sometimes there is a lunch, but usually the wedding families will spend much of the day at the temple while the guests go back to work. There is just one feature of the wedding that keeps going all day. The music. Sounds fine in theory I know, but did I mention the giant loud speakers that create the finishing touch to every Khmer wedding? Or sometimes it is a megaphone. Either way the point is to ensure that everyone in the neighbourhood knows that your children are getting married and that it is an honourable match. Unfortunately I think the main effect is simply to cause people, however much they appreciate parties and family celebrations, to groan in dread when they see a wedding tent go up in their street.

So you can guess where this is going. It is Saturday and I am ridiculously excited about the prospect of sleeping during the day while James is splashing about with Jemima. But as I lie inside our cool, whitewashed bungalow with Bella asleep in my arms, just slipping into what I know will be a deliciously deep midday nap, I hear it. The unmistakable plinkety plinkety of wedding music fills my ears. Bella does not stir, she is used to sleeping with any kind of noise around her, just like her sister. We have positively encouraged this, along with sleeping in the light or dark, and it has turned out to be one of our greatest parenting achievements. Given our nomadic lifestyle and the fact that we currently live in a country where fireworks and thunder resemble bombs and grenades, rain drums on the metal roof all night long for half the year and the day begins at 5am to the tune of howling dogs and the rhythm of sweeping of yards and clanging of pestles and mortars, you can see why this would be an advantage. I keep my eyes closed, trying to find something lulling in the man’s voice, and I can. It’s going to be ok. I can fall asleep to this. I am, I’m falling… you’ve got to be kidding! I jump up in a rage as I hear a louder, harsher tune competing from the opposite direction. The vocals of this one are high pitched.

We were trapped between two weddings. I hate to sound melodramatic but ask any expat living in Cambodia what is the worse thing that could happen to them and I am pretty sure that ‘to be trapped between two weddings’ would feature high up on the list. I left Bella sleeping and decided to go and watch. If you can’t beat them, join them, right? We could take some pictures, I told Jemima, and off we went.

Of course this is the only picture we got because it was midday. That is to say, that, while this music was blaring out ruining any chance we had of enjoying our afternoon, the tent was empty and the wedding guests were somewhere else, no doubt enjoying a bit of peace and quiet.


Tara said...

I am with you on the wedding thing - we have a 'hall' on the main road, just opposite our our street which is regularly 'hired' for such events and loud speakers prevail. Although to be fair, they are usually blaring out various eras of local and international pop music, some of which I quite enjoy. We have two wedding seasons here.... beat that! And lots of drumming.... Great pics!

Tara said...

Oh yes - I wanna see a photo of the lovely Srey Mach!!

T x