Earlier this week, Tim and I were invited to a housewarming party. It was my first time attending one of these events so I was excited to see what it would entail. I was particularly excited because this party was at the largest house in all of Kampong Kdey, which just so happens to belong to my supervisor, the director of the local health center.
The new house, a yellowish green, sits on the national highway, towering over any other houses in the vicinity. It is a deep, three-story house with an additional covered rooftop level. It is made of concrete and has beautifully carved doors. There is an intricate wooden carving of Angkor Wat, perhaps 12 feet long and 3 or 4 feet tall, hanging in the entryway. His house is the only place in town I’ve ever seen that has air conditioning. The house also has amenities like a fridge, a garage, multiple balconies, and a bizarre little pool for soaking your feet (I think?). Inside, the furniture is impressive: heavy wooden benches, tables and beds, all with an unrivaled level of detail and design. This was certainly the nicest Khmer house I had ever been in.
The housewarming party was like all the other parties we have attended here. There were several courses of food, starting with a tangy beef salad before moving on to finer dishes like quail, prawns and fish. White rice and fried rice were both served, as were rolls and a dessert with a gelatin-like texture. There was enough seating to fit at least 150 or 200 people at a time, but people came in shifts throughout the whole day. Usually at this kind of party there are at least 500 guests. In this case, I would guess closer to 1,000. The director brought in entertainers to tell jokes and sing karaoke for the duration of the party, and there was a small area for guests to dance. I also noted that many of the guests did not come from Kampong Kdey. It’s gotten pretty easy to spot the “city folk,” and they came to this party in droves.
At parties in Cambodia – weddings, funerals, birthday parties for children, housewarmings – it is also expected that guests leave money for the host. Depending on the relationship to the host, it generally falls between $7.50 – $20 per person. I have to admit that I felt kind of awkward at the party in the first place. The house seemed excessive for a family of five, especially in a place where so many make do with a small wooden or thatch house for their entire extended family. When it came time to leave our money, my discomfort grew even more. Even knowing that the hosts rarely make much money off of the party (it mostly just covers the cost of the event), it felt a little uncomfortable that all of these people, including the director’s patients and subordinates, should give up their hard earned money to one of the wealthiest families in town. These gifts aren’t really optional either. Even if you don’t attend, you’re expected to send some cash.
I talked with some friends about the party the following day. Most everyone seemed really interested in how big and beautiful the house was. I thought I sensed a slight air of disgust or jealousy or something, but that was probably just my own feelings getting in the way. A few people told me that they thought the director was going to let patients stay in the extra rooms of the house, but the consensus seemed to be that he, instead, was renting the rooms out to business people who come into town for short-term trips. Apparently, he’s planning to charge these professionals — often people who work in the banks or microfinance institutes– ten dollars per night. Regardless of how people feel about the director or his house, it certainly was the not-to-be-missed event this month. It set the bar high for any future housewarmings, and I don’t think the buzz is going to die down anytime soon.