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ETHNONYMS: Cambodian, Kampuchean, Khmae


Identification. The term "Khmer" designates the dominant ethnic population (and the language) of Cambodia. The term "Cambodian" is also used for inhabitants of the country, including some non-Khmer ethnic groups. Khmer often refer to their nation as srok khmae, the country of the Khmer, and to themselves as "Khmae" (Khmer). The English designation "Cambodia" (or French "Cambodge") are Westernized transliterations of Kambuja, a Sanskrit name used by some ancient kingdoms in this region. From 1975 to early 1989 the country was called Kampuchea but was subsequently renamed Cambodia.

Location. Cambodia is situated between approximately 10° and 15° N and 102° and 108° E. The country's interior is largely a lowland plain, rising to low mountains in the southwest and northwest, and high plateaus in the northeast. Running roughly north to south are two major waterways: the Mekong river in the eastern part of the country, and the Tonle Sap, a huge lake and river in the west, the two rivers converging at the capital city of Phnom Penh. Many smaller rivers and streams crosscut the lowlands. The climate is mainly hot and humid, with a rainy season from about June to November.

Demography. Population figures are only approximations, given the absence of any census since 1962. In 1992 Cambodia had about 8.5 million people, with estimates of population increase ranging from about 1.5 to 3.0 percent per year. The current population is much smaller than it might otherwise have been because of tremendous mortality under conditions of warfare, revolution, and famine between 1969 and 1980. The death rate was particularly high during the Democratic Kampuchean regime between 1975 and 1979, with estimates ranging from one to two million deaths from illness, starvation, or execution. At the time, men had a higher mortality rate than women, thus creating a skewed sex ratio in which females constitute 60-80 percent of the adult population in some communities. Other ethnic groups in Cambodia are Vietnamese, Chinese, the Muslim Cham (also called the Khmer Islam, although their language and religion are distinct from those of the Khmer), and various highland "tribal" groups collectively known as the Khmer Loeu ("upland Khmer," although their languages and cultures differ from those of the lowland Khmer). All of these minorities comprised about 15 percent of the total population in the early 1970s, but many fled or died during the subsequent turmoil and they are now estimated to be about 10 percent of the total population.

Linguistic Affiliation. Khmer belongs to the Mon-Khmer Family that some linguists place within a larger Austroasiatic Language Stock. It is related to the languages of the Mon people in Burma and to a number of other Mon-Khmer-speaking groups in various parts of mainland Southeast Asia and India. Khmer is nontonal and largely disyllabic, and has a special vocabulary to speak to and about royalty and Buddhist monks. The Khmer script is derived from an ancient south Indian writing system.

History and Cultural Relations

The prehistoric origins of the Khmer are not clear. After the first century a.d., complex polities emerged in this region. Ancient Khmer civilization reached a peak during the Angkor period (a.d. 802-1432), when the famous Angkor Wat and other monumental structures were built, and Khmer kings ruled an irrigation-based empire extending beyond the boundaries of present-day Cambodia. Khmer power subsequently declined, and the kingdom was subject to periodic encroachments by the neighboring Thai and Vietnamese. In 1864 Cambodia became a protectorate under French colonial rule, and in 1887 Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were designated the Union of French Indochina. After World War II (during which the country was occupied by the Japanese), Cambodia was granted independence from France, in 1953. Until 1970 the country was a constitutional monarchy with a figurehead king and real political power vested in a prime minister, assembly, and ministries. The major political leader during this time was Norodom Sihanouk (who again became head of state in 1991). In 1970 a military coup by Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk, abolished the monarchy, and established the Khmer Republic. In the early 1970s the country was in turmoil with internal problems, repercussions from the war in Vietnam that precipitated U.S. bombing of Cambodia, and civil war between the government and Communist revolutionaries commonly known as the Khmer Rouge. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge triumphed and renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea (DK). Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the communistic DK regime attempted to restructure Cambodian society and culture radically: it evacuated people from urban centers into rural areas; reorganized the population into communes and work teams with collectivized ownership, production, and distribution; suppressed Buddhism; and imposed harsh living conditions and discipline that led to many deaths from lack of food, exhausting work loads, illness, and executions. In late 1978 the Vietnamese entered Kampuchea to combat DK incursions into Vietnam, and by early 1979 they drove the Khmer Rouge out of the country. The Vietnamese installed a new government, named the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), with Khmer officials and Vietnamese advisers and occupying troops. The Vietnamese advisers and soldiers gradually withdrew, and the country was renamed the State of Cambodia (SOC) in 1989, although it retained officials from the PRK. The PRK/SOC government was opposed by so-called resistance forces composed of three factions: a Sihanouk group; supporters of a former prime minister named Son Sann; and die-hard Khmer Rouge who had fled to the northwest region bordering on Thailand. In late 1991 the contending groups negotiated a political settlement that called for a temporary governing council composed of representatives from the current government and resistance groups, with United Nations peacekeeping forces and teams to supervise eventual open elections. At this time it was not yet clear what the precise nature of the new government would be, though Sihanouk was again recognized as head of state.


Village size ranges from a few hundred to over a thousand people. Rural settlements are of three basic types: houses may be strung out in a linear fashion along a roadway or stream, arranged in a relatively compact cluster, or dispersed among rice fields. Among the houses are trees, shrubs, and kitchen gardens, with rice paddies around or alongside the settlement. A community may have its own Buddhist temple compound (wat ), and possibly a school.

The traditional Khmer-style house is gable-roofed, rectangular, and raised on piles, with access by stairs or ladder. Depending on a family's means, a house may have thatch or wooden walls, a thatch or tile roof, bamboo or wooden floors, and wood or concrete pilings. During the DK period, however, most of the population had to live in small thatch houses built directly on the ground, and many people continue to have such homes because they cannot afford to build houses in the traditional style. The interior of poorer homes is basically an open space with cloth, thatch, or wooden partitions; and there are minimal furnishings apart from wooden platforms used for sitting and sleeping. More prosperous homes have several rooms and more furniture. Kitchens are often partitioned off, although some households cook beside or beneath the house. City dwellers may live in Western-style houses or apartments.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Cambodia has a predominantly agricultural economy. Most Khmer are rural peasants with smallholdings who grow wet rice for subsistence and sometimes for sale. River-bank dwellers, however, often emphasize fruit and vegetable production (chamkar ). Mechanized agriculture is very rare, and cultivation is carried out with relatively simple implements: a metal-tipped wooden plow pulled by draft animals, a hoe, and hand-held sickles. Irrigation systems are not widespread, and most cultivation depends on rainfall. Villagers obtain additional food from trees and kitchen gardens that produce a variety of herbs, vegetables, and fruits (e.g., basil, pepper, beans, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, mangoes, bananas, coconuts, sugar palms, etc.), and from fishing with poles, scoops, or traps in flooded rice paddies or local waterways. (There are also fishing villages along large rivers and Lake Tonle Sap, though the inhabitants may be non-Khmer.) It should also be noted that villagers are part of a larger market economy requiring money to buy various necessities. They therefore commonly engage in various side pursuits (e.g., temporary menial labor in the city, making palm sugar for sale) to earn cash. Cambodia's main exports are rubber (grown on formerly French plantations), beans, kapok, tobacco, and timber. The most common domestic animals are cattle, water buffalo, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs, and cats.

Industrial Arts. Most villagers can do basic carpentry and make certain items such as thatch, baskets, and mats. There are also partor full-time artisans who engage in home production of various goods (e.g., cotton or silk scarves and sarongs, silver objects, pottery, bronzeware, etc.). Industrial manufacturing and processing of goods are very limited.

Trade. Except for the DK period when money and trade were abolished, there have long been peddlers, shops, and markets in both the countryside and urban centers. The PRK government initially advocated a semisocialist economy, but the SOC has openly espoused a capitalist market system. Prior to 1975 commerce was primarily in the hands of Chinese or Sino-Khmer; at present, there are still Chinese merchants but more Khmer may be moving into trade. Khmer villagers sell surplus produce or vend other items to one another, to itinerant merchants, or in local or urban markets.

Division of Labor. While there is some gender division of labor, a number of tasks may be done by either sex. The current shortage of males in the adult population means that women must sometimes undertake activities that were customarily performed by men. Men plow fields, collect sugarpalm liquid, do carpentry, and purchase or sell cattle and chickens. Women sow and transplant rice and have primary responsibility for such domestic activities as cooking, laundry, and child care, although men can also do these if necessary. Women control household finances and handle the sale or purchase of rice, pigs, produce, and other goods.

Land Tenure. Prior to 1975 most Khmer peasants owned small amounts of land for cultivation; landlessness and absentee landlordism were not widespread but did exist in some regions. During the DK regime, communal ownership replaced private property. In the PRK, after an initial period of partial collectivization, land was redistributed to individuals and private property was formally reinstated in 1989. Land, like other property, is owned by both males and females.


Kin Groups and Descent. There are no organized kin groups beyond the family, but an individual recognizes a kindred or circle of relatives (bong p'on ) by blood and marriage on both paternal and maternal sides of the family. Ideally there should be affection and mutual aid among kin; discord between relatives is thought to be punished by ancestral spirits. There is usually considerable interaction among kin, but an individual may have close ties with certain relatives and not others. Descent is bilateral.

Kinship Terminology. Formal terms of reference for cousins are Eskimo, but terms of address are Hawaiian. Kin terms denote relative age in Ego's generation and distinguish among parents' siblings according to age relative to one's parents. Kin terms are often used to address nonkin of the same or lower social status.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are predominantly monogamous. Before 1975 polygyny was legal but not common; it was forbidden by the DK regime and remains so under the present-day government. With the current shortage of males, however, there are reports that some men have multiple if informal "wives." A young man may initiate a marriage proposal by asking his parents to send a go-between to negotiate with a young woman's parents; the woman and her parents may then accept or reject the proposal. In other cases, parents themselves arrange marriages for their children. The groom's family customarily gives a monetary gift to the bride's parents to help defray wedding expenses borne by her family. There are no rules of community endogamy or exogamy, and cousin marriage is permitted. A married couple may live in its own household, with either the wife's or husband's family, or possibly with other relatives. Residence with the wife's family, especially in the early years of marriage, is common but not a strict rule. Choice of residence depends on circumstances, and a couple may shift residence over time as situations change. Divorce can be initiated by either husband or wife on various grounds. Each person takes back whatever individual property was brought to the marriage, while any common property is divided.

Domestic Unit. Households may be either a nuclear family of parents and unmarried children, or some sort of extended family. The latter is commonly a three-generational unit composed of parents, a married child and his or her spouse and children, but extended families can include various other kin. Because of the high mortality rate during the DK period, during which many families were decimated, present-day households may consist of varying combinations of relatives; there has also been an increase in the number of single-parent families (with usually a widow). Members of a household commonly share work, resources, and produce.

Inheritance. Inheritance is bilateral, and transmission of property occurs either at the time a child marries or when parents die. Parents ideally try to give each child some sort of equitable inheritance (whether land, money, or goods), but in practice some children may get more than others because of individual needs or parental favoritism.

Socialization. Children have various caretakers in addition to parents: elder siblings, grandparents, and other older relatives. Child rearing is generally permissive. Children are instructed primarily by word and by example, and physical punishment was rare in pre-1975 village life. Youngsters are, however, expected to display proper behavior and learn essential skills as they grow older.

Sociopolitical Organization

In 1992 the State of Cambodia was headed by a president/head of state, a prime minister, a council of ministers, and an elected national assembly.

Social Organization. Pre-1975 Cambodia was hierarchical, although some social mobility was possible. Several socioeconomic strata were differentiated on the basis of relative wealth and prestige: an elite of Khmer aristocrats and high-ranking officials; a middle stratum of urban people in commerce, professions, and white-collar occupations (many of whom were Chinese or Vietnamese) ; and a bottom layer of peasants and workers. Theravada Buddhist monks constituted a separate social category and received enormous respect. Within a village some families were more prosperous than others, but economic differences were not great. Individuals were given differential prestige and authority based on age, religiosity, or personal qualities. The DK regime attempted to level social classes and create an egalitarian society by making virtually everyone live like peasants, but a new social hierarchy emerged with the DK cadre at the top. After 1979 Cambodia experienced several years of generalized poverty, but recent economic revival is stimulating the reemergence of socioeconomic differentiation.

Political Organization. Cambodia is comprised of eighteen provinces (khayt ) that are further divided into smaller administrative units of districts (srok ), subdistricts (khum ), and finally towns and villages (phum ). Each province, district, subdistrict, and village has its own administrative personnel who oversee matters concerning the territorial unit and are responsible to the next higher level of government.

Social Control. At the community level, social control is maintained through socialization from childhood into norms of proper conduct and through use of informal sanctions such as gossip or ostracism. Individuals seek to avoid the "embarrassment" or "shame" of improper behavior, as well as to earn religious merit by following the major Buddhist rules of conduct (do not lie, steal, drink alcoholic beverages, fornicate, or kill living creatures). Certain kinds of misbehavior are thought to bring punishment from supernatural beings, usually in the form of illness. Although police and law courts exist, many people avoid using them except when absolutely necessary.

Conflict. Within the community, open confrontation between individuals is rare because cultural norms discourage aggressive anger and conflict. On the larger societal level, governments since the time of the ancient kingdoms have maintained military forces to deal with internal unrest and conflict with other polities. Cambodia has experienced several decades of warfare since the late 1960s: repercussions from the war in Vietnam, civil war between government troops and Khmer Rouge Communist rebels in the early 1970s, conflict between DK and Vietnam in the late 1970s, and continued fighting through the 1980s between the government and "resistance forces" consisting mainly of Khmer Rouge.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of Cambodia, but Khmer religion actually combines Buddhism, animistic beliefs and practices, and elements from Hinduism and Chinese culture into a distinctive blend.

Religious Beliefs. Theravada was the official state religion from about the fifteenth century. Buddhism and other religions were crushed during the DK period. Buddhist temples were destroyed or desecrated, monks were killed or forced to leave the holy order, and Buddhist observances were forbidden. After 1979 Theravada gradually revived, and it was once again officially recognized by the state in 1989. Relatively few Khmer are Christian. The Cham (Khmer Islam) minority group is Muslim, while the Khmer Loeu or upland tribal peoples traditionally had their own distinctive religions.

A variety of supernatural entities populates the universe. These include spirits in the natural environment or certain localities, guardian spirits of houses and animals, ancestral spirits, demon-like beings, ghosts, and others. Some spirits are generally benign and can be helpful if propitiated, but others can cause sickness if they are displeased by lack of respect or by improper behavior.

Religious Practitioners. Each Buddhist temple has resident monks who follow special rules of behavior, conduct religious observances, and are accorded respect as exemplars of the virtuous life. A man can become a monk for a temporary period of time, and prior to 1975 many Khmer males did so at some point in their lives. Some men remain monks permanently. The practice continues, but there are now fewer temples and monks than before 1975. In addition to monks, the achar is a sort of lay priest who leads the congregation at temple ceremonies and presides over domestic life-cycle rituals. Other religious specialists deal more with the realm of spirits and magical practices: kru, who have special skills such as curing sickness or making protective amulets; mediums (rup arak ), who communicate with spirits; and sorcerers (tmop ), who can cause illness or death.

Ceremonies. There are many annual Buddhist ceremonies, the most important of which are the New Year celebration in April, the Pchum ceremony honoring the dead in September, and Katun festivals to contribute money and goods to the temple and monks. Life-cycle ceremonies marking births, marriages, and deaths are conducted at home. Weddings are particularly festive occasions. There are also rituals connected with healing, propitiation of supernatural spirits, agriculture, and other activities, as well as national observances such as boat races at the Water Festival in Phnom Penh.

Arts. Music and dance are important elements of Khmer culture that occur in ordinary village life as well as in formal performances in the city. Traditional instruments include drums, xylophones, and stringed and woodwind instruments, although popular music incorporates Western instruments. There are classical, folk, and social dances, traditional and popular songs, and theater. Literature includes folktales, legends, poetry, religious texts, and dramas. Artistry is also expressed in architecture, sculpture, painting, textiles, metalware, or even the decorations on a rice sickle.

Medicine. Illness may be explained and treated according to Western biomedicine, and/or attributed to other causes such as emotional distress or supernatural spirits. Treatment for the latter can include folk medicines, Chinese procedures such as moxibustion, and rituals conducted by kru healers. Traditional and biomedical procedures may be combined to cure illness.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals are one of the two most important life-cycle ceremonies. Cremation is customary and is carried out, along with attendant rituals, as soon as possible after death. Pieces of bone that remain after cremation are put in an urn kept at home or placed in a special structure at the Buddhist temple. According to Buddhist doctrine an individual goes through successive reincarnations, and one's position in the next life will be determined by meritorious and virtuous conduct in this life. Only exceptional persons similar to Buddha might achieve nirvana and release from the cycle of reincarnations.

See also Cham


Chandler, David C. (1983). A History of Cambodia. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.

Ebihara, May (1968). Svay: A Khmer Village in Cambodia. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms.

Ebihara, May (1984). "Revolution and Reformulation in Kampuchean Village Culture." In The Cambodian Agony, edited by David Ablin and Marlowe Hood. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe.

Vickery, Michael (1986). Kampuchea: Politics, Economics, and Society. London: Frances Pinter; Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers.


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LOCATION: Cambodia

POPULATION: about 9 million Khmer

LANGUAGE: Cambodian

RELIGION: Theravada Buddhism; Islam; Roman Catholicism; traditional beliefs; Taoism


For much of the twentieth century, Cambodia has been largely unknown to most of the world except as the home of Angkor Wat (an elaborate three-story temple built in the twelfth century), one of the wonders of the world. Not until the Vietnam War (195475) did Cambodia come to the world's attention.

Cambodians are called Khmer. Their language, culture, and appearance reflect many centuries of influence from India, China, Malaysia, and Europe. Cambodia was once the heart of a great empire that stretched over much of Southeast Asia. In the late 1800s, the French colonized (invaded and occupied) Cambodia. In 1953, Cambodia gained independence from the French. For the next decade and a half, King Norodom Sihanouk tried to keep his country out of the war that was spreading in neighboring Vietnam. He was unsuccessful and was overthrown in 1970. General Lon Nol allowed the United States to fight the Vietnam War from Cambodia. As the war continued, corruption, bombing, economic disruption, and the displacement of over half the population destroyed much of Cambodia. This made it easier for the Communist rebels to overthrow the government in 1975.

The Communists, or Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians), attempted to remake Cambodian society. They evacuated the cities, turned everyone into laborers, and dissolved banks, airlines, the postal service, and other institutions. They closed schools and hospitals and tore down temples and churches. In three and a half years of Khmer Rouge rule, at least one million Cambodians died from execution, starvation, torture, and disease.

In December 1978, Vietnam invaded and chased the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border. For the next decade the country was ruled by a government installed by the Vietnamese. Resistance armies, including the Khmer Rouge, attempted to take over the country. In 1993, the United Nations helped achieve reconciliation between resistance groups and the government and held elections. Cambodians are now experiencing more peace, security, and prosperity than most have since at least 1970.


Cambodia is a small country, about the size of the state of Oregon. Three-quarters of Cambodia lies in a flat basin that forms the center of the country, surrounded by plateaus and mountains.

Approximately 90 percent of the Cambodian population are ethnic Khmer. Another 5 percent of the population are Chinese-Cambodians. There is also a significant Vietnamese minority. Hill people, called "Khmer Loeu," also live in Cambodia. These are scattered tribes who live in remote plateaus and mountainous areas. There are also Cham, the descendants of a once-great empire that dominated central Vietnam. The Cham speak their own language and practice Islam.

A significant number of Khmer live in southern Vietnam and Thailand. Cambodians also live in more than twenty countries throughout the world.


The official language of the State of Cambodia is Cambodian. It is probable that as long as two thousand years ago the inhabitants of Cambodia were speaking a language related to the Cambodian language spoken today by the Khmer. The Cambodian script looks quite exotic to Westerners and is based on an ancient Brahmi script from South India.

Cambodian has borrowed extensively from the administrative, military, and literary vocabulary of Sanskrit (the ancient language of India and of Hinduism). Theravada Buddhism brought additional Pali (an Indic language) words. In addition, Cambodians have borrowed words from Thai, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Today, English words are becoming more common.


The first hero of Cambodia was Kaundinya, who is also the legendary first Cambodian. Cambodians trace their origin to the marriage of a handsome prince who traveled with a magical bow to Cambodia. When a dragon princess rowed out to meet him, he shot an arrow at her boat. Frightened, she agreed to marry him. In exchange for the clothes he gave the naked princess, her father drank up the water that covered the land that became Cambodia.


Most Cambodians are Theravada Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism is one of the two main Buddhist sects and is practiced also in Thailand and Laos. Khmer Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnationthat is, they believe that today's actions will affect their lives in the future, either in this or future lives. The Buddhist religion allows Cambodians a way to gain merit so they may be reborn to a better life. They gain merit by good acts and religious deeds that include acting properly, celebrating holy days, and taking food to the monks at the temple.

Most Cambodians also believe in spirits who must be fed, made happy, and informed of family events. Thus, every wedding includes a ceremony to notify family spirits that a new member is joining the family.

Cambodian Cham are Muslim, many Vietnamese are Roman Catholic, the hill tribes are primarily traditionalist, and the Chinese Cambodians are Taoist or Buddhist.


The most important festivals in Cambodia are Buddhist. Among them are the celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha; the monks' entry into and exit from the rainy season retreat; the Festival of the Dead; and offerings to the monks, called Kathin.

One of the most important holidays of the Cambodian year is New Year. It is celebrated at the beginning of the lunar year, usually in April. This is the time when most Cambodians begin preparing their rice fields for planting and begin sowing their rice seedbeds. The New Year celebration lasts several days, and includes religious ceremonies, dancing, music, and games.

The Festival of the Dead, or Prachum Ben, occurs in the fall. During the fortnight (two weeks) of celebration, offerings are made to the ancestors in the hope that they will protect their descendants.


The birth of a child is a wonderful and dangerous time for Cambodian families: They welcome the arrival of a new member of the family, but they also worry about spirits who are especially threatening to pregnant women, women in childbirth, and newborn babies. Women, and often their husbands, especially in rural areas, observe a number of rules to protect their family from these spirits.

For many Cambodian children, parents continue to exert almost complete control over them until they are married. Even then, the influence of their parents is heavy. Children are expected to show great respect to their parents and elders. They are severely punished for any disrespect or misbehavior. Children become full adults when they have jobs and their own households, spouses, and children. Even then, they are expected to follow the advice of their elders.


When Cambodians meet, they greet each other with the sampeah. Joining their palms together, their fingers pointing up or slightly tilted toward the other person, they bring their hands up to their chest or forehead. The higher the status of the person they are greeting, the higher their hands go. They may also bow their head as they greet with the sampeah.

Cambodians place great importance on hierarchy and proper behavior. Women must respect men, children must respect their elders, and everyone must respect their superiors. This includes anyone with higher status, greater wealth, or a more important job. Inferiors greet their superiors with greater respect, a deeper bow, or greater stoop when passing by or when offering food. Visitors, both familiar and strange, are treated to the best the household has to offer.


Most rural Cambodians live in small villages of two hundred or three hundred people. Houses are built on stilts to keep them above the floods of the rainy season. Poorer Cambodians live in single-room dwellings with thatched roofs and walls. Newer houses may have sheet metal roofs. The kitchen is attached to the side of the house.

Platforms under the house provide space for sitting and napping. Both humans and animals benefit from the shade during the hot season, and the protection from the rain during the rainy season. In the dry season, Cambodians work, visit, eat, and sleep under the house during the daytime, and retreat to their houses in the cool and darkness of the evening.

In the cities, Cambodians live in houses ranging from apartments to villas. Wealthier Cambodians live in two-and three-story houses and apartments with electricity and running water. Less-affluent Cambodians live in smaller apartments, often with many family members to a room. In the cities there are also homeless people, living on the sidewalks.


The husband is the head of the family and its public spokesperson. He is responsible for providing the family's shelter and food. The Cambodian wife controls her family's finances. In the countryside, her duties include caring for children, home, and garden, as well as transplanting, harvesting, and winnowing the rice. In the city, she may work outside of the home. The Khmer wife is also considered the ethical and religious heart of her family.

Cambodian families typically have about five children. Most men marry between nineteen and twenty-five years of age. Women marry at a slightly younger age. A young man commonly asks his parents' permission and assistance in obtaining a wife. It is still common for many young couples to spend the first year of marriage in the home of the woman's parents. After the parents are assured of their son-in-law's stability, or after the birth of the first child, the young couple moves into their own house.


Many Cambodians continue to wear traditional clothing. Women wear a sampot and men a sarong. Both are wraparound cotton or silk skirts that fall to the knee. Khmer women wear a white blouse or shirt with the sampot. Men go bare-chested or wear a light-colored shirt. The quintessential Cambodian piece of clothing is a krama, a long slender scarf. Most commonly worn around the neck, the krama is also worn as a head turban or scarf, a skirt, blouse, purse, or baby sling.

Many Cambodians today prefer to wear Western trousers and shirts, particularly in urban areas. Children go barefoot, while their parents wear rubber thongs or sandals.

During the Khmer Rouge years (197578), people were forced to wear dark clothes and were punished or killed for wearing colors or jewelry. In the years following the Vietnamese takeover in 1978, the people were too poor to buy what they wanted. Since reconciliation was achieved in 1993, Cambodians have delighted in the return of a prospering economy and brightly colored and printed fabric and clothing in the marketplaces. Still, poverty is widespread, and most Cambodians can purchase only imported, second-hand clothing.


Rice is the most important Cambodian food. Eaten at virtually every meal, it forms the basis of most Khmer dishes. Fish is almost as important and is eaten fresh, dried, or salted. Vegetables are also a vital part of the diet. Cambodians grow onions, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and potatoes in their gardens. Many homes are also surrounded by coconut and banana trees and other plants. A favorite treat is the durian fruit, horrid-smelling but delicious in taste. Other fruits include mangoes, papayas, jackfruit, and palm fruit.

The most traditional of Cambodian foods is prahok, fermented fish that is used as a thick sauce condiment with other dishes. Betel nut is another favorite. It is a seed that is wrapped in leaves and chewed for its mild narcotic effect.


Traditionally, education was provided primarily to boys at temple schools. They were taught religion and the religious language of Pali by Buddhist monks. After independence and before the 1970s, elementary and secondary schooling was expanded enormously for both boys and girls throughout the country.

In the 1970s, traditional and Western-style education came to a virtual standstill. Schools were destroyed, and teachers and students were severely punished or killed. After the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1978, Cambodia had to begin again to build a system of education.

Today, most children begin school at age seven or eight and receive some schooling for at least several years. Parents want their children to become educated. However, families can barely afford the cost of schooling. It is also difficult for families to survive without their children at home to help with household chores. The literacy rate for adults is about 65 percent (80 percent for men, and 50 percent for women).


During the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1978, Cambodians were not allowed to sing or dance on pain of death. It was a loss that hurt them deeply. Cambodians say that to dance and to listen to their music are among life's sweetest pleasures. Traditional instruments include guitars, xylophones, violins, gongs, and drums. Traditional dance has been the pride of Cambodians for a thousand years. Cambodian plays include both dance and music. They tell ancient stories of Hindu gods and heroes, folk tales about beautiful and wealthy royalty, greedy merchants, and noble youth; as well as comic stories that delight everyone.

Cambodian literature dates back to the seventh century. Traditional texts were memorized and performed by professional storytellers who traveled from place to place. Cambodian literature also includes tales of the Buddha's lives, verses that contain advice for daily life called chbap, and folk tales.

Traditional Cambodian literature is being overshadowed today by modern radio and movies, and especially by television and videos. Most Cambodian youth would rather watch a martial arts video from Hong Kong than listen to a storyteller relate ancient stories.


Most Cambodians are rice farmers who also grow vegetables and fruit in family gardens. Others cultivate cash crops. Most Cambodian farmers also raise domestic animals, most commonly water buffalo or oxen, which are used for plowing the fields. In the cities, Cambodians hold all the jobs seen in most cities of the worldgovernment officials, construction workers, taxi cab drivers, waiters, maids, and retailers. Many Cambodians are also soldiers.

As the economy improves, colorful plastic utensils and long-lasting metal tools are replacing the wooden handicrafts Cambodians have practiced for centuries. A village that has long made earthenware pots now sells them for pennies to tourists.


The most popular spectator and participant sports are soccer and volleyball. Other sports include boxing, basketball, and bicycle races. A few Cambodians in urban areas also play tennis and swim. Canoe racing is enjoyed as well.


Children have a wide variety of family responsibilities and chores. Boys and girls both help with younger children, the care of animals, and a wide variety of other duties. Children usually turn these necessary activities into play and games. In addition, they enjoy swimming and running. A popular village game is played with rubber thongs. The boys draw a line in the dirt, then stand back and throw their sandals at the line. The boy who gets the closest is the winner. Girls and smaller children play a similar game with rubber bands. The winner wears her captured bands around her wrist. Girls also play hopscotch.

Movies, television, and videos are extremely popular in both the urban and rural areas. Karaoke is popular and can be found in the fanciest clubs in the capital of Phnom Penh to the humblest village. Cambodians also enjoy kite flying. In the villages, local festivals remain the most common and popular leisure activity. Eating, listening to music by local or traveling bands, playing videos and other games, drinking, and dancing fill the hours.


The greatest handiwork of Cambodians was crafted during the Angkorean Period, from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries. Cambodian architects designed, and Cambodian slaves built, a number of temples and palaces in the Angkor region. Included in these is a priceless jewel of artistic work, the temple mausoleum of Angkor Wat.

Traditional crafts include carvings in stone and wood, jewelry making, and gold-and-silver working. Artists often copy ancient religious designsstatues of the Buddha, Hindu gods, scenes from the Ramayana (an ancient Hindu epic), and designs from the ancient temples of Angkor. Silk weaving is another craft practiced by many Cambodians.


During the Khmer Rouge regime (197578), human and civil rights in Cambodia were nonexistent. The inadequate food, cruelty, and horrors of those years had dreadful consequences on Cambodians, both physically and mentally.

In the late 1990s, as the government of the State of Cambodia increases its power relative to other parties, civil and human rights have decreased. With a limited ability to speak of their nation's problems, many Cambodians regret the loss of openness, maintain little hope for elections, and concentrate on survival. At the same time, although enormous economic, political, and social problems continue, Cambodians are experiencing more peace than they have for decades. For that, they say they are grateful.


Chandler, David P. A History of Cambodia. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1983.

Ebihara, M. M., C. A. Mortland, and J. Ledger-wood. Cambodian Culture since 1975. Home-land and Exile. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Edmonds, I. G. The Khmers of Cambodia. The Story of a Mysterious People. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1970.

Ross, Russell R. Cambodia. A Country Study. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990.


Royal Embassy of Cambodia, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Cambodia. [Online] Available, 1998.

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Khmer / kəˈme(ə)r; kme(ə)r/ • n. 1. an ancient kingdom in Southeast Asia that reached the peak of its power in the 11th century, when it ruled the entire Mekong River valley from the capital at Angkor. It was destroyed by Thai conquests in the 12th and 14th centuries. 2. a native or inhabitant of the ancient Khmer kingdom. 3. a native or inhabitant of Cambodia. 4. the Mon-Khmer language that is the official language of Cambodia. Also called Cambodian. • adj. of, relating to, or denoting the Khmers or their language.

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"Khmer." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Khmer Language of c.85% of the inhabitants of Cambodia. It belongs to a group of the Mon-Khmer languages. A Khmer empire existed from the 9th to the 15th centuries ad. Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic in 1970. When the Republic fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the country was renamed Kampuchea; the name Cambodia was restored in 1989.

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Khmer an ancient kingdom in SE Asia which reached the peak of its power in the 11th century, when it ruled over the entire Mekong valley from the capital at Angkor. It was destroyed by Siamese conquests in the 12th and 14th centuries.

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Khmeraffair, affaire, air, Altair, Althusser, Anvers, Apollinaire, Astaire, aware, Ayer, Ayr, bare, bear, bêche-de-mer, beware, billionaire, Blair, blare, Bonaire, cafetière, care, chair, chargé d'affaires, chemin de fer, Cher, Clair, Claire, Clare, commissionaire, compare, concessionaire, cordon sanitaire, couvert, Daguerre, dare, debonair, declare, derrière, despair, doctrinaire, éclair, e'er, elsewhere, ensnare, ere, extraordinaire, Eyre, fair, fare, fayre, Finisterre, flair, flare, Folies-Bergère, forbear, forswear, foursquare, glair, glare, hair, hare, heir, Herr, impair, jardinière, Khmer, Kildare, La Bruyère, lair, laissez-faire, legionnaire, luminaire, mal de mer, mare, mayor, meunière, mid-air, millionaire, misère, Mon-Khmer, multimillionaire, ne'er, Niger, nom de guerre, outstare, outwear, pair, pare, parterre, pear, père, pied-à-terre, Pierre, plein-air, prayer, questionnaire, rare, ready-to-wear, rivière, Rosslare, Santander, savoir faire, scare, secretaire, share, snare, solitaire, Soufrière, spare, square, stair, stare, surface-to-air, swear, Tailleferre, tare, tear, their, there, they're, vin ordinaire, Voltaire, ware, wear, Weston-super-Mare, where, yeah

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