Cambodian culture

The Cambodian Culture includes many cultural representations from different human groups present in the Cambodian territory, but also outside the country. Although the Khmer Ethnic is the major group in Cambodia, there are also other ethnic minority groups that make a great contribution to the national identity. But Khmer is also an ethnic minority in other countries, especially in the Thai province of Sarim and in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. In Thailand they are known as Khmer-Sarim and in the Vietnam as Khmer Krom (from Low Cambodia). With the migration of Cambodians to other continents and their eventual return – many of them born abroad – it is possible to speak about Khmer-American (Khmericans in short), Khmer-French, etc. 

The Cambodian Culture belongs to the greater Southeast Asian Region and, in particular, to the Indochina Peninsula. With their neighbouring countries, Cambodia shares many similarities in its language (Mon-Khmer Linguistic Family, Sanskrit roots) and similar religious background (Theravada Buddhism, ancient Brahmanism, Paleolithic Animism). It makes that Cambodian music, dress, behaviour and smile become similar to their neighbours, although each place has its own particularity, history and originality.

The Cambodian culture has been influenced by the following historical processes:

  1. It belongs to the ancient settlement of the Indochina Peninsula including several tribes from Sino-Mongolian and Australasian origins traced in the region since 12 thousand years ago.
  2. The Indianization of Southeast Asia – the cast of Brahmins. The traditional Cambodian greeting of placing the hands in front of the face – Sompheah – comes from the Brahmin traditions and it is also common in Thailand, Laos, parts of Myanmar, Java and other regions of this influence.
  3. The splendor of the Khmer Civilization (centuries 9th to 14th) let a very deep influence in the culture: architecture, art, music, religion, government, national identity.
  4. The French colonization (1863-1953) put Cambodians in contact with the West. Modern Cambodians see the Western World through France even today.
  5. The Vietnamese War and the following bloody conflicts (Khmer Rouge Regime and Civil War).
  6. Globalization.

Out of the major dominant Khmer ethnic groups, Cambodian Culture includes the following ethnic minorities with a meaningful contribution to the national identity like culinary, music, dancing, dress, commerce… Many of them keep their own language and religion.

  • Cham: The Muslim Cambodians, tracing their origins to the ancient and disappeared Kingdom of Champa of Malaysian origins.
  • Sino-Khmer: The relations between Cambodia and China are very old. It is China the first foreign country that made written reports about the ancient kingdoms of Indochina Peninsula (Funan, Chenla, Angkor and Ayutthaya. Today Sino-Khmer people are related with commerce and urban development.
  • Viet-Khmer: Human interchange between Vietnam and Cambodia are historical. Although there are tensions and Vietnam is used as a political scapegoat in many occasions, there are  many Viet-Khmer groups living in Cambodia since ancient times. They tend to be business people, but it is also possible to find them working in farm, fishing, carpentry and handicraft.
  • Kuy: There is much to do to trace the whereabouts of this important Cambodian ethnic group that is today assimilated into the country. Many people bring in their personal name the word Kuy, meaning that they are probably from this group that was common in Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear and Stung Treng. But years of war and policies of cultural assimilation, destroyed their unity. They are famous for being skilfull blacksmith.
  • Brao, Kreung and Kavet: These three groups of Ratanakiri province are related, speaking similar language and culture. There is Brao people in Laos as well.
  • Tampuan: They are relatives of Khmer, speaking a Mon-Khmer language. They are animist.
  • Pnon and Stieng: These two related groups live in Mondulkiri, Kratie and Kampong Cham. There also some groups in Vietnam. A patriarchal society dedicated to rice farming.
  • Pear, Chong, Saoch and Suoi: These four groups are also called the Pearic Group. They are also in Thailand. In Cambodia they live in Battambang, Pursat and Kompong Thom. Patriarchal linage dedicated to rice farming and hunting.
  • Jarai: One of the most famous Cambodian groups. They are also present in Vietnam and keep a close relation among themselves. They live in Ratanakiri with a matriarchal lineage and dedicated to hunting. It is one of the Cambodian groups that has been object of migration to foreign countries. Many of them are Christians, but in general they are animists with some Buddhist.
  • Barang-Khmer: This group belongs to my own classification. It comes from all those Cambodians who were born in the West and are now returning. It includes also the present interbreeding process of many Westerners – mostly males – with Cambodian women, creating a new ethnic group: the Barang-Khmer.

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About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X39xwdGtVXI) and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (http://www.colombia.co/en/culture/colombians-that-are-making-this-a-better-world.html).

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