PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Cambodia’s wedding season officially kicks off next month and this year promises to be the biggest and most extravagant ever.
With more young couples tying the knot – and spending a lot more on their big day – an industry of wedding planning and services has emerged that is eager to get a slice of the nuptial pie.
Traditional Khmer weddings are lavish, complex affairs spread out over two days that involve multiple outfit changes, make-up sessions, photography shoots, and plenty of pomp and ceremony. It all ends in a raucous no-holds-barred reception where guests and family eat, drink and dance long into the night.
The “modern” weddings that have caught on in recent years are no less boisterous events, blending elements of Western weddings but retaining a distinct Khmer flavor – which means plenty of fruit, flowers and glitz.
Kalyana Phal, a special events planner at the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra Hotel, said rising affluence and a desire for an unforgettable event is making Cambodians splurge more than ever on wedding receptions.
“The budget has doubled in the last year,” she told Khmer Times. “It will grow in the next year too because people are spending more on weddings as they are a once-in-a-lifetime event and they want to show off their social status as well.”
The increasing scale and complexity of Cambodian weddings has spawned an entire sub-sector of event organizers. Wedding planners – professionals who assist with the planning, design and management of weddings – typically charge a percentage of the matrimonial budget as consultation fees.
Vipasiny Sambath, co-founder of digital wedding planning firm Pkasla, said couples save for years to cover the cost of their nuptials, and the bill for even a modest wedding can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Increasingly, they are seeking services to help make their dream weddings affordable.
“We optimize the budget for each couple and help them find all the appropriate elements of a wedding,” she said.
Middle-class families typically budget around $20,000 for a wedding, while an upper-class wedding may run $70,000 to $80,000, according to Ms. Sambath.
But even this is peanuts compared to what Cambodia’s most influential families spend on lavish wedding parties. High-end wedding planning agency Sokha Samangkar says its clients splash out up to $700,000 on wedding bashes, including the cost of food, clothing, travel and entertainment for thousands of guests.
Growing Invitation List
A generation ago, weddings were typically held at home or in wooden shelters or plastic tents erected on the side of the road. But an increasing number of couples are spending huge sums to rent a memorable venue for the reception, which is generally a two-day event.
City dwellers facing space limitations in their apartments and hoping to impress their guests in luxurious surroundings often hold the wedding reception in an upscale hotel or wedding hall.
The Sofitel Phnom Penh hosts about 20 to 30 weddings a year, with bookings made up to a year in advance. Ms. Phal said the events are becoming grander, and the guest lists keep growing.
“More people are invited to weddings than in the past,” she said, adding that the hotel regularly receives reception and room bookings for weddings with 900 guests. “Couples know a lot of people, from family members to friends. They don’t want to miss anyone out as that would be considered an insult.”
To handle this volume, multi-room wedding hall complexes have sprung up around the country. No less than a dozen operate in the capital. The largest is Mondial Center off Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, a mammoth four-story structure with 13 banquet halls.
Couples pay about $7,000 to rent a banquet hall with 50 tables for their reception, according to the center’s director, Phuo Kim Kok. He said the complex hosted around 100 wedding bashes last year and is regularly booked solid months in advance.
But the venue is just one expense. Costs climb as couples spend on food, decorations and entertainment for the reception. A mid-level budget, say planners, is at least $20 per person for food, flowers for around $1,000, and another $1,000 for a DJ or musicians.
Couples are also billed for invitations, tiered cakes and fruit displays, and the all-important pre-wedding photo shoot, which can run from as little as $100 to well over $5,000.
And then there is the all-important bridal dress. Anneliese Helmy, owner of Anne Noelle Bridal and Eveningwear Boutique, designs the iconic white wedding gown for mainly Western expats, she says lately more Cambodians are showing interest in her collection.
“I think they see how weddings are done in Europe, and they aspire to that,” she said. “But I’d hate to see them lose the traditional element because it’s so beautiful.”
Ms. Helmy’s line of dresses cost between $300 to $800 for ready-to-wear gowns, while custom orders can run as high as $1,500. There are plenty of buyers, but many brides hoping to save money on up to a dozen outfit changes go elsewhere to rent dresses.
For brides-to-be like Nanita Soth, who plans to marry in December, the biggest single wedding expense is the so-called salon package, which includes multiple rented dresses, and hairstyling and make-up sessions.
“Five years ago, my sister got married and the best bridal salon package was $2,000,” she said. “Now the same package costs more than double that.”
“I want a nice wedding, but it is getting more expensive,” she adds.