Architecture and Housing / Religion / Birth and Death Rituals / Childhood and Adolescence / Courtship, Marriage, and Divorce / Social Organization / Customs / Clothing / Visual Art / Music / Dance / Film / Sports
The Golden Age of Cambodia was between the 9th and 14th century, during the Angkor period, during which it was a powerful and prosperous empire that flourished and dominated almost all of inland south east Asia. However, Angkor would eventually collapse after much in-fighting between royalty and constant warring with its increasingly powerful neighbors, notably Siam and Dai Viet. Many temples from this period however, like Bayon and Angkor Wat still remain today, scattered throughout Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam as a reminder of the grandeur of Khmer arts and culture. Cambodia’s unparalleled achievements in art, architectures, music, and dance during this period have had a great influence on many neighboring kingdoms, namely Thailand and Laos. The affect of Angkorian culture can still be seen today in those countries, as they share many close characteristics with current-day Cambodia.
The Angkorian architects and sculptors created temples that mapped the cosmic world in stone. Khmer decorations drew inspiration from religion, and mythical creatures from Hinduism and Buddhism were carved on walls. Temples were built in accordance to the rule of ancient Khmer architecture that dictated that a basic temple layout include a central shrine, a courtyard, an enclosing wall, and a moat. Khmer motifs use many creatures from Buddhist and Hindu mythology, like the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, use motifs such as the garuda, a mythical bird in the Hinduism. The architecture of Cambodia developed in stages under the Khmer empire from 9th to the 15th century, preserved in many buildings of the Angkor temple. The remains of secular architecture from this time are rare, as only religious buildings were made of stone. The architecture of the Angkor period used specific structural features and styles, which are one of the main methods used to date the temples, along with inscriptions.
In modern rural Cambodia, the nuclear family typically lives in a rectangular house that may vary in size from four by six meters to six by ten meters. It is constructed of a wooden frame with gabled thatch roof and walls of woven bamboo. Khmer houses typically are raised on stilts as much as three meters for protection from annual floods. Two ladders or wooden staircases provide access to the house. The steep thatch roof overhanging the house walls protects the interior from rain. Typically a house contains three rooms separated by partitions of woven bamboo. The front room serves as a living room used to receive visitors, the next room is the parents’ bedroom, and the third is for unmarried daughters. Sons sleep anywhere they can find space. Family members and neighbors work together to build the house, and a house-raising ceremony is held upon its completion. The houses of poorer persons may contain only a single large room. Food is prepared in a separate kitchen located near the house but usually behind it. Toilet facilities consist of simple pits in the ground, located away from the house, that are covered up when filled. Any livestock is kept below the house. Chinese and Vietnamese houses in Cambodian town and villages typically are built directly on the ground and have earthen, cement, or tile floors, depending upon the economic status of the owner. Urban housing and commercial buildings may be of brick, masonry, or wood.
Cambodia is predominantly Buddhist with 90% of the population being Theravada Buddhist, 1% Christian and the majority of the remaining population follow Islam, atheism, or animism.
Buddhism has existed in Cambodia since at least the 5th century CE. Theravada Buddhism has been the Cambodian state religion since the 13th century CE (excepting the Khmer Rouge period), and is currently estimated to be the faith of 90% of the population.
Islam is the religion of a majority of the Cham (also called Khmer Islam) and Malay minorities in Cambodia. According to Po Dharma, there were 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims in Cambodia as late as 1975. Persecution under the Khmer Rouge eroded their numbers, however, and by the late 1980s they probably had not regained their former strength. All of the Cham Muslims are Sunnis of the Shafi’i school. Po Dharma divides the Muslim Cham in Cambodia into a traditionalist branch and an orthodox branch.
Christianity was introduced into Cambodia by Roman Catholic missionaries in 1660. however, it made little headway at first, particularly among Buddhists. In 1972 there were probably about 20,000 Christians in Cambodia, most of whom were Roman Catholics. According to Vatican statistics, in 1953, members of the Roman Catholic Church in Cambodia numbered 120,000, making it, at that time, the second largest religion in the country. In April 1970, just before repatriation, estimates indicate that about 50,000 Catholics were Vietnamese. Many of the Catholics remaining in Cambodia in 1972 were Europeans–chiefly French. American Protestant missionary activity increased in Cambodia, especially among some of the hill tribes and among the Cham, after the establishment of the Khmer Republic. The 1962 census, which reported 2,000 Protestants in Cambodia, remains the most recent statistic for the group. Observers reported that in 1980 there were more registered Khmer Christians among the refugees in camps in Thailand than in all of Cambodia before 1970. Kiernan notes that, until June 1980, five weekly Protestant services were held in Phnom Penh by a Khmer pastor, but that they had been reduced to a single weekly service after police harassment. There are around 20,000 Catholics in Cambodia which represents only 0.15% of the total population. There are no dioceses, but there are three territorial jurisdictions – one Apostolic Vicariate and two Apostolic Prefectures.
Highland tribal groups, most with their own local religious systems, probably number fewer than 100,000 persons. The Khmer Loeu have been loosely described as animists, but most tribal groups have their own pantheon of local spirits. In general they see their world filled with various invisible spirits (often called yang), some benevolent, others malevolent. They associate spirits with rice, soil, water, fire, stones, paths, and so forth. Sorcerers or specialists in each village contact these spirits and prescribe ways to appease them. In times of crisis or change, animal sacrifices may be made to placate the anger of the spirits. Illness is often believed to be caused by evil spirits or sorcerers. Some tribes have special medicine men or shamans who treat the sick. In addition to belief in spirits, villagers believe in taboos on many objects or practices. Among the Khmer Loeu, the Rhade and Jarai groups have a well developed hierarchy of spirits with a supreme ruler at its head.
The birth of a child is a happy event for the family. According to traditional beliefs, however, confinement and childbirth expose the family, and especially the mother and the child to harm from the spirit world. A woman who dies in childbirth–crosses the river (Chhlong Tonle) in Khmer is believed to become an evil spirit. In traditional Khmer society, a pregnant woman respects a number of food taboos and avoids certain situations. These traditions remain in practice in rural Cambodia, but they have become weakened in urban areas.
Death is not viewed with the great outpouring of grief common to Western society; it is viewed as the end of one life and as the beginning of another life that one hopes will be better. Buddhist Khmer usually are cremated, and their ashes are deposited in a stupa in the temple compound. A corpse is washed, dressed, and placed in a coffin, which may be decorated with flowers and with a photograph of the deceased. White pennant-shaped flags, called “white crocodile flags,” outside a house indicate that someone in that household has died. A funeral procession consisting of an achar, Buddhist monks, members of the family, and other mourners accompanies the coffin to the crematorium. The spouse and the children show mourning by shaving their heads and by wearing white clothing. Relics such as teeth or pieces of bone are prized by the survivors, and they are often worn on gold chains as amulets.
A Cambodian child may be nursed until he or she is between two and four years of age. Up to the age of three or four, the child is given considerable physical affection and freedom. Children around five years of age also may be expected to help look after younger siblings. Children’s games emphasize socialization or skill rather than winning and losing.
Most children begin school when they are seven or eight. By the time they reach this age, they are familiar with the society’s norms of politeness, obedience, and respect toward their elders and toward Buddhist monks. The father at this time begins his permanent retreat into a relatively remote, authoritarian role. By age ten, a girl is expected to help her mother in basic household tasks; a boy knows how to care for the family’s livestock and can do farm work under the supervision of older males. Adolescent children usually play with members of the same sex. During his teens, a boy may become a temple servant and go on to serve a time as a novice monk, which is a great honor for the parents.
In precommunist days, parents exerted complete authority over their children until the children were married, and the parents continued to maintain some control well into the marriage. Age difference is strictly recognized with polite vocabulary and special generational terms for “you”.
In Cambodia, premarital sex is deplored. The choice of a spouse is a complex one for the young male, and it may involve not only his parents and his friends, as well as those of the young woman, but also a matchmaker. In theory, a girl may veto the spouse her parents have chosen. Courtship patterns differ between rural and urban Khmer; romantic love is a notion that exists to a much greater extent in larger cities. A man usually marries between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, a girl between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two. After a spouse has been selected, each family investigates the other to make sure its child is marrying into a good family. In rural areas, there is a form of bride-service; that is, the young man may take a vow to serve his prospective father-in-law for a period of time.
The traditional wedding is a long and colorful affair. Formerly it lasted three days, but in the 1980s it more commonly lasted a day and a half. Buddhist priests offer a short sermon and recite prayers of blessing. Parts of the ceremony involve ritual hair cutting, tying cotton threads soaked in holy water around the bride’s and groom’s wrists, and passing a candle around a circle of happily married and respected couples to bless the union. After the wedding, a banquet is held. Newlyweds traditionally move in with the wife’s parents and may live with them up to a year, until they can build a new house nearby.
Divorce is legal and relatively easy to obtain, but not common. Divorced persons are viewed with some disapproval. Each spouse retains whatever property he or she brought into the marriage, and jointly-acquired property is divided equally. Divorced persons may remarry, but the woman must wait ten months. Custody of minor children is usually given to the mother, and both parents continue to have an obligation to contribute financially toward the rearing and education of the child.
Khmer culture is very hierarchical. The greater a person’s age, the greater the level of respect that must be granted to them. Cambodians are addressed with a hierarchical title corresponding to their seniority before the name. When a married couple becomes too old to support themselves, they may invite the youngest child’s family to move in and to take over running the household. At this stage in their lives, they enjoy a position of high status.
The individual Khmer is surrounded by a small inner circle of family and friends who constitute his or her closest associates, those he would approach first for help. The nuclear family, consisting of a husband and a wife and their unmarried children, is the most important kin group. Within this unit are the strongest emotional ties, the assurance of aid in the event of trouble, economic cooperation in labor, sharing of produce and income, and contribution as a unit to ceremonial obligations. In rural communities, neighbors–who are often also kin–may be important, too. Fictive child-parent, sibling, and close friend relationships Cambodia transcend kinship boundaries and serve to strengthen interpersonal and interfamily ties. Beyond this close circle are more distant relatives and casual friends. In rural Cambodia, the strongest ties a Khmer may develop–besides those to the nuclear family and to close friends–are those to other members of the local community. A strong feeling of pride–for the village, for the district, and province–usually characterizes Cambodian community life.
Legally, the husband is the head of the Khmer family, but the wife has considerable authority, especially in family economics. The husband is responsible for providing shelter and food for his family; the wife is generally in charge of the family budget, and she serves as the major ethical and religious model for the children, especially the daughters. Both husbands and wives are responsible for domestic economic tasks.
In Khmer culture a person’s head is believed to contain the persons soul–therefore making it taboo to touch or point your feet at it. It is also considered to be extremely disrespectful to point or sleep with your feet pointing at a person, as the feet are the lowest part of the body and are considered to be impure.
When greeting people or to show respect in Cambodia people do the “sampeah” gesture, identical to the Thai wai and similar to the Indian namaste. The higher the hands the more the respect.
Customary Cambodian teachings include: that if a person does not wake up before sunrise he is lazy; you have to tell your parents or elders where you are going and what time you are coming back home; close doors gently, otherwise you have a bad temper; sit with your legs straight down and not crossed (crossing your legs shows that you are an impolite person); and always let other people talk more than you.
Cambodians traditionally wear a checkered scarf called a “Krama”. The “krama” is what distinctly separates the Khmer (Cambodians) from their neighbors the Thai, the Vietnamese, and the Laotians. The scarf is used for many purposes including for style, protection from the sun, an aid (for your feet) when climbing trees, a hammock for infants, a towel, or as a “sarong”. A “krama” can also be easily shaped into a small child’s doll for play. Under the Khmer Rouge, krama of various patterns were part of the standard clothing.
Some Khmer men and women wear a Buddha pendant in a necklace fashion. There are different pendants for different uses; some are meant for protection from evil spirits, some are meant to bring good luck. However, women are only allowed to wear a Buddha pendant if she remains “pure,” or a virgin. It is considered a sin for non-virgin Khmer Buddhist women to wear the pendant.
Khmer cuisine is similar to that of its Southeast Asian neighbors. It is relatively unknown to the world compared to its neighbors but has been described as somewhat similar to Thai cuisine but less spicy. Many of the Khmers who knew how to cook authentic Khmer cuisine before the civil war were killed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. Cambodian cuisine also uses fish sauce widely in soups, stir-fried cuisine, and as dippings. Curry dishes known as kari shows its ties with Indian cuisine. Influences from Chinese cuisine can be noted in the use of many variations of rice noodles. Beef noodle soup known simply as Kuyteav is a popular dish brought to Cambodia by its Chinese settlers. Also, Banh Chiao is the Khmer version of the Vietnamese Bánh xèo.
Khmer cuisine is noted for the use of prahok, a type of fermented fish paste, in many dishes as a distinctive flavoring. When prahok is not used, it is likely to be kapǐ instead, a kind of fermented shrimp paste. Coconut milk is the main ingredient of many Khmer curries and desserts. In Cambodia there is regular aromatic rice and glutinous or sticky rice. The latter is used more in dessert dishes with fruits such as durian. Almost every meal is eaten with a bowl of rice.
Typically, Cambodians eat their meals with at least three or four separate dishes. Each individual dish will usually be one of either sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Chili is usually left up to the individual to add themselves. In this way Cambodians ensure that they get a bit of every flavor to satisfy their palates.
The history of visual arts in Cambodia stretches back centuries to ancient crafts; Khmer art reached its peak during the Angkor period. Traditional Cambodian arts and crafts include textiles, non-textile weaving, silversmithing, stone carving, lacquerware, ceramics, wat murals, and kite-making. Beginning in the mid-20th century, a tradition of modern art began in Cambodia, though in the later 20th century both traditional and modern arts declined for several reasons, including the killing of artists by the Khmer Rouge. The country has experienced a recent artistic revival due to increased support from governments, NGOs, and foreign tourists.
Especially in the 60s and 70s, the ‘big two’ duet of Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea had been a large hit in the country. However after their deaths, new music stars have tried to bring back the music. Cambodian music has undergone heavy westernization.
The Cambodian pinpeat ensemble is traditionally heard on feast days in the pagodas. It is also a court ensemble used to accompany classical dance for ritual occasions or theatrical events. The pinpeat is primarily made up of percussion instruments: the roneat ek (lead xylophone), roneat thung (low bamboo xylophone), kong vong touch and kong vong thom (small and large sets of tuned gongs), sampho (two-sided drum), skor thom (two large drums), and sralai (quadruple-reed instrument).
Cambodian Dance can be divided into three main categories: classical dance, folk dances, and vernacular dances.
Khmer classical dance is a form of Cambodian dance originally performed only for royalty. The dances have many elements in common with Thai classical dance. During the mid-20th century, it was introduced to the public where it now remains a celebrated icon of Khmer culture, often being performed during public events, holidays, and for tourists visiting Cambodia.
Khmer folk dances, which are performed for audiences, are fast-paced. The movements and gestures are not as stylized as Khmer classical dance. Folk dancers wear clothes of the people they are portraying such as Chams, hill tribes, farmers, and peasants. The folk dance music is played by a mahori orchestra.
Cambodian vernacular dances (or social dances) are those danced at social gatherings. Such dances include ram vong, ram kbach, ram saravan, and lam leav. Some of these dances have much influence from the traditional dances of Laos. But rom kbach, for example, take heavily from the classical dance of the royal court. Other social dances from around the world have had an impact on Cambodian social culture include the Cha-cha, Bolero, and the Madison.
Cinema in Cambodia began in the 1950s, and many films were being screened in theaters throughout the country by the 1960s, which are regarded as the “golden age”. After a decline during the Khmer Rouge regime, competition from video and television has meant that the Cambodian film industry is relatively weak today.
Cambodia has increasingly become involved in sports over the last 30 years. Football is popular as are martial arts, including Bokator, Pradal Serey (Khmer kick boxing) and Khmer traditional wrestling.
Bokator is an ancient Khmer martial art said to be the predecessor of all Southeast Asian kickboxing styles. Depicted in bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, Bokator was the close quarter combat system used by the ancient Angkor army. Unlike kick boxing, which is a sport fighting art, Boxkator was a soldier’s art, designed to be used on the battlefield. When fighting, Bokator practitioners still wear the uniforms of ancient Khmer armies. A kroma (scarf) is folded around their waist and blue and red silk cords are tied around the combatant’s head and biceps.
Pradal Serey, or traditional Khmer boxing, is a popular sport in Cambodia. Victory is by knockout or by judge’s decision. Styles of boxing have been practiced in Southeast Asia since ancient times. In the Angkor era, both armed and unarmed martial arts were practiced by the Khmers. Evidence shows that a style resembling Pradal Serey existed around the 9th century. There have been heated debates between nations about the true origins of South East Asian kickboxing.
Khmer traditional wrestling is yet another popular Cambodian sport. Wrestling match consists of three rounds, which may be won by forcing an opponent to his back. Traditional matches are held during the Khmer New Year and other Cambodian holidays.
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