If a Cambodian couple decides to have a more traditionally Khmer ceremony, one of the most important aspects is the ritual music. Four songs — Phat Cheay, Kang Saeuy, Bangvel Po Pil, Bay Khon Chang Dai — are played at different points during the wedding festivities; while specific songs also accompany the wedding march and the presentation of the dowry.
While the gifts are being arranged in front of the couple, three songs are traditionally played. The first tells the story of how the groom and his family journeyed to the bride to present her with elaborate arrays of fruits, pastries, meats, and even desserts on the wedding day. The next song accompanies the official presentation of the dowry while celebrating and sealing the relationships between everyone who had a hand in bringing the couple together: friends, families, and matchmakers alike! The final song of the dowry presentation is the giving of the betel nut to parents of both the bride and the groom. Often, the nut is chewed to represent the sealing of the two families. Afterwards, both sets of parents ask for blessings and happiness to be bestowed upon their children.
After the presentation of the dowry, the couple will have a traditional breakfast of fruits and porridge while folk songs are played to keep guests entertained. (Guests can only begin eating once the couple has finished their meal.) In strictly traditional Khmer weddings, a hair-cutting ceremony will also take place. Far from solemn, the hair-cutting is a lively and jovial affair, sometimes with elements of comedy incorporated. Depending on the couple’s wishes, today the haircut can be real or mimed. The first person to cut the hair of the groom is the mother, then the elders — but all retrieve small golden or silver rings from the hair (usually placed there previously by a priest) to signify prosperity in their lives together.
After the haircutting ceremony, the traditional foot-washing (simplified today as the bride spraying the groom’s feet with perfume) ritual takes place, followed by one of the most important aspects of a Khmer wedding: the traditional hand-fasting. The priest will clasp the couple’s hands together and begin chanting, followed by a blessing from the parents. Next, the couple’s hands are placed on a pillow, and a sword is placed on the palms. (There are many different methods of laying the sword, see below.) The parents, then other relatives and guests, of the couple tie strands of red thread to the left hands of the couple and sprinkle drops of water across the palms.
Afterwards, relatives gift the couple with rings, necklaces, blessings, advice, and prayers to the couple while onlookers cheer and a gong is struck. Three candles, lit by priests, are then circulated among other married couples, who wave their hands across the flames and pass the candles along to the next couple. This process, commonly called the Seven Circles of Fire, is repeated seven times, as priests shower the couples in palm flowers.
While the Seven Circles of Fire ritual takes place, four songs are traditionally performed. First, the Phat Cheay is played while the bride and her bridesmaids are led into the pairing ceremony. Then, the Kang Saeuy tune is played while gifts and blessings are offered and solicited from ancestors and deceased relatives. Thirdly, the Bangvel Po Pil song is played while the Seven Circles of Fire ritual is actually taking place and making the seven rounds throughout the room. It is believed that the smoke from the candles will protect the couple from evil spirits, and elders guide the smoke towards the bride and groom to ensure their safety. The final song in the ceremony is the Bay Khom Chang Dai, which is played while the couples wrists are tied together. To listen to the Bay Khom Chang Dai, watch the video below.
To close the official ceremony, a sumptuous dinner is served to the couple and their guests, with dancing and celebrating continuing until late into the evening.