Samsara: love and marriage

In the late 19th century an anonymous French army surgeon spent a few months in Cambodia investigating the sex lives of the inhabitants. His freedom of movement was hampered by war in the countryside, but nevertheless he managed to fit in a great deal of highly relevant observation. He was much struck by the chastity of Cambodian girls, especially compared to their Vietnamese sisters. Pre-marital sex was unknown, as was prostitution, and marriage, if not perhaps love, was the sole arena for sex. (I’m not entirely convinced he was right, but that is what he said).

The leisurely process of marriage began with the betrothal. A female go-between would informally sound out the family of the girl on behalf of the boy’s family. If the response were positive, a formal delegation from the boy’s family would bring presents to the girl’s parents. If the presents were accepted – no doubt there was informal negotiation beforehand – the couple would be considered betrothed. The boy would then move into the girl’s house as a kind of domestic servant. This was necessary because the couple would not previously have met (in theory anyway), and this period was for the young man to pay court to the girl. He would sleep in the kitchen, because the girl was, of course, a virgin, although ‘leaving a boy with a girl is like putting an elephant in charge of the sugar-cane’, says the Khmer proverb.

The Frenchman doesn’t describe the wedding, but an Englishman named Christopher Pym, writing a century later, does. In the 1950s, while still in his twenties, he crossed on foot from the coast of Vietnam to Angkor in search of a road built by Jayavarman VII, the great king of Angkor who brought the Khmer Empire to its widest extent in the 12th century (I’m writing from memory, so don’t quote me on the history). He spent a year in Phnom Penh beforehand brushing up his Khmer.


Symbolic items from a Cambodian wedding – betel box, comb and scissors, etc. Copyright Kate McElwee.

From a Khmer wedding that took place in California. Beautiful photos, and much useful information.

Marriage, Pym says, was not between two individuals but between two families. The marathon wedding took place over three days, and its main elements were a hair-cutting ceremony (symbolic rather than literal, and an occasion for bawdy jokes and songs), a meal offered to the ancestors, and the cotton ceremony, in which the girl’s wrists were bound with a white cotton thread. After the thread was tied the girl began to cry, and when Pym asked why he was told it was because she was afraid of her husband. Pym offers no further explanation. At dawn on the last day the achar (specialist in ritual) placed a coconut flower divided into three parts on an outside altar, the three sections being called the mother, father and child. The groom bowed to each flower section in turn and entered the house, where the bride was concealed behind a curtain. The achar brought the flower sections inside and the groom bowed again to them, and at the same time a musician began a bawdy song entreating the hidden girl to allow the groom to “open the curtain” (a double-entendre?) The curtain was drawn aside revealing the bride, and although Pym doesn’t mention it, she was dressed as Neang Neak, the naga-princess who met Preah Thong, the ancestor of the Khmer race, on their mythical beach at the beginning of time.


Khmer wedding dress – the costume of Neang Naga the naga-princess, mother of the Khmer race.

The girl knelt beside the boy and bowed to the three flower sections, the guests seated themselves around them and circulated popil and candles. When the candles had gone round three times the achar blew them out and wafted the smoke towards the couple. The boy and girl were now wed. The boy took the bride’s scarf and allowed himself to be led to the marriage bed like Prince Thong being led to the underwater naga kingdom, while the guests dismantled the mother and daughter flowers and threw them over the couple like confetti. Later in the morning the newlyweds would take the father flower to the village monastery, where the head monk would scatter its grain over them.

We move now to the late 1950s, when the pioneering anthropologist May Ebihara lived in a Cambodian village for a year. She found the girls in the village were afraid of sex and of being raped or abducted, which were apparently real dangers. Both Buddhism and the spirits disapproved of fornication, and chastity continued to be the overwhelming rule. Yet there were a few cases of a lack of chastity, including a girl four months pregnant at her wedding and another who was the mistress of a high official from Phnom Penh – the second girl faced considerable disapproval, as did her parents for having allowed this to happen.


From the website of the Khmer-Canadian Youth Association of Alberta – Their caption describes the role and significance of this section of the wedding ceremony, a recapitulation of the origin of the Khmer people.

In modern villages marriage is still the result of betrothal organised at family level, and young people con only hope to influence the schemes of their parents. Birth control is not much practiced, although STDs are well understood and condoms are used for health reasons. As a result families tend to be large. Infertility is regarded as the woman’s fault, and the kru (traditional healers and shamans) are consulted for causes and cure. Male impotence is also regarded as a supernatural problem rather than a medical one, although in fact there are several quite serious conditions that can cause it. Abortion is very rare, since taking life is the most serious of all sins.

All this is for the village, and my sources have been second-hand and unreliable. Perhaps I need to do like May Ebihara and live for a year in a village – I have one in mind, and the headman has invited me to stay, but I can’t help wondering whether my bowels could take it. And what about the cities? Cambodia is still overwhelmingly a village-based society (maybe 80% of people live in villages), but cities are growing rapidly. The village has a thousand eyes, but the facts of modern urban life have produced a new social and moral world.


Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

This post is adapted from my book Spirit Worlds, due out in October. This section of the book was one of the hardest to write, due to the subject matter – how do you ask young people about their sex lives? Margaret Mead had that problem in Samoa. I was struck by how little is available on the sex lives of young people in the cities. I did ask, though I doubt the answers are authoritative. But for what it’s worth, I was told that pre-marital sex is increasingly common among teens – maybe quite common. And I know for a fact that Valentine’s Day is a major event in the calendar of every hormonally-supercharged high-school boy. Someone really has to study this.