The people of Cambodia conjure mystery and intrigue; theirs is a history and culture truly unique but often misunderstood or presumed. “Cambodian” and “Khmer” go hand in hand, with upwards of 90% of the population (14 million-plus in total) are of ethnic Khmer background. For many years, poverty, corruption, and genocide defined the country, a place where some of the most atrocious, murderous acts in the world have occurred. Today, it has become clear that Cambodian culture is defined by an intense dedication to spiritual beliefs and that the people wholeheartedly welcome foreigners, with whom they aspire to share their beautiful country, and one of the most magnificent wonders of the world: Angkor Wat.
Khmer people speak the Khmer language. There are several dialects but for the most part, Khmer is based on how it is spoken in the capital of Phnom Penh. Many words are borrowed from Vietnamese and Thai language, and vice versa. English is widely spoken in larger cities like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville. In smaller towns and villages, English-speakers are fewer in number but do exist.
The people of Cambodia are passionately spiritual; life for most revolves around the wat, or temple, with regular worship and festivals. This fact lays true deep within Cambodian history, all the way back to pre-Angkor periods. The majority of Khmer follow a religious belief called Shamanism, which is a blend of several beliefs including animism, ancestor-spirit worship, Hinduism, and Theravada Buddhism. Small pockets of Khmer Islam, also called Cham, follow their namesake religion and are of Sunn’i sect. There are highland tribal groups whose mainstay beliefs are within animism, a deeply spiritual concept that essentially regards many inanimate objects to have spirits as humans might.
Cambodian culture was most strongly influence by India, centuries ago, mainly in religious context. As centuries passed, the Khmer people carved out their own unique cultural identity via syncretism of several amalgamated religions. It’s also widely believed that Indian seafarers passing through SEA on route to trade with the Chinese, incorporated major influences in arts and language, which have blended with Cambodian (Thai and Vietnamese) culture over the centuries.
In the last two decades, mass amounts of international assistance and aid money has helped the people of Cambodia pick up what was left after the Khmer Rouge regime was dismantled, and put their lives back together, slowly. The Khmer Rouge regime lasted between 1975 and 1977, and has been a major influence on the country, seen through Cambodia attractions like the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields. Cambodian culture, within distinct ethnic groups, has in turn been shaped and forged by these hardships. With so much violence surrounding the country, it’s astounding to be welcome by such kind and gentle people.
The deep roots of Cambodia culture are first seen throughout Angkorian periods, evident within the temple carvings and architecture of Angkor Wat and other ruins in Battambang, Beng Mealea, and others. These temples were created as maps outlining the cosmic world.
It is important to remember that in Cambodia, as in many other regional countries, there is a distinct system of hierarchy established among the people; the older the person, the greater the level of respect he or she is granted. People are addressed by titles reflecting their hierarchical place, which is reflected by their seniority. Also important to know is it is considered taboo to point feet at or touch someone’s head; Cambodian’s believe that is where the soul resides. Pointing feet at another in general is also disapproved of as the feet are believed to be impure. A great way to get respect is to give it via local custom; when greeting anyone Cambodian, a gesture, called Sampeah (which is the same as the Thai wai and Indian namaste), is done with the hands.