Allow the Khmer Culture to Enchant You With Colors, Dancing, and Beauty
The first thing you’ll notice about Cambodians is their friendliness, hospitality, and smiley faces. Hundreds of years of long and turbulent history have shaped an interesting and rich culture of this nation. Since Hinduism and Buddhism heavily influenced them, religion had a huge role in building the foundation of Khmer civilization, from architecture to art forms, clothing, and unique customs. All that makes Cambodian culture of great importance, not just in the context of Southeast Asia but in that of the world heritage too.
The name Cambodia comes from the French term Cambodge, which is borrowed from the Khmer word Kâmpuchea, meaning “born of Kambu.” Throughout the socialist regime in the 20th century, the country was internationally known as Kampuchea. But the recent governments started using the name Cambodia.
Maybe the current official name of this country is relatively new, but the country itself has a history that goes centuries back. Now it’s time to delve deeper into this fascinating country’s past.
A Long Time Ago
Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia, bordered by Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, with one small part. History tells that this area was populated as early as 4000 BC, but the ancestors of today’s Cambodians settled in this territory in the 1st century AD. During that time, traders from China and India frequented this area and traded silks and metals for spices, ivory, and gold.
Both countries influenced Cambodia, particularly India. Besides products, Indian merchants also brought a religion. At first, it was Hinduism, but as time passed by, Buddhism became the predominant religion in Cambodia. In the present day, more than 90% of the population in Cambodia are Buddhists.
The Golden Era of the Khmer Empire
When the Khmer dynasty ruled Cambodia, the country saw its biggest success. Khmer empire lasted from the 9th to the 15th century, and people usually refer to that time as the golden era of Cambodia. During that period, the famous dynasty had built Kambuja, one of the most powerful kingdoms in Asia of that time.
The Khmers established the ancient city of Angkor, which became an archeological park where you can see some of the most significant ruins. But after the Khmer dynasty, Cambodian civilization started deteriorating.
In the 1800s, this country became a French colony, and it regained independence in 1953. Still, it wasn’t the end of chaotic times — quite the contrary. During the ’70s of the previous century, this country was caught up in the Vietnam war and bombed for three years. These events resulted in the establishing of the Khmer Rouge rule that lasted for four very dark years.
After that, Vietnam conquered Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia in 1979, but the nation managed to recoup it back in 1993. That city remains the center of all important events and institutions of this country.
Famous Stone Temples
Architecture is one of the biggest symbols of Cambodian culture. As we have mentioned previously, Theravada Buddhism had and still has a huge role, and that influence is probably the most obvious in their architecture. Mostly for the time of the Khmer dynasty, Cambodians built temples.
Architects made these religious buildings out of stone, and thanks to that, they stood the test of time. At least partially. Although in ruins, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are two of the most important and probably most famous temples. Cambodians dedicated these to Buddhist gods, whose monumental heads they carved into the stones. Angkor Wat, alongside some other temples, is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage.
In general, architects and designers in Cambodia loved to carve gods or mythical beings on the walls of their buildings. For example, the Royal Palace in the capital features Garuda — a mythical bird adored in Hinduism.
Good Spirits Despite Tough Times
Music, singing, and dancing plays a significant role for the people in Cambodia. They are part of traditional Cambodian culture that they’ve managed to preserve to present days. Even today, you can see them singing or dancing in the streets, and they also like to celebrate various events.
Music and Singing
Hinduism from India and China had a vast influence on music in Cambodia. And ritual dances usually follow the music. In the past, they used wood and metal instruments. Some of the most common were flutes, lutes, zithers, xylophones and metallophones, drums, and gongs. Xylophones were usually the main instruments in ensembles, so all the other players just followed their sound and improvised to their melody.
Everybody sings in Cambodia. Children sing while they play, grownups while they work, and couples during romantic times. There is a high chance you’ll hear someone singing while you are driving on the bus too. It’s just their good spirits and cheerful nature.
As we have previously stated, ritual dances follow the music. The traditional Cambodian classical dance is apsara; it was invented during the Angkor empire and represented the essential part of Cambodian culture. Apsaras were female beings from heaven sent to Earth, where they charmed and amused Gods and Kings by dancing.
Female dancers use their feet and hands and even fingers to express themselves. Their dance is quite complicated because every position and movement of the fingers have a different meaning. That’s why many girls start to learn the apsara moves from a very young age. Performers wear a unique and colorful outfit, so it makes the dancing beautiful and attractive.
Even the daughter of the former King, Princess Buppha Devi, was a massive supporter of the dance. In fact, she used to perform in the Ballet, then, during her service as a Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, she supported the dance troupes. Later, she even became the director of the Royal Ballet. While you can see performers dancing apsara on the streets of the cities or in the temples, when you go further into the rural areas, you can find other folk dances that people perform during festivals or at weddings as well.
Where there are music, singing, and dancing, there are a lot of festivities too. Cambodians love to celebrate, which is why they have several festivals throughout the year.
People in all areas of Cambodia celebrate the victory over Pol Pot on January 7, Bonn Chaul Chnam, or Khmer New Year that happens in the middle of April. On October 23, they honor the Paris Peace Agreement Day. Another cause for celebration is the Water and Moon Festival, also known as Bonn Om Touk, that happens early in November. It is the time of the year when the river Tonle Sap changes the direction of its flow.
One of the most unique and distinct elements of Cambodian culture is traditional clothing. Nowadays, especially in urban areas, people sport modern attires, but when it comes to different celebrations, they put on their traditional apparel.
The most authentic piece of Cambodian clothing is a scarf called Krama. Both men and women wear it, and it doesn’t necessarily have to serve as a fashion item. This traditional scarf can have other purposes. It can be a hammock for a child, a towel, or may act as protection from the Sun.
Another conventional garment is Sampot. It is a large piece of fabric that people fold around their hips, similar to a sarong. Both males and females wear a Sampot, and they can wrap it around their body using many methods. It will depend on the occasion, but sometimes even from the social status of the person.
Cambodians make their traditional clothes out of cotton and silk, which is also a traditional fabric in this country. Also, their clothes are very colorful, which reflects and complements their festive nature and culture.
Authentic Flavors of Cambodia
Similar to other Asian cuisines, the Cambodian one is also full of colors, spices, and flavors. Cambodian cuisine is similar and inspired by Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisine but bears an authentic essence. They use fish sauce and rice in almost every meal. Rice noodles are a sort of traditional dish inherited from Chinese merchants.
People in Cambodia also use a variety of spices such as curry, anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and others. Indians brought these spices to the Khmer cuisine; however, locals gave them authenticity by adding garlic, lemongrass, lime leaves, and other aromatics that enhance flavor. You’ll also find a lot of vegetables and tropical fruit, which turn every meal into a unique experience, especially if you are a foreigner.
Cambodians will greet you by using the sampeah gesture, which looks exactly like the Indian namaste. In Cambodia, people believe that the head of a person contains their soul, so it is highly prohibited to touch someone’s head or point your feet at it. Also, you mustn’t do the same while you sleep because they interpret that as disrespect as well. In general, since the feet are at the bottom of your body, they are impure, and therefore, you shouldn’t point them at anyone.
Traditionally, customs imply that you can’t look in the eye someone older or superior to you. Additionally, you have to wake up before sunrise; otherwise, you’ll be considered a lazy person. If you slam doors, they’ll think you are short-tempered. Finally, while you are sitting, you mustn’t cross your legs because it’s considered impolite.
Flourishing Khmer culture cultivated centuries ago almost saw its end just a few decades ago. During the ’70s, a Communist party named Khmer Rouge seized the country and enforced an autocratic and repressive regime. The members of this party were xenophobes with their minds set to kill and destroy everything authentic in Cambodia.
They emptied cities, abolished religion, destroyed banking systems, and stopped communication with the outside world. Between 1975 and 1979, they murdered more than 1.5 million Cambodians. Their gruesome acts also affected culture. These communists closed schools and cultural institutions; they killed artists, writers, and even people with glasses.
Those were four years of terror. But the strong Cambodian culture exists on strong foundations, and after the end of the Khmer Rouge reign, society managed to recover to a certain extent. People of Cambodia are now trying their best to continue to develop and cultivate traditional customs.
The culture of Cambodia has had ups and downs. Even though other great civilizations influenced it, Cambodia managed to produce something original. The unique Khmer culture will impress you in every aspect.
Their massive stone temples and other architectural buildings will leave you in awe. You’ll be enchanted by wonderful apsara dances and dancers, while the music and singing on the street will spread a cheerful vibe. Cambodian spicy food might be similar to other Asian cuisines, but it will delight your taste buds with particular aromas and flavors.
Recent atrocities and turmoil didn’t break the good spirits of people of Cambodia. And when you see them how bravely and optimistically they continue to cultivate their traditions and customs, you can’t help but give them ultimate respect.