Cambodia has had a rich and varied history dating back many centuries. Throughout Cambodia's long history, a major source of inspiration was from religion. Throughout nearly two millennium, Cambodians developed a unique Khmer belief from the syncreticism of indigenous animistic beliefs and the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Indian culture and civilization, including its language and arts reached mainland Southeast Asia around the 1st century A.D. The first state to benefit from this was Funan.
Watch as Chea Samy, esteemed master teacher of classical dance, instructs and addresses her audience in her native tongue. Notice the various parts of the Cambodian culture highlighted in this video.
Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. This language is immensely influenced by Sanskrit and Pali, especially in the royal and religious registers. Cambodians from different regions of the country speak variant accents, but it is understood by all people throughout the country. Having its own scripts known as Aksar Khmer, Khmer is different from neighboring languages such as Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese.
Khmer employs a system of registers in which the speaker must always be conscious of the social status of the person spoken to. The different registers, which include those used for common speech, polite speech, speaking to or about royals and speaking to or about monks, employ alternate verbs, names of body parts and pronouns. For example, the Khmer word for “sleep” used between intimates is keing, used in reference to animal is deik, to those of a higher social status is somrann, to the royal family is somrann, and to monks is soeng.
When speaking Khmer, it is not customary to address someone by name. Addressing a person, Cambodians usually use the title associated with the person’s status such as brother, sister, uncle, aunt, grandpa, and grandma. Also, Cambodians do not usually address others by a family name. To address someone in a polite speech, the title Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Dr. usually precedes the first name (not the family name). It should be noted that family name always comes first in Khmer-name order. As an example, a Cambodian lady with the name of Mean Meta, her family name is Mean, her first name is meta, and would be appropriately called Ms. Meta.
Vast majority of Cambodians follow Buddhism. Therevada Buddhism is the state religion which plays a prominent role in Khmer lifestyle. Cambodians people believe in the Karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It is the notion that reincarnation into a higher or lower status is decided by an individual’s conduct in the previous life.
In the traditional Cambodian society, boys must enter the monkhood for at least three months, often at the age of twelve or thirteen. During this time, they study Buddhist teachings, social morality, and practice praying. Buddhist monasteries are not only the venues for prayer, but also the centers for education, medical care, and administrative organization.
The Islamic faith is practiced by the Cham-Muslim communities of the south east. Like the Buddhists, Cambodia’s Muslim community also experienced persecution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and many were killed. There are currently estimated to be around 250 mosques in the country, 90 of which are in Kompong Cham Province. Christianity accounts for a small but growing community in Phnom Penh and other urban areas. Animism continues to be the dominant faith amongst the hill tribes.
Arranged marriage is a norm practiced in Cambodia. Traditionally, marriage was arranged by parents who were the deciders of who would be the ideal spouses for their children. Knowledge and consent by children was unnecessary. Children, particularly daughters, were expected to do their utmost to maintain family’s honor, and rejecting a marriage arrangement was regarded as an enormous shame brought to the family. The Khmer love folk tale of Tum Teav which is a Cambodian version of Romeo and Juliet well portrays the authority parents had over their children’s marriage and the belief and practice was valued by the society. At the present, however, the authority to arrange marriage has lost some of its transcending position, especially in the urban parts of the country. Though marriage is still arranged, individuals are consulted, and more often rejection is tolerated.
Marriage, in the old days, was an arduous and lengthy affair. There were a number of rituals that needed to be performed, and the wedding ceremony itself lasted three days. To name a few, ceremony involves 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. Today, wedding is much simpler and less time consuming. Not all the traditional rituals are performed, and the wedding is shortened to one day.
Traditionally, the Khmer celebrate their holidays and festivals year round. The most widely celebrated festivals are Khmer New Year, Pchum Ben, and Water Festival.
Khmer New Year
The Khmer New Year takes place from April 13-15 during the dry season, when farmers do not work in the fields. Astrologers determine the actual time and date by calculating the exact moment when the new animal protector (tiger, dragon, or snake, for example) arrives. The Khmer in Cambodia spend the entire month in preparation for the celebration, cleaning and decorating their houses with candles, lights, star-shaped lanterns, and flowers. During the first three days of the lunar year, celebrants travel to the pagodas to offer food to the monks. They pray for prosperity, good health, and show appreciation to their parents and elders. They make resolutions, pay debts and exchange gifts. Among the many communal experiences of Khmer New Year are participation in music-making, dancing, and games.
Pchum Ben is a religious ceremony in September which recalls the spirits of deceased relatives. For fifteen days, people in Khmer villages take turns bringing food to pagodas. On the fifteenth and final day, everyone dresses in their finest clothes to travel together to the pagodas. Families bring overflowing baskets of food and children offer helpings of the delicacies to the monks. All offer prayers to release the ancestor from sin and to allow them to pass on to a better life. According to Khmer belief, those who do not follow the practices of Pchum Ben receive curse from their angry ancestors.
Water Festival in Cambodia takes place each year in October or November, at the time of the full moon, and is the most extravagant and exuberant festival in the Khmer calendar, outdoing even the new year celebrations. Up to a million people from all walks of life and from all over the country flock to the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers in Phnom Penh to watch traditional boats racing on a huge scale. The boat racing dates back to ancient times marking the strength of the powerful Khmer marine forces during the Khmer empire. During the day, the boats race in pairs along a kilometer-long course, and then in the evening brightly decorated floats cruise along the river prior to and during the nightly fireworks displays.
The festival marks the changing of the flow of the Tonle Sap River and is also seen as thanksgiving to the Mekong River for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish. It is at this time when the river flow reverts to its normal down-stream direction. In a remarkable phenomenon, the Tonle Sap River earlier reverses its course as the rainy season progresses, with the river flowing "upstream" to Tonle Sap Lake. Then as the rainy season tapers off, the river changes direction once again as the swollen Tonle Sap Lake begins to empty back into the Mekong River, leaving behind vast quantities of fish.
Followon tour as they display their extraordinary technique, exquisite beauty, and intense concentration beginning in the opera house at the Palace of Versailles.
: View Cambodian children as they participate in various aspects of the Cambodian culture.
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