Wedding Season in Cambodia
Everyone raised their metal tumblers and bellowed a word I didn’t understand. “Drink up,” said Martin, my motorbike-taxi-driver-turned-host, leaning toward me. Not wanting to be rude, I took a sip of the harsh rice whiskey, most likely distilled in the dark, soot-stained interior of a village hut.
“All of it,” he said. I grimaced and threw back the rest of the drink. My glass was immediately refilled. I looked at him, and he shrugged, grinning.
I had met Martin the afternoon before in Phnom Penh and, charmed by his easy smile, accepted an invitation to step off the beaten tourist track for a visit to his home village. We were sitting cross-legged on a low bamboo platform in the raked dirt yard of his family’s hut. His mother had made a special dinner of seasoned fish, tender field greens cooked in a spicy sauce, and the ubiquitous sticky white rice of southeast Asia. The scent of seasoning mingled in the warm evening air with the tang of our bodies. Seven of us were seated around the platform, eating, drinking, talking, and laughing. One of us (that would be me) hadn’t a clue what was being said. I relied on body language and Martin’s occasional translations.
“Where is your family?”
“In the United States.”
“Are you married?”
“Where is your husband?”
“He is at home.”
“Do you have any children?”
Martin reached over to pile more fern-like greens and spicy fish onto my tin plate, then picked up a wad of the greens, which tangled together like weeds, with his chopsticks. He held this offering to my mouth, and his family giggled as he fed me. “Just like newlyweds,” he translated for me. Great, I thought, sauce dripping down my chin.
The conversation wound its way like a jungle snake through the undergrowth of innuendo and daily gossip, occasionally slithering back toward me. “How long have you been away from home?” “Where have you been?”
“Show them your pants,” said Martin, indicating my convertible cargo pants, which unzipped into baggy shorts.
“It’s okay to show my legs?” I wasn’t sure of cultural expectations of modesty, but wasn’t feeling particularly shy after my pre-dinner bathing experience in the family’s back yard. We’d rinsed the road dirt from each other, Martin ordering me to squat down in my thin, borrowed sarong while he scooped water over my head from a large bucket.
“Yes, yes. Show them. It’s okay.”
Having spent the afternoon being poked, prodded, and ordered to exhibit for villagers the pale flesh beneath my long-sleeved shirt, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Martin had paraded me around his village for an afternoon tour, which I quickly realized wasn’t to show the village to me, but rather to show me to the village. My height, brawn, freckled skin, khaki pants, and lack of jewelry had drawn a crowd at every hut. “She looks like a man!” had been exclaimed so many times that Martin finally got sick of translating it, and opted instead for “She says you look like a movie star.”
I unzipped the leg of my pants to the great amusement of Martin’s family. One of the men reached over and slapped my bare inner thigh with a sharp, resounding smack.
“Ow!” I cried. He laughed.
“Want me to do that to you?” I threatened.
“Go ahead,” translated Martin.
My hand made a sharp crack as it slapped his thigh, a gesture which was followed by uproarious laughter. Martin nodded his approval as I replaced my pant leg, then climbed down from the platform and gestured for me to follow him.
We climbed onto his motorbike, referred to throughout Cambodia as a “moto,” and followed a winding dirt road through the darkened village. Without artificial light, the open yards of huts we’d visited that afternoon were now cocooned in a shadowy privacy. My sense of space constricted to the width of a dim headlight.
We emerged into a bright circle of revelry and clamor: music, conversation, laughter, the clang of metal dishes, the smell of warm bodies. A wedding was underway. Martin climbed off his moto and walked over to greet his childhood friend. “We’re invited to eat with the family.”
Up a wooden stepladder and into a bamboo hut on stilts, we joined a circle of cross-legged friends and family for a candlelit dinner. Sweet delicacies wrapped in banana leaf were passed from hand to hand; more tumblers of hard alcohol were raised in toast to the happy couple. Forty minutes later, some unspoken group consensus inspired us all to rise, protesting that we couldn’t eat another bite as more tidbits of mango and sticky rice were pressed upon us. Our unsteady line of revelers moved to the ladder and descended to join the party.
The world wobbled as my vision struggled to keep up with my movements. Before me, a grassy square was lit with lanterns and filled with people. Martin led me into the circling crowd of dancers and began to show me the steps and arm motions. My attempts at grace drew good-humored attention, and I soon had a number of men endeavoring to teach me the “right” way while plying me with drinks.
Within a few minutes, the playful contest over who would demand my attention had deteriorated into a tug of war. A hand on my elbow pulled me one way to show me a movement. A heave on my other arm spun me to view an alternative and far superior explanation. Back and forth I was hauled.
A strong and athletic woman, I stood at least a head taller than the handful of men demanding my attention, so I didn’t find the experience immediately threatening. Yet I was aware of the ebb and flow of the crowd, the abrupt change of mood, and was relieved to see Martin when he broke in and herded me out of the dance area.
He pulled me aside and told me to stay put while he consulted with a huddle of men whom he described as the village leaders. I stood as ordered, inhaling the sweet scent of earth, candles, and trampled grass, listening to the music and revelry from the outskirts of the gathering.
“It’s okay now,” said Martin, returning to my side. “I tell them your country is very strong. If there’s trouble for you, it’s trouble for me. If there’s trouble for me, it’s trouble for the village. If there’s trouble for the village, it’s trouble for Cambodia. Not trouble with you, but trouble with your government. They will put an end to it.”
He led me to his moto and indicated that I should get on. “We’re leaving?”
“I have another friend wedding I want to visit. Is that okay with you?”
I shrugged, and swung my leg over the seat. “Are you okay to drive?”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “I will always tell you if I’m not okay to drive. You believe me?”
The bike’s engine roared to life between our legs, and he maneuvered through the crowd. A few hundred yards down the road, he stopped at a darkened hut and began to yell at it.
“Why do you wake them up? They’re sleeping.”
“That’s okay, they come with us.” He called out again.
“But what if they don’t want to come?”
“That’s okay, it’s what I pay them for.”
Two sleepy men emerged from the hut and came over to talk with Martin, then disappeared again.
“You pay them?”
He nodded. “Yes yes. For protection. That’s what they do. They are the strong men of the village. I think you say mafia? It’s a good idea. My friend wedding is outside my village. They come with us.”
A few minutes later, they had climbed onto another moto and were following us through the village. We zipped through the darkness, past murky forest and what in daylight had been flat expanses of hand-plowed rice fields, but now seemed sinister. A narrow track off the main dirt road took several forks through thickening underbrush, then surfaced into an open clearing: another village, lit for a wedding celebration.
Martin rode his bike into the midst of the crowd, taking up space as I’d noticed he liked to do. We made our way into the dancing throng, but this time, I was watched by my personal bodyguards. When men approached to press me with drinks, I didn’t have to figure out how to politely refuse: my bodyguards materialized by my side and skillfully deflected the proffered intoxicants and excessive attention. I found I was free to smile and laugh, dance and joke, clowning good-naturedly as travelers do when they don’t speak the language.
Then, with the belated urgency of one who has imbibed too much booze, I realized I had to relieve my bladder. I worked my way to the edge of the crowd and looked for an opening between huts. Under cover of darkness, modesty in this part of the world dictated only that one move out of sight and into the shadows for bladder relief. As I made my way along a fence line beside a nearby hut, I noticed that one of my bodyguards was following me.
I acknowledged him, and he pointed a few yards in front of me, saying something that I took to mean “This looks like an excellent substitute for a lavatory.” Then he turned his back, folded his arms, and stood with his feet solidly apart while I squatted behind him, stifling my giggles.
“Martin was right. I am like a movie star,” I thought, trying not to topple over or pee on my pant legs.
Having made our appearance, we soon climbed back onto Martin’s moto and roared through the crowd to retrace our route home. My bodyguards had already gone ahead, for reasons I never clearly understood. Martin and I wobbled unsteadily down the dirt path until we reached a particularly sharp left bend, whereupon we tilted into a slow-motion plunge that came to rest in a pile of underbrush.
“Are you okay?” exclaimed Martin. His eyelids gave the impression of being too heavy to lift properly. I laughed.
“I don’t think I can drive,” he said, sounding serious in his effort to speak coherently. “Can you drive?”
“Me?” I laughed again.
“I say I tell you if I am not okay to drive. I am not okay to drive.”
Fine time to tell me, I thought.
We picked ourselves up and righted the moto, then switched places. I felt around for the starter and switched on the dim headlamp. Concentrating hard, I picked a slow, blind path through the ruts and potholes. “Which way?” I asked as we reached a fork in the road.
Martin looked blurrily around us, and pointed left. I jerked the bike forward, bouncing through unseen humps and hollows, the road to his village appearing in my mind as a long and arduous minefield of potholes and treachery. “We’ll never get home at this rate,” I thought.
Bouncing behind me, Martin must have been forming the same opinion, because he tapped me on the shoulder and said into my ear, “I’ll drive. I’m okay now to drive.”
Forty minutes later, we were back at his mother’s hut. He called out to let them know we were there, and received a sluggish response that must have meant “Sleep on the platform under the house where we keep the chickens,” because that’s what we did. I fell into an exhausted sleep, thinking our adventure was essentially over. Little did I know.
The next morning, I awoke with the sun, as usual. Martin was decidedly less lively, and it wasn’t until his family was up making breakfast around us that he raised a groggy head. “You drive,” he said.
The family gathered around to witness our exit, and Martin grinned with what I hoped was pride as I managed to pull smoothly forward through the village. Children flocked along the side of the path and called after us. Martin waved to his mother as we turned a corner and made our way to the main road – a narrow and lumpy dirt lane no less treacherous by daylight.
I spent the next three hours with my hands gripped tight to the handlebars, the road vibrating up through my arms and shoulders as I zigzagged the moto over and around potholes, rocks, and patches of deep sand. Martin’s head lolled against my shoulder, and I struggled to keep us both upright, half expecting him to vomit in my ear at any moment.
As if this rural road weren’t challenging enough, we occasionally had to navigate oncoming obstacles such as ox carts, herds of ducks, bicyclists, and other moto drivers. Then came the greatest challenge of all – ahead of us loomed a trio of motos, toddling along at a speed not even a hangover could justify. As we approached, I saw that what had appeared to be long bundles strapped to the back of each vehicle were, in fact, the stiff bodies of huge, dead hogs. Not only did I have to pass them, I had to do so without falling into a pothole or causing a pile-up of dead pig flesh.
Swiveling up beside the motos along the narrow section of road left open by their wide loads – cloven hooves tied with twine and outstretched like pleading hands – I saw that a hulking ox cart was approaching from the other direction. It was too late: I was committed.
I tried not to look at the bouncing pigs as we passed. I could feel the sweat trickling down my spine as I tightened my grasp on the handlebars and twisted the throttle to pull ahead of the trio. The ox cart was closing on me. Holding my breath, I swerved to the right, only to discover that an especially large mud hole had been crossed by a narrow plank. Could I hold the bike on course?
And then we were through. The ox cart and limp pigs were lumbering along behind me. I exhaled, and Martin clapped me on the back. “You sure you never drive one of these before?” he laughed. “You a fast learner!”
Back in Phnom Penh, he dropped me at my hotel, indicating he would be back to pick me up in an hour for some sightseeing. I went inside to shower and wash the dust out of my clothes. “What a surreal experience,” I thought, wondering if I would ever have a chance to get such an intimate view of local culture again. I sighed as I towel dried my hair. “Oh well, back to being a tourist.”
Or so I thought. What I didn’t know was that it was wedding season in Cambodia: about 80 percent of marriages occur within a two-month period. When I walked back outside at the appointed time, there was Martin, looking much recovered and leaning on the seat of his moto. He glanced up as I walked toward him, gave me a sly grin, and said, “Want to go to a wedding?”
About the Author
Judy Wolf is a freelance writer, speaker, mountaineer, and whitewater kayak instructor. She’s taken numerous, extended solo journeys around the globe, traveling by foot, bus, jeep, camel, truck, boat, train, plane, elephant, and bicycle to over 30 countries on five continents. She’s currently working on a book of travel essays about her most recent adventures.