Weddings are big business in Cambodia. Writer Marissa Carruthers meets some industry players to discover more. Photography by Conor Wall.

The dazzle of fairytale gowns and glittering outfits that line one wall of the room is almost blinding. An equally impressive stand of sparkling jewels sits in a corner, waiting to be worn by the bride-to-be, who is having the finishing touches to her hair and make-up — inspired by the latest fashion magazines — perfected by top beauticians.

Pastel flower buds decorate the wedding and reception venues, and a gigantic cake waits to be cut by the happy couple during an extravagant reception that will see Cambodia’s best performers entertain the 1,000-strong crowd. This is how top wedding planner Sokha Bun describes the typical wedding that she is asked to organise.

When it comes to modern marriages in Cambodia, a big budget wedding has become a rite of passage for some young couples. Add a rising middle class with more expendable income and a generation aspiring to the latest fashions to the trend, and it seems that expectations are on the rise.

“Weddings in Cambodia have changed a lot in the five years I have been working in the industry,” says Sokha, stood in her Mao Tse Toung studio, surrounded by an impressive array of colourful traditional outfits and white gowns.

“Modern couples are moving away from totally traditional and mixing in Western elements they have seen on the Internet or in magazines. There is also a lot of competition, where each couple wants the best, so weddings are becoming more and more extravagant.”

The 27-year-old runs Sokha Samangkar, a Phnom Penh agency that organises weddings averaging at around $400,000 and $500,000, though clients can splash up to $700,000 on ensuring their event — often catering for about 2,000 guests — is a lavish affair. “We’re seeing people spending a lot more on flowers, in some cases up to $10,000. That never used to happen,” she comments.

Nowadays, some couples splurge up to $2,500 on setting up extravagant pre-wedding photo shoots, which are projected throughout the wedding, she says. An increasing amount of money is also being spent on the reception, with decadent décor, top entertainment, a towering cake and brides who often choose to wear expensive Western-style wedding dresses.

The influx of new trends means that traditions are on the move. Some modern couples are choosing to cut the wedding ceremony from the usual three-day celebration to one-and-a-half or even one-day affairs. Many brides are also cutting down on the number of outfit changes, which traditionally sit at about 15, Sokha observes.

“Modern couples don’t want things to be so complicated,” she adds. “They want to be able to enjoy themselves and keep things simpler. There is also more choice available and they want to be able to design their own wedding and make it different from other people.”

One bride-to-be currently planning her big day is 22-year-old Soch Sothy, who is getting married in January and has budgeted about $560,000 for the glamorous one-and-a-half day celebration. Painting a picture of her perfect day, she describes 12 stunning outfit changes — ranging from glitzy traditional Khmer outfits to two white wedding dresses for the evening reception — a decorated 10-tier cake, too much food to mention, and a line-up of some of the country’s best singers whose names she is keeping under wraps.

“You only get married once so we want everything to be perfect, the way we want it,” she says. “I have been to a lot of friends’ weddings and want mine to be different and show who we are.”

And though not all weddings are as lavish, couples on a smaller budget are also taking on the trend for mixing modernity and tradition in more modest, but equally special, events.

Than Thouan, 33, and his wife Rin, 28, married last month in their home province of Kampong Cham. The couple celebrated with a traditional country wedding — costing around $3,000, with a portion received  back from guests — at the bride’s house and chose to mark their union with a one-day event, instead of the usual three days and three nights.

Despite sticking to the traditional ceremonies, such as hair cutting, blessing by the monks, a parade and family offerings, the couple chose to mix wedding styles through 18 different outfit changes, which included a white dress for the reception, although this was in a Khmer-style rather than Western.

“There is pressure not to lose face. Usually people want to have a wedding which at least represents their social status. If rich people had a small wedding it would look like they are poor and guests might not be impressed, which would cause embarrassment,” says Rin. “Also if a lot of guests attend, then it’s a sign of a popular family with a good reputation. If there are special guests like ministers, powerful people, businessmen and celebrities, it’s a sign of a high-ranking, respected family.”

And while industry experts see a growing trend for splashing the cash on local weddings, engaged Westerners are increasingly coming to Cambodia to save expenses on their big day.

Anneliese Helmy, owner of Anne Noelle Bridal, has been creating dresses for happy brides since opening her store in the capital just over a year ago. While the majority of her custom-made gowns are created for expats or Cambodian-Western couples, she has noticed more love birds travelling to the Kingdom from abroad to get their clothes hand-made.

“We noticed more clients were coming here specifically to get their dresses made because getting it done here and having a holiday at the same time often costs less than getting the dress made back in Australia or wherever,” she says, adding that she has launched a specific service catering for the demand. “I can only see this becoming more popular,” she says.

But whether big or small, weddings are a celebration of love with both brides and grooms hoping to guarentee that all attendees have a good time. “For all weddings, rich or poor, there is pressure to ensure that guests have a good time with good music, good food and good service,” says newly-wed Rin. “It would be embarrassing if guests were not satisfied.”