My eyes are dry and my throat is cricked. Mysterious stiffnesses plague my shoulders. A Khmer wedding is a hard thing to just walk past. A mistake or a gift it is hard to decide. Another innocent scooter ride through the countryside, and then: a giant cross of spotlights light up the sky in a flash of 20th Century Fox grandeur. Folded polyester hangings of red and white drape a corridor in a dusty yard with a crumbling outhouse alive with service. People mill everywhere parking loaded motorbikes. A rainbow of woman in tight silk wraps shuffle upright through the fare, men in plain shirts hunch chewing cigarettes. A great splay of dressed tables laden silver with food and languid diners spread out in a messy arc. The music is deafening, guests roar impossible conversation at each other.
Stopping in a mixture of curiosity and disbelief, within a minute of lingering at the entrance I am coaxed from my pack, and led by the wrist with broad smiles through the banks of furniture and guests, closer, now certainly towards a glowing stage emanating from the front. Glazed dancers pace out of sync routines. Without a word of introduction, my host is gesticulating to the limelight making microphone gestures and pointing, wide-eyed and nodding, between me and it. Speechless, I look wildly around for support but see my pals have problems of their own. They are being marched to a table of honour in front of the stage and pressed for photos with a helpless and heavily coiffured bride and groom. I am surrounded by mixing desks, manicured Khmer beauties and idle band members slouched on plastic chairs behind a partition. A band and male singer are in full performance, singing in high phrases with no pause, looking out in a somnolent trance at their deafened audience. Heads start to turn expectantly in my direction. In a frantic and ingenious move, I make big, uninterpretable gestures of importance towards my friends and pull apologetically out of an inevitable international scandal.
Knowing little about Cambodian culture, I somehow already know that weddings carry a price. Perhaps their ubiquity, on any day in any town their throbbing soundtrack is audible at any hour of the early morning. Perhaps, in fact especially, as a non-native I am learning well the dangers of excess hospitality. We are vulnerable to irrefutable generosity, and thus are sat at a round table where young men in pressed shirts deploy themselves at once. We’ve eaten already but pots of stewed meat, small dishes of mixed colours, a colander of rice and settings are laid regardless. A case of beer is slid under our feet, deposited like a burden. We are visited at intervals by the ice man, who cools our drinks with pinecone sized ice cubes. The ice chills our warm beer but also bulks it up, insurance against the onslaught of chugging competitions yet to come. Dropping with silver tongs, he fills our drinks discretely and expertly to the brim. With thanks and my back turned he can’t resist an attempt for one final cube for luck, which announces itself eventually as a puddle at my elbow. We dine in silent uncertainty while surrounding tables look on expectantly, hungrily, as Khmer music detonates from a towering speaker right by our ears. With stomachs and glasses full we sit back to survey what insane situation we’ve gotten ourselves into.
It doesn’t take long to find out. We’re hoisted to our feet, pushed into line with the other guests and our palms are stuffed with dried confetti. The bride and groom, in their second outlandish costume are waltzed to the edge of the throng. They look blankly at the photographer during his fifteen minute briefing of ambiguous pointing. Then it’s off. The band strike up something like Mexican Hat. They walk in procession inside a circle of people. Their entourage literally pelt them with hard rice and flowers. Full overhead throws. I think I see one young girl in a baseball pitcher’s windup, knee raised to the chest, but it could be the utter chaos of it all. The lucky couple wince their way around a full circle shielding their eyes, and its another lap. They pass tea to their parents seated in a line at the front but now the confetti is finished. Some adolescents are inverting aerosols lazy-eyed, others produce cardboard canons. Formalities over, the groom, easily seventeen, struggles the cork out of a bottle of fizz with a hopeless wince that is poured into a stack of glasses. They raise the ceremonial ambrosia to each others lips with hushed expectation from the crowd. The first sip of marriage is a grimace of repulsion. Their tongues poke out in disgust. No time to compose, the crowd erupts, streamers detonate overhead, aerosols of fake snow and silly string are rapturously unleashed. Again, I think I see someone with just a can of spray paint giving it big arcs to the back of the bride’s dress in the turmoil. Many a sparkler is waved in the flammable air. It’s time to cut the cake, and they feed each other fist sized forkfulls to great whoops. There is a chemical smell on the air after the onslaught and their faces say it all again, reaching up to halt a gag reflex. It is all too much.
Except no its not! As soon as the area is cleared it is time for the first dance for which the bride and groom don’t choose or appear. I have the thousand yard stare from what ensued but in short, we were withheld our privileges of sitting down while the music played. Which was always, the ‘first dance’ lasting roughly 45 minutes. The band play continuously like machines. Singers and dancers simply spring to the stage during remote instrumentals and continue performing staring out in concealed misery. Old hands show us the right moves through wrinkly eyes and clenched cigarettes as we move anticlockwise around a table in a dusty clearing. With their inexhaustible enthusiasm they sea-saw their arms in the air and look directly in our eyes with approval. One man keeps raising three fingers and roaring a grin. Three more days, I know it. A new sympathy sweeps over me for the jaded dance troup, in polyfilla foundation and their third change of dress. The whole lacklustre procession carries on for hours. At any time if we sit to mop our brows or fall to our knees and crawl under a table to safety there is always some benevolent old face that has us longingly by the wrists back into the fray. Relief only comes in a glass where, once again, another tepid beer is forced down. Chol Muoy! We circle on anticlockwise; to turn back time I wonder. Sometimes it is just us, flailing madly in circles for expressionless onlookers wondering if we are the protagonist in Stravinsky, expected to dance ourselves to death.
How we pry ourselves away I will never know, but as we leave we count a customary donation to the new couple and it is received with total hesitance. We haven’t paid for a thing, and the hospitality still extends as people emerge with more cans of beer for our plight. The notes are wringing with sweat, we part with them graciously for our freedom. I plead with some guards and police to enjoy the beers and leave them in their capable hands, a hopeful bribe to overlook our inebriation. As helmet straps are tightened, double vision is realigned and our heavy bikes are manoeuvred clumsily out from a ditch I hear that unmistakable click and hiss. Waiting in the flare of the headlights are the same guards. They press the open cans into our hands, and ultimately our mouths, and wave us off with their blessing into the night. The same beams cross the sky still, now a signal of warning. They recede into the distance as we grip our handlebars deranged and the hot breeze dries our skin.