Party Traditions and Shared Pleasures in Cambodia

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My table companion, Saleah and I

By Andrew Kolasinski

I was surprised and puzzled when the desk clerk at my hotel in Cambodia handed me a beautiful envelope with my name embossed on the front. “This was delivered for you this morning.”

It was an invitation to a house-warming party. I had only met Yangtse once when I visited the language school where he works. Though I barely knew him I was delighted to be included in a local event. I wondered what would be an appropriate house warming gift.

Fortunately I got a little advice on Khmer party etiquette from Saleah, the Cambodian wife of my ex-pat friend Peter. They would also be attending the party.

They briefed me on a few essential customs, told me what to expect, and then Saleah asked, “What are you going to wear? This is an important occasion and your clothes must show respect.”

I admitted my light travel style did not equip me with formal wear. Luckily Peter and I are the almost the same size. I was quickly outfitted with some of his excess finery. I modeled a pair of creased slacks and a button up shirt and Saleah nodded her approval. I was as ready as I could ever be to immerse myself in the world of Khmer family celebrations.

My tuk tuk dropped me off in front of the newly completed house a fashionable half hour after the appointed time. Its gleaming tiled walls were further enhanced by garnishes of flowers, colored lights, bows and stings of bunting. The door was opened by Yangtse’s two beautiful teenaged daughters who welcomed me with the traditional Sampeah greeting; a slight bow with the palms of your hands together while saying, “Chumreap Suor.”

I responded in kind and then handed them my invitation. One of the girls led me to my table. Moments later my host appeared to greet me, handing me a glass of beer. We raised a toast, the first of many, and I handed him the red envelope I had stuffed with small denomination paper money, a symbolic show of generosity to help with the costs of his new household.

I was happy when my party etiquette tutors, Peter and Saleah arrived and were seated beside me at the table just in time for the first food platters. The chicken they told me could be eaten with my hands, and the noodles should be eaten with chop sticks. When I found my plate overwhelmed with tiny bones, shredded napkins and other detritus, Saleah shocked me, leading by example, she tossed her refuse onto the floor under the table. “Tomorrow after a party the entire house is always cleaned like new.”

The room was filling up and at our table we were joined by three young men, fellow teachers at Yangtse’s school. Our host’s teenaged daughters moved from table to table dispensing cans of beer and brightly colored soda pop as well as more platters of food.

The Tables Were Kept Brimming with Food, Drink and Good Cheer

Our host was constantly in motion, going from table to table, welcoming his guests and thanking us for coming. He improvised a personal toast to each of us, “I thank you for coming so far from Canada for this occasion,” he said raising a glass toward me.

A professional group of singers and dancers performed a mix of Khmer and western pop tunes over recorded instrumental music.

Surrounded by a hundred of his family, friends and well-wishers Yangtze himself took the stage, singing a touchingly emotional ballad. I had no idea what the words meant but his performance was heartfelt and moving.

After the song he did another circuit of the room, stopping at each table and raising a toast with each of his guests. The evening turned into night and, like all parties, ended when the last song was sung and the final toast raised.

Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, experts in cultural tours to Cambodia and all over Southeast Asia.


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