Love is in the air for many around the globe on Valentine’s Day today. But here in the Kingdom, sources are saying interest is on the decline and premarital sex is an issue that contradicts Khmer culture.
To Chea Oudom, Valentine’s Day has always been a special part of his life.
“I remember back in 2017 when I was in Grade 12, many friends celebrated the day by exchanging greeting cards, sweets, jewellery and flowers,” the 23-year-old says.
Now a university student, Mr Oudom says he cannot forget the day he mustered enough courage to finally approach a girl he had his eye on.
“I liked her a lot because she was charming in class,” he says. “I actually skipped a class to go out and buy her roses because I wanted to surprise her.”
Mr Oudom says he confessed his admiration for the girl, but the feeling was not mutual.
“I was disappointed when she rejected me,” he says. “But she then explained to me that there are consequences to misunderstanding what Valentine’s Day was all about.”
That moment made an impact in his life. Now he says Valentine’s Day is a day he would rather share with family and friends.
“I will buy a designer bag for my mum and a bottle of red wine for my dad,” Mr Oudom says. “I think we should express love to those we adore every day, not just during Valentine’s Day.”
Valentine’s Day, or Feast of Saint Valentine, is marked on February 14 and is recognised as a cultural and commercial celebration in many parts of the world.
Here in Cambodia, where eastern culture meets western culture, Valentine’s Day is celebrated by mostly the younger generation.
Rin Chantha, a 23-year-old clothing retailer in Toul Tumpong market, says she sells roses during Valentine’s Day to earn extra income.Ms Chantha says her customers are mostly young people who are in love, but also others who want to express their feelings to family and friends.
“I sell roses one day per year and I get good income from selling roses because I can buy one rose for $1 and sell it for $10,” she says. “I expect that this year, I will have more buyers. Last year, I sold almost 100 roses and I hope I will have the same amount this time around.”
Valentine’s Day is often perceived as counter-culture that goes against traditional Cambodian norms.
Venerable Kou Sopheap, a professor at Pannasastra University, says that he noticed many young people marked the day in 2010.
“I see that we enthusiastically assimilate other cultures and blow the meaning out of proportion – people do not even know how to celebrate their own traditions, such as Meak Bochea Day, Visak Bochea Day or the birth of Buddha” Ven Sopheap says in the video. “People clearly know western traditions. I am not against globalisation, but young people should copy good traditions, such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.”
Yun Daravuth, 32, says the younger generation doesn’t know what Valentine’s Day is because they tend to focus on relations between men and women.
Mr Daravuth says Valentine’s Day is a day of sharing love with loved ones.
“At first I also thought Valentine’s Day was only for lovers – boyfriends and girlfriends – to give each other gifts,” he says. “But later I found out that love was meant for everyone, including friends and family.”
According to a research on the impact of Valentine’s Day on young people entitled “Love and Sexual Relationships a Decade Later” by researcher Tong Soprach, only 42.5 percent of those surveyed were genuinely interested in Valentine’s Day this year.
He adds that 44 percent of respondents preferred to go to malls and cinemas, as opposed to karaoke lounges and guesthouses, to celebrate the day. He says young people are less likely to have pre-marital sex in these family friendly venues.
However, gift giving has decreased by nearly two thirds from 56.3 percent in 2009 to 21.6 percent this year.
“Significantly, the percentage of young people who think they will be able to have sex during the upcoming Valentine’s Day has decreased by more than half when compared to ten years ago,” Mr Soprach says in his research. “The intention to have sex on Valentine’s Day correlates with the perception that it is a ‘special day’; both this perception and the intention to have sex on the day have fallen by more than half from 2009 to 2019.”
The concern of young people having pre-marital sex is also shared by the multiple ministries, including the Women’s Affairs Ministry, who called on the younger generation to fully comprehend the meaning of Valentine’s Day and avoid sexual intercourse.
“Please show your love to your parents, family, teachers, friends and lovers with dignity and responsibility,” a ministry statement said. “Please give value to these people, as well as yourself.”
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts says Valentine’s Day has been penetrating Cambodian society, causing some to misinterpret the meaning of the day, and thus affecting traditional culture, customs and norms in the Kingdom.
“Valentine’s Day in Cambodia should be a chance to distribute and guarantee a wide range of care to [loved ones and those less fortunate] by interacting with them and giving gifts,” the Culture Ministry said in a statement.
Last week, Education Minister Hang Choun Naron issued a directive targetting students who intended to skip school during Valentine’s Day.
“Valentine’s Day is not Khmer traditional culture, and during the last few years, Valentine’s Day has become more and more influential on youths, making them forget their studies, lose their own and their family’s dignity – which affect Khmer traditions and culture,” Mr Choun Naron said in the directive.