Cambodia Culture


Khmer culture, as developed and spread by the Khmer empire, has distinctive styles of dance, architecture, and sculpture, which have strongly influenced neighboring Laos and Thailand. Angkor Wat (Angkor means city and Wat, temple) is the best-preserved example of Khmer architecture from the Angkorian era and hundreds of other temples have been discovered in and around the region. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the infamous prison of the Khmer Rouge, and Choeung Ek, one of the main Killing Fields are other important historic sites.

Bonn Om Teuk (Festival of Boat Racing), the annual boat rowing contest, is the most attended Cambodian national festival. Held at the end of the rainy season when the Mekong River begins to sink back to its normal levels allowing the Tonle Sap River to reverse flow, approximately 10% of Cambodia’s population attends this event each year to play games, give thanks to the moon, watch fireworks and attend the boat race in a carnival-type atmosphere. Popular games include cockfighting, football, and kicking a sey, which is similar to a footbag. Recent artistic figures include singers Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea (and later Meng Keo Pichenda), who introduced new musical styles to the country.


The period of Angkor is the period from approximately the latter half of the 8th century AD to the first half of the 15th century. If precise dates are required, the beginning may be set in 802 AD, when the Khmer King Jayavarman II pronounced himself universal monarch (chakravartin) and declared independence from Java, and the end may be set in 1431 AD, when Thai invaders from the kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked Angkor and caused the Khmer elite to migrate to Phnom Penh.

In any study of Angkorian architecture, the emphasis is necessarily on religious architecture, since the only remaining Angkorian buildings are religious in nature. During the period of Angkor, only temples and other religious buildings were constructed of stone. Non-religious buildings such as dwellings were constructed of perishable materials such as wood, and as such have not survived.

The religious architecture of Angkor has characteristic structures, elements and motifs. Since a number of different architectural styles succeeded one another during the Angkorean period, not all of these features were equally in evidence throughout the period. Indeed, scholars have recurred to the presence or absence of such features as one source of evidence for dating the remains. Angkorian builders used brick, sandstone, laterite and wood as their materials. The ruins that remain are of brick, sandstone and laterite, the wood elements having been lost to decay and other destructive processes.

The central sanctuary of an Angkorian temple was home to the temple’s primary deity, the one to whom the site was dedicated: typically Shiva or Vishnu in the case of a Hindu temple, Buddha or a bodhisattva in the case of a Buddhist temple. The deity was represented by a statue (or in the case of Shiva, most commonly by a linga). Since the temple was not considered a place of worship for use by the population at large, but rather a home for the deity, the sanctuary needed only to be large enough to hold the statue or linga; it was never more than a few metres across. Its importance was instead conveyed by the height of the tower (prasat) rising above it, by its location at the centre of the temple, and by the greater decoration on its walls. Symbolically, the sanctuary represented Mount Meru, the legendary home of the Hindu gods.

The nuclear family, in rural Cambodia, typically lives in a rectangular house that may vary in size from 4×6 metres to 6×10 metres. It is constructed of a wooden frame with gabled thatch roof and walls of woven bamboo. Khmer houses typically are raised on stilts as much as three metres for protection from annual floods. Two ladders or wooden staircases provide access to the house. The steep thatch roof overhanging the house walls protects the interior from rain. Typically a house contains three rooms separated by partitions of woven bamboo. The front room serves as a living room used to receive visitors, the next room is the parents’ bedroom, and the third is for unmarried daughters. Sons sleep anywhere they can find space. Family members and neighbors work together to build the house, and a house-raising ceremony is held upon its completion. The houses of poorer persons may contain only a single large room. Food is prepared in a separate kitchen located near the house but usually behind it. Toilet facilities consist of simple pits in the ground, located away from the house, that are covered up when filled. Any livestock is kept below the house.

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