The Birthday Party That Wasn't

From time to time, Andrew and I receive invitations from our neighbors to their parties. The occasions range from housewarming and birthdays to weddings and engagements. Honestly, I don't actually know the names of all my neighbors. But we wave at each other and sometimes stop for a chat along the road during our walks. When we receive the invitations, we normally go if we can, because we just assume we know whomever the party is for. (Except for the time we were invited to the 100-day funeral [as in, given 100 days after the death] of someone we didn't even know. But we appreciated the advance notice of 24 hours of monk chanting and tambourine music.)

Last week, we were invited to a party for a girl's 23rd birthday. This puzzled us a bit, since people normally don't throw big birthday parties here. But the invitation said clearly in Khmer and English, "Happy Birthday!" So we went.

The party was set up just as elaborately as any wedding party. The girl was dressed in a satiny, puffy yellow dress with huge hair and long fake eyelashes. There were lots of friends and family greeting us at the entrance to the dinner tent, and we sat down to a five-course dinner. I started chatting with the lady next to me in Khmer about her travels to the States. Andrew had wandered up to the stage to look at the cake, and came back saying there were two names written on the cake in English under "Happy Birthday." I asked the lady next to me if they were twins.

"Oh no," she said. "This isn't really a birthday party - it's a wedding party! The groom is Thai and isn't registered in Cambodia, so they can't actually get married. But they wanted a party anyway, and this way they can get money to pay for the registration. So they did a birthday party instead. It's just a fake one."

I have to say, I was a bit baffled. But when I asked another neighbor to explain who speaks English, the story was the same. This was a fake birthday party for a couple getting married (but not really). Later in the evening, the couple proceeded to cut the cake together in the Western fashion, as the DJ sang "Happy Birthday" in English.

Sometimes in Cambodia, things are not as they seem....

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