Sneak Peek: Kristen and Peter’s Cambodian Wedding, Part 1
Last weekend, I had the tremendous privilege of photographing Kristen and Peter’s two-day wedding. I have been looking forward to shooting this event ever since they booked a year ago, and it did not disappoint. This was far and away one of the most unique and colorful weddings I’ve ever gotten to be a part of, and I feel truly lucky that they picked me.
Peter grew up in New York, but he was born in Cambodia. His parents are Chinese-Cambodian, and they escaped the genocide and moved to America when he was a baby. Kristen grew up in the Philadelphia area, met and fell in love with Peter five years ago in San Diego. They went to the same gym, where she secretly developed a crush on him from afar. She finally got up the courage to ask a friend to ask him to meet her one day after a workout, but Peter thought Kristen’s friend was trying to lure him somewhere to mug him. You can take the boy out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out the boy. Five years later, they came back from California to get married here in a two-day extravaganza that you have to see to believe!
Cambodian weddings usually last three days to symbolize the three treasures of Buddhism: the Buddha (the pinnacle of enlightenment), the Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (the community.) Kristen and Peter, however, conducted all of the Buddhist ceremonies in one day and celebrated in a more westernized, American wedding the next day.
The first day was a traditional Khmer wedding with lots of Buddhist customs and rituals. Cambodian weddings are colorful, theatrical and more than a little bit playful, with about five different ceremonies, each requiring its own outfit, jewelry and accessories. Every part of the wedding is steeped in tradition, and it’s one of the most joyful celebrations for a Khmer family. It all started with the groom’s procession, which symbolizes a journey undertaken by Prince Preah Thong to meet his princess, Neang Neak.
Traditionally, the groom’s family comes to the bride’s home in a loud, musical procession called the “Hai Goan Gomloh“ where all the relatives carry sweets, as well as platters of a dozen different kinds of fruit, roast ducks, pigs and chickens.
The groom walks in front bearing an armful of flowers for the bride, attended by his brothers holding yellow umbrellas over his head.
Because Kristen lives in California and her parents live in Pennsylvania, the Cambodian wedding ceremonies were all held in Peter’s aunt and uncle’s house in Yonkers. Their home was party central on Saturday, so the groom’s family basically loaded up with their plates of offerings, walked up the street and then processed back to the house, accompanied by musicians.
Then the bride and groom exchanged garlands and entered the home together.
The parents of the groom presented the parents of the bride with gifts, the first of dozens of exchanges and rituals between the parents throughout the day.
We took some photos of the wedding party, and then it was time to change clothes for the first time.
Before I go much further, I just want to say that it was incredibly touching to see how invested Peter’s parents were in honoring their daughter-in-law’s family by including them in every single custom.
All day long, Peter’s family showed their acceptance and love for Kristen by observing dozens of traditions that included her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles in every single part of the day. You have to understand…. there was an atmosphere of non-stop, joyful chaos, with a master of ceremonies hitting a gong, musicians singing, monks chanting; you name it.
A friend or family member translated for Kristen’s family the entire time, and they participated whole-heartedly.
The first ceremony included a song, while one of the bride’s attendants (in this case, the woman in blue) walked among all the offerings brought to the house in the groom’s procession and chose the best-looking fruit and food and put them in a basket for the bride.
Her name is Sally, and she is amazing. She is part costume designer, part translator, part wedding planner, part personal shopper and part pinch-hitter if the maid of honor is not familiar with all the intricacies of Cambodian weddings, including the half a dozen different ways one can style, tie and secure a sampot, which is a fancy type of sarong worn at weddings. Every bride could use a Sally!
The bride and groom exchanged rings, prayed for blessings and exchanged offerings with their parents before bowing to show them respect. Then it was time to change outfits again, which is a custom that comes from an old Cambodian legend involving a prince, a sea dragon and trickery, which you can read more about here.
It was at this point of the day that I discovered what would be my greatest challenge. Kristen and Peter have so much fun together that they are constantly cracking each other up. This series of portraits pretty much sums up how it went the entire weekend…. As soon as you point your camera at the bride and groom, hilarity ensues.
Now, as a photographer, this is a good problem to have! On the other hand, I felt like they looked so amazing that I needed to get at least SOME classically beautiful and good-looking portraits of them.
By the fourth costume change, we found our groove! Hours before that, however, the wedding party took a short break to change clothes.
The guests gathered on the lower level to begin eating the first courses of amazingly delicious food that would be served all day long to the hundred or so guests who came and went for various ceremonies.
The next ceremony was one of the most fun and entertaining parts of the day.
According to tradition, Cambodian brides and grooms are prepped for their wedding in a cleansing ceremony called the Gaat Sah. This literally means “Cutting Hair.”
Musicians sing songs about the beauty of the couple and dance around them, which- like most of the rituals- is said to bring good fortune and harmony in their new lives together.
Back in the day, brides and grooms actually had their hair cut, which symbolizes a fresh beginning.
Now, dozens of guests take part in what has become a whimsical, funny ceremony, pretending to cut their hair, showing them how gorgeous they look in a mirror and perfuming them with flowers.
The audience participation is one of the best parts of a Khmer wedding!
The next part of the day included a Chinese tea ceremony.
This ritual is extremely common in Chinese weddings, but it’s not always a part of Khmer weddings. Because the groom’s family is Chinese-Cambodian, Peter made sure to incorporate this honor into the day.
A Chinese ceremony is a time for the bride and groom to serve their families of origin as well as their new families. However, they not only welcome and serve the relatives who are there in person, they also honor and welcome their ancestors.
In the Sien Doan Taa, or “call to ancestors,” great-grandparents and others who have passed are invited to witness new bonds being formed and joyful new celebrations in the family.
Then, starting the groom’s grandmother and uncle, Kristen and Peter bowed to them, said, “Grandmother, drink tea” in Chinese and served tea in special cups. Their relatives responded by offering their best wishes, blessings and advice to the happy couple while giving them gifts in traditional red envelopes.
Then it was the bride’s family’s turn!
Kristen was so touched by her family’s complete embrace of these rituals and the kind things that people on both sides said to her and Peter that she wept with joy.
This moment where her mother dried her happy tears was one of my favorite moments of the day.
After about an hour of serving tea to all of the relatives on both sides, Kristen and Peter went around and offered tea to their friends.
Typically this is the time when the groom introduces his friends to the bride and vice versa, but as they have dated for five years, everyone is pretty much acquainted.
Guests came from as far away as Hong Kong, San Diego and Staten Island, so it was nice opportunity to see them and relax between services.
At this point, we were about five hours into an an eight-hour day of ceremonies, all of which required kneeling, bowing and listening to chanting and singing for up to an hour at a time. It was time for another break, including more food! The food was absolutely delicious. There was not one mouthful of food that was not incredibly tasty. The groom’s dad sent me home with my own plate of octopus. (I did not share any with my husband, and I’m not even sorry. The food was amazing.)
What I love about Kristen and Peter is that they were so respectful in honoring their ancestors, their relatives and the groom’s culture whenever they were “on.” However, the moments with their friends and family behind the scenes were also really lovely and full of laughter.
The groomsmen may have had a bottle of Johnny Walker Black in the bathroom for the wedding party. I’m just sayin.’
Then two monks from a nearby Buddhist monastery honored us with their presence for the Soat Mun, which means “monks’ blessing.”
Kristen and Peter were joined by their wedding party and relatives for an hour of solemn chanting and blessings with their heads bowed and hands folded in prayer.
The monks blessed everyone by sprinkling them with flowered water.
After that, it was time to honor the parents of the bride and groom.
This ceremony is called “Bang Chhat Madaiy” which translates to “holding umbrellas over parents.”
The bride and groom thank their parents with a sort of role reversal. The idea is that because the parents have taken care of their children for most of their lives, now that they are getting married, it’s their turn to shield and care for their parents.
As such, they hold umbrellas over them while the parents feed each other sugar and exchange gifts and fruit.
According to legend, if the parents find treasure in the fruit, then their children’s marriage is meant to be.
Hurray! There was a gold ring in the mother of the bride’s banana and a coin in the mother of the groom’s banana. It’s destiny!
The discoveries were met with whistles and applause.
For the final costume change, the bride and groom were dressed in their most elaborate outfits yet. They were draped in gold finery and dressed as royalty. The groom entered the room first for prayers of his own.
The parents, grandparents and honored uncles passed around pka sla, or the white seeds found in palm tree pods, while a musician performed a song calling forth the bride.
Kristen was shielded by gold fans for her grand entrance.
Then it was time to celebrate with the ancestors and invite them to the feast. Sticks of incense were placed in the food items to waft them heavenward.
Small pieces were cut off and drink was poured out in a special tray that would be placed by the back door.
The moment that moved me most, though, was in a slight deviation from tradition. Bowls of food were set out for both the bride and groom’s ancestors, complete with serving utensils. In a nod to Kristen’s culture, her in-laws set out forks and spoons just in case her ancestors aren’t proficient with chopsticks. How awesome is that?
It was an awfully nice gesture that showed how hard Peter’s family was trying to be inclusive. It showed how much they love Kristen and appreciate all she was doing to honor their culture.
The next ceremony, called the Bongvul Pbopul or “Passing of Blessings” was among the most touching.
The couple is encircled by married couples who pass three lit candles around them seven times. Each time they wave the smoke toward the bride and groom.
The idea is that the unique essence of that which has kept the married guests together will be passed onto the (almost) newlyweds. The bride and groom then blow the candle out together.
Then it’s time for the Sompeas Ptem or knot-tying ceremony. After this, the bride and groom are no longer single!
The groom is given a sword, which symbolizes his commitment to protecting the bride and their home.
This ceremony gives the guests an opportunity to personally bestow their best wishes on the happy couple, tie a red string around their wrists, pose with them for a photo before sprinkling them with pka sla, or the white seeds found in palm tree pods.
Lots of them! The seeds were everywhere.
Finally, the wedding party helps the newlyweds stand up, which is as hard as you might guess after kneeling and sitting in the lotus position for hours!
The final custom calls for the groom to hold onto the bride’s scarf and lead the wedding party through the ceremony space one final time before they spent a little time alone together.
It was truly an amazing, emotional, beautiful day, AND they still had their American wedding the next day! I will post that in part two soon. Stay tuned! UPDATE: Part 2 is here!