ALTERNATE NAMES: Cambodians
POPULATION: about 9 million Khmer
RELIGION: Theravada Buddhism; Islam; Roman Catholicism; traditional beliefs; Taoism
For much of the twentieth century, Cambodia has been largely unknown to most of the world except as the home of Angkor Wat (an elaborate three-story temple built in the twelfth century), one of the wonders of the world. Not until the Vietnam War (1954–75) did Cambodia come to the world's attention.
Cambodians are called Khmer. Their language, culture, and appearance reflect many centuries of influence from India, China, Malaysia, and Europe. Cambodia was once the heart of a great empire that stretched over much of Southeast Asia. In the late 1800s, the French colonized (invaded and occupied) Cambodia. In 1953, Cambodia gained independence from the French. For the next decade and a half, King Norodom Sihanouk tried to keep his country out of the war that was spreading in neighboring Vietnam. He was unsuccessful and was overthrown in 1970. General Lon Nol allowed the United States to fight the Vietnam War from Cambodia. As the war continued, corruption, bombing, economic disruption, and the displacement of over half the population destroyed much of Cambodia. This made it easier for the Communist rebels to overthrow the government in 1975.
The Communists, or Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians), attempted to remake Cambodian society. They evacuated the cities, turned everyone into laborers, and dissolved banks, airlines, the postal service, and other institutions. They closed schools and hospitals and tore down temples and churches. In three and a half years of Khmer Rouge rule, at least one million Cambodians died from execution, starvation, torture, and disease.
In December 1978, Vietnam invaded and chased the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border. For the next decade the country was ruled by a government installed by the Vietnamese. Resistance armies, including the Khmer Rouge, attempted to take over the country. In 1993, the United Nations helped achieve reconciliation between resistance groups and the government and held elections. Cambodians are now experiencing more peace, security, and prosperity than most have since at least 1970.
Cambodia is a small country, about the size of the state of Oregon. Three-quarters of Cambodia lies in a flat basin that forms the center of the country, surrounded by plateaus and mountains.
Approximately 90 percent of the Cambodian population are ethnic Khmer. Another 5 percent of the population are Chinese-Cambodians. There is also a significant Vietnamese minority. Hill people, called "Khmer Loeu," also live in Cambodia. These are scattered tribes who live in remote plateaus and mountainous areas. There are also Cham, the descendants of a once-great empire that dominated central Vietnam. The Cham speak their own language and practice Islam.
A significant number of Khmer live in southern Vietnam and Thailand. Cambodians also live in more than twenty countries throughout the world.
The official language of the State of Cambodia is Cambodian. It is probable that as long as two thousand years ago the inhabitants of Cambodia were speaking a language related to the Cambodian language spoken today by the Khmer. The Cambodian script looks quite exotic to Westerners and is based on an ancient Brahmi script from South India.
Cambodian has borrowed extensively from the administrative, military, and literary vocabulary of Sanskrit (the ancient language of India and of Hinduism). Theravada Buddhism brought additional Pali (an Indic language) words. In addition, Cambodians have borrowed words from Thai, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Today, English words are becoming more common.
The first hero of Cambodia was Kaundinya, who is also the legendary first Cambodian. Cambodians trace their origin to the marriage of a handsome prince who traveled with a magical bow to Cambodia. When a dragon princess rowed out to meet him, he shot an arrow at her boat. Frightened, she agreed to marry him. In exchange for the clothes he gave the naked princess, her father drank up the water that covered the land that became Cambodia.
Most Cambodians are Theravada Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism is one of the two main Buddhist sects and is practiced also in Thailand and Laos. Khmer Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation—that is, they believe that today's actions will affect their lives in the future, either in this or future lives. The Buddhist religion allows Cambodians a way to gain merit so they may be reborn to a better life. They gain merit by good acts and religious deeds that include acting properly, celebrating holy days, and taking food to the monks at the temple.
Most Cambodians also believe in spirits who must be fed, made happy, and informed of family events. Thus, every wedding includes a ceremony to notify family spirits that a new member is joining the family.
Cambodian Cham are Muslim, many Vietnamese are Roman Catholic, the hill tribes are primarily traditionalist, and the Chinese Cambodians are Taoist or Buddhist.
The most important festivals in Cambodia are Buddhist. Among them are the celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha; the monks' entry into and exit from the rainy season retreat; the Festival of the Dead; and offerings to the monks, called Kathin.
One of the most important holidays of the Cambodian year is New Year. It is celebrated at the beginning of the lunar year, usually in April. This is the time when most Cambodians begin preparing their rice fields for planting and begin sowing their rice seedbeds. The New Year celebration lasts several days, and includes religious ceremonies, dancing, music, and games.
The Festival of the Dead, or Prachum Ben, occurs in the fall. During the fortnight (two weeks) of celebration, offerings are made to the ancestors in the hope that they will protect their descendants.
The birth of a child is a wonderful and dangerous time for Cambodian families: They welcome the arrival of a new member of the family, but they also worry about spirits who are especially threatening to pregnant women, women in childbirth, and newborn babies. Women, and often their husbands, especially in rural areas, observe a number of rules to protect their family from these spirits.
For many Cambodian children, parents continue to exert almost complete control over them until they are married. Even then, the influence of their parents is heavy. Children are expected to show great respect to their parents and elders. They are severely punished for any disrespect or misbehavior. Children become full adults when they have jobs and their own households, spouses, and children. Even then, they are expected to follow the advice of their elders.
When Cambodians meet, they greet each other with the sampeah. Joining their palms together, their fingers pointing up or slightly tilted toward the other person, they bring their hands up to their chest or forehead. The higher the status of the person they are greeting, the higher their hands go. They may also bow their head as they greet with the sampeah.
Cambodians place great importance on hierarchy and proper behavior. Women must respect men, children must respect their elders, and everyone must respect their superiors. This includes anyone with higher status, greater wealth, or a more important job. Inferiors greet their superiors with greater respect, a deeper bow, or greater stoop when passing by or when offering food. Visitors, both familiar and strange, are treated to the best the household has to offer.
Most rural Cambodians live in small villages of two hundred or three hundred people. Houses are built on stilts to keep them above the floods of the rainy season. Poorer Cambodians live in single-room dwellings with thatched roofs and walls. Newer houses may have sheet metal roofs. The kitchen is attached to the side of the house.
Platforms under the house provide space for sitting and napping. Both humans and animals benefit from the shade during the hot season, and the protection from the rain during the rainy season. In the dry season, Cambodians work, visit, eat, and sleep under the house during the daytime, and retreat to their houses in the cool and darkness of the evening.
In the cities, Cambodians live in houses ranging from apartments to villas. Wealthier Cambodians live in two-and three-story houses and apartments with electricity and running water. Less-affluent Cambodians live in smaller apartments, often with many family members to a room. In the cities there are also homeless people, living on the sidewalks.
The husband is the head of the family and its public spokesperson. He is responsible for providing the family's shelter and food. The Cambodian wife controls her family's finances. In the countryside, her duties include caring for children, home, and garden, as well as transplanting, harvesting, and winnowing the rice. In the city, she may work outside of the home. The Khmer wife is also considered the ethical and religious heart of her family.
Cambodian families typically have about five children. Most men marry between nineteen and twenty-five years of age. Women marry at a slightly younger age. A young man commonly asks his parents' permission and assistance in obtaining a wife. It is still common for many young couples to spend the first year of marriage in the home of the woman's parents. After the parents are assured of their son-in-law's stability, or after the birth of the first child, the young couple moves into their own house.
Many Cambodians continue to wear traditional clothing. Women wear a sampot and men a sarong. Both are wraparound cotton or silk skirts that fall to the knee. Khmer women wear a white blouse or shirt with the sampot. Men go bare-chested or wear a light-colored shirt. The quintessential Cambodian piece of clothing is a krama, a long slender scarf. Most commonly worn around the neck, the krama is also worn as a head turban or scarf, a skirt, blouse, purse, or baby sling.
Many Cambodians today prefer to wear Western trousers and shirts, particularly in urban areas. Children go barefoot, while their parents wear rubber thongs or sandals.
During the Khmer Rouge years (1975–78), people were forced to wear dark clothes and were punished or killed for wearing colors or jewelry. In the years following the Vietnamese takeover in 1978, the people were too poor to buy what they wanted. Since reconciliation was achieved in 1993, Cambodians have delighted in the return of a prospering economy and brightly colored and printed fabric and clothing in the marketplaces. Still, poverty is widespread, and most Cambodians can purchase only imported, second-hand clothing.
Rice is the most important Cambodian food. Eaten at virtually every meal, it forms the basis of most Khmer dishes. Fish is almost as important and is eaten fresh, dried, or salted. Vegetables are also a vital part of the diet. Cambodians grow onions, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and potatoes in their gardens. Many homes are also surrounded by coconut and banana trees and other plants. A favorite treat is the durian fruit, horrid-smelling but delicious in taste. Other fruits include mangoes, papayas, jackfruit, and palm fruit.
The most traditional of Cambodian foods is prahok, fermented fish that is used as a thick sauce condiment with other dishes. Betel nut is another favorite. It is a seed that is wrapped in leaves and chewed for its mild narcotic effect.
Traditionally, education was provided primarily to boys at temple schools. They were taught religion and the religious language of Pali by Buddhist monks. After independence and before the 1970s, elementary and secondary schooling was expanded enormously for both boys and girls throughout the country.
In the 1970s, traditional and Western-style education came to a virtual standstill. Schools were destroyed, and teachers and students were severely punished or killed. After the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1978, Cambodia had to begin again to build a system of education.
Today, most children begin school at age seven or eight and receive some schooling for at least several years. Parents want their children to become educated. However, families can barely afford the cost of schooling. It is also difficult for families to survive without their children at home to help with household chores. The literacy rate for adults is about 65 percent (80 percent for men, and 50 percent for women).
During the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1978, Cambodians were not allowed to sing or dance on pain of death. It was a loss that hurt them deeply. Cambodians say that to dance and to listen to their music are among life's sweetest pleasures. Traditional instruments include guitars, xylophones, violins, gongs, and drums. Traditional dance has been the pride of Cambodians for a thousand years. Cambodian plays include both dance and music. They tell ancient stories of Hindu gods and heroes, folk tales about beautiful and wealthy royalty, greedy merchants, and noble youth; as well as comic stories that delight everyone.
Cambodian literature dates back to the seventh century. Traditional texts were memorized and performed by professional storytellers who traveled from place to place. Cambodian literature also includes tales of the Buddha's lives, verses that contain advice for daily life called chbap, and folk tales.
Traditional Cambodian literature is being overshadowed today by modern radio and movies, and especially by television and videos. Most Cambodian youth would rather watch a martial arts video from Hong Kong than listen to a storyteller relate ancient stories.
Most Cambodians are rice farmers who also grow vegetables and fruit in family gardens. Others cultivate cash crops. Most Cambodian farmers also raise domestic animals, most commonly water buffalo or oxen, which are used for plowing the fields. In the cities, Cambodians hold all the jobs seen in most cities of the world—government officials, construction workers, taxi cab drivers, waiters, maids, and retailers. Many Cambodians are also soldiers.
As the economy improves, colorful plastic utensils and long-lasting metal tools are replacing the wooden handicrafts Cambodians have practiced for centuries. A village that has long made earthenware pots now sells them for pennies to tourists.
The most popular spectator and participant sports are soccer and volleyball. Other sports include boxing, basketball, and bicycle races. A few Cambodians in urban areas also play tennis and swim. Canoe racing is enjoyed as well.
Children have a wide variety of family responsibilities and chores. Boys and girls both help with younger children, the care of animals, and a wide variety of other duties. Children usually turn these necessary activities into play and games. In addition, they enjoy swimming and running. A popular village game is played with rubber thongs. The boys draw a line in the dirt, then stand back and throw their sandals at the line. The boy who gets the closest is the winner. Girls and smaller children play a similar game with rubber bands. The winner wears her captured bands around her wrist. Girls also play hopscotch.
Movies, television, and videos are extremely popular in both the urban and rural areas. Karaoke is popular and can be found in the fanciest clubs in the capital of Phnom Penh to the humblest village. Cambodians also enjoy kite flying. In the villages, local festivals remain the most common and popular leisure activity. Eating, listening to music by local or traveling bands, playing videos and other games, drinking, and dancing fill the hours.
The greatest handiwork of Cambodians was crafted during the Angkorean Period, from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries. Cambodian architects designed, and Cambodian slaves built, a number of temples and palaces in the Angkor region. Included in these is a priceless jewel of artistic work, the temple mausoleum of Angkor Wat.
Traditional crafts include carvings in stone and wood, jewelry making, and gold-and-silver working. Artists often copy ancient religious designs—statues of the Buddha, Hindu gods, scenes from the Ramayana (an ancient Hindu epic), and designs from the ancient temples of Angkor. Silk weaving is another craft practiced by many Cambodians.
During the Khmer Rouge regime (1975–78), human and civil rights in Cambodia were nonexistent. The inadequate food, cruelty, and horrors of those years had dreadful consequences on Cambodians, both physically and mentally.
In the late 1990s, as the government of the State of Cambodia increases its power relative to other parties, civil and human rights have decreased. With a limited ability to speak of their nation's problems, many Cambodians regret the loss of openness, maintain little hope for elections, and concentrate on survival. At the same time, although enormous economic, political, and social problems continue, Cambodians are experiencing more peace than they have for decades. For that, they say they are grateful.
Chandler, David P. A History of Cambodia. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1983.
Ebihara, M. M., C. A. Mortland, and J. Ledger-wood. Cambodian Culture since 1975. Home-land and Exile. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Edmonds, I. G. The Khmers of Cambodia. The Story of a Mysterious People. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1970.
Ross, Russell R. Cambodia. A Country Study. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990.