In Cambodia, a lonely man finds a bride

The details of Don’s life are a bit foggy, mostly because I was focused on supplementing my meager volunteer stipend with an offering from the Gods at NagaWorld and thus wasn’t paying rapt attention to his rambling story. But here it is in a nutshell:

Dumped (twice) by US women, a despondent Don was chatting with some of his co-workers on the second shift of the maintenance staff at an undisclosed Rhode Island business who happened to be Cambodian women. “You should talk to our friend,” they urged him, though I’m not clear whether she was visiting and they met in person or if they met online for the first time.

Regardless, Don’s second-shift schedule proved perfect for the 12-hour time difference between Pawtucket and Phnom Penh, so Skype calls became a daily ritual between the two.

“I’d get off work and go home and we’d talk all night,” he told me in between earnest swats at the Golden Bull machine, losing 50 cents a pop. “I’d go to sleep at 6, get up and go to work later on and then do it all over again.”

At some point things became serious enough for him to pop the question, and her eager acceptance sent him shopping for a flight to Phnom Penh to tie the knot. He’s here on his own, as his family lacks the means to join him on the happy day.

“I’m just so happy that my mom will see me get married before she dies,” he said, more than a little choked up. 

Don brought $4,500 to cover the cost of his first-ever trip to Southeast Asia (or anywhere, for that matter) and, as it turns out, to help pay for the wedding. (Weddings here are a big deal, with multiple changes of clothes for the bride and groom, live bands and lavish feasts with beer and scotch in abundance. For many families, it is the expense of a lifetime, and everyone invited to the wedding is expected to pitch in.)

Anyway, Don cashed out when he was up $20 – “her family don’t know I’m here. They don’t approve of gambling” and got ready to head for the door. Before he left he shook our hands and invited us to the bash.

“It’s at the Lucky Star on Wednesday,” he said. “I’d be honored to have you come.”

We initially passed it off as a nice offer we’d politely decline, but then I paused. 

I thought about Don, an untravelled American in a foreign country, surrounded by people he doesn’t know speaking a language he doesn’t understand. I thought about the look in his eyes when he described his beautiful bride. I thought about his heartfelt words about his mother.

So I suggested to Gabi that we crash the bash and bring cash. Which we did, dragging our friend Clare along for the experience.

Suffice to say it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, yet typical of Cambodia with a health dose of confusion, chaos and embracing welcomes all around.

Passing by the maze of wedding halls, past countless nuptials on a Wednesday night- it’s the height of wedding season here and celebrations are in full swing – I saw Don’s bald pate and white face front and center on a poster-sized photo of the happy couple outside of Hall G. “Som chup!” (please stop) I shouted to our tuk tuk pal Tony, and we were inside in an instant, surrounded by gorgeous women in silk and rhinestone gowns and men in casual slacks and shirts. 

A woman in red descended upon us and ushered us to a table with a half dozen Cambodians already seated, which was good news for them. Only full tables get served, and so we were off to the races. Beer was served with ice, and then the food marathon began.

Twenty minutes later Don showed up in the room with his bride, who was every bit as gorgeous as he had described, dressed to the nines and heavily made up for the occasion. They had apparently changed clothes for umpteenth time (as one does at Cambodian weddings) and were primed for the public part of the ceremony. I rose and caught his attention and he headed our way, beaming and tugging his wife behind him.

We spoke for a bit and offered congratulations, then shook hands.

“I am so glad you came,” he said. “Really. It means a lot.” We spoke, extended our good wishes and congratulations, and off they went, into the sea of silk-clad beauties and well-wishing Cambodians who had gathered to help them start their life together.

And us? The woman in red took a handful of my silk shirt and dragged me to the front of the room to stand with the brides’ family and pose for photos, awaiting the couple’s arrival down the red carpet in front of us.

“Oh my God,” I told Gabi. “I think they think we’re Don’s parents.”

Why else would we be standing at the front of the room, facing the entire reception? There was one other foreigner in the room, but we otherwise stood out like rice among raisins. The master of ceremonies grabbed me by the shoulders and had me swap places with Gabi (so the two moms were standing next to one another?) and then began the procession. We followed the lead of our hosts, tossing flower petals over the couple (waste rice? I think not) and gently waving our hands as the couple approached the cake and proceeded through the candle-lighting ceremony and then to cut the cake and start the dancing.

We ate a little, drank a beer, danced a song or two (each song lasts 30 or so years, it seems) and then made for the door, casting a glance over our shoulders at the smiling face of a man from Rhode Island whose life just became much richer, much more fulfilled, much more whole. We dropped some money in the collection box for the couple and climbed into Tony’s tuk tuk to make our way home when we were stopped by a smiling, slight young man who we believe was the bride’s brother. 

Pumping our hands and thanking us profusely for coming, he stood in the street waving as we pulled away, all the richer for crashing a party for a man we barely know.