Featured in Fall/Winter 2016 Issue
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Steven Phu, it seems, is not very good at keeping secrets. When he proposed to Sodanin Sieng during a night out in January 2015, she had been gathering hints about the impending proposition. The private club, the romantic music and the cameraman all served as clues to his intentions. But this bride-to-be didn’t mind at all.
“When I turned around, our family and friends were holding a sign that read ‘Will you marry me?’” she says. “It was beautiful.”It was a match made many years ago. The Phu and Sieng families had been friends in Cambodia for decades and Steven and Sodanin had been acquainted throughout their teenage years, despite being raised in other parts of the world for a time. Their parents had secretly hoped they would marry.
Sodanin notes it was June 2015, only seven months before his proposal, when everything had changed between them. “I was on a business trip in Malaysia and Steven came to visit me over the weekend,” she recalls. “We had our first official date and it just felt right.”
Though experienced travelers, Steven and Sodanin immediately chose to marry in their homeland. Among their first decisions was to secure the Diamond Island Wedding Hall, a sprawling venue overlooking the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, the capital of the country, as their primary celebration space.
With just eight months to plan, the couple worked quickly. “Our greatest wish was that everything would turn out smoothly,” says the bride. Of special importance were the Buddhist rituals essential to satisfy a traditional Cambodian wedding, an undertaking that usually requires three days of festivities and the cooperation of numerous family members. Steven and Sodanin were happy participants.
“In Cambodia, symbolism is everything and the rituals involve elders and friends so they may pass their well wishes to the newlyweds,” she explains.Indeed, each rite of passage added its own dynamic to the solemnity of the occasion. The hair-cutting ceremony, for example, held before the official marriage rites had been performed, was a lighthearted display of the affection between the couple and their family and friends. Beforehand, a priest had hidden gold rings in Steven’s and Sodanin’s hair. Partakers then playfullypretended to cut the hair in an effort to retrieve the rings. Onlookers accompanied the custom with traditional songs of joy.
“In ancient times, the cutting would have been real,” says the bride, adding that the custom signifies the hope that the couple will be prosperous in marriage. Once the marriage was officially declared, those gathered encircled the bride and groom and passed candles around them seven times. The flames were fanned so the smoke would surround the newlyweds and dispel evil.
Throughout the celebration, Steven and Sodanin made numerous wardrobe changesof ceremonial regalia that have been worn for centuries in South Asia. The intricately woven garments boasted bold colors and were adorned with ornate jewelry and headpieces. “The costumes were definitely one of my favorite details of our event,” says Sodanin.
One of the highlights in her bridal trousseau was the delicate, white, off-the-shoulder custom wedding dress. Embroidered with small flowers and accented by an overflowing veil, it had been worn during pre-wedding photography sessions at historic temples in the neighboring provinces of Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, in an effortto honor Buddha and attain blessings on the marriage.
What began as a small wedding party at the couple’s homes grew to processions throughout the area and eventually ended at the wedding venue reserved to bring together everyone from family and friends to social and business contacts.
Bathed in shades of pink from top to bottom, the venue featured seating for over 3,000 and a sumptuous feast of customary Asian fare including braised abalone, sea cucumbers and roasted pig. Guests enjoyed an evening of traditional dancing as well as modern music, enticements that kept the celebration lively all evening long. “It was an amazing adventure for both of us—tiring, but amazing,” says the bride of their festivities. “Now, we can begin our lives together.”
Steven and Sodanin embarked on a 14-day international excursion that included visits to the Maldives, Finland, France and the United Arab Emirates.
> Written by Dina M. Cortez