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Cambodian Culture

Cambodian Culture


Cambodian New Year

The Cambodian New Year takes place from April 13th -15th, during the dry season when farmers do not work in the fields. Astrologers determine the exact time and date by calculating the exact moment the new animal protector (tiger, dragon, or snake) arrives. Cambodians spend the entire month of April in preparation for the celebration, cleaning and decorating their house with candles, lights, star shaped lanterns and flowers. During the first three days, everyone travels to the pagodas to offer food to the monks.

Pchum Ben

Pchum Ben is a religious ceremony in September when everyone remembers the spirit of dead relatives. For fifteen days, people in Cambodian villages take turns bringing food to the temples or pagodas. On the fifteenth and final day, everyone dresses in their finest clothing to travel together to the pagodas. Families bring overflowing baskets of flowers, and children offer food and presents to the monks. Everyone says prayers to help their ancestors pass on to a better life. According to Khmer belief, those who do not follow the practices of Pchum Ben are cursed by their angry ancestors.

Water Festival

Another very colorful festival is the Water Festival or the Festival of the Reversing Current. It takes place in late October or early November and marks the reversal of the Tonle Sap River so that it once again flows south from the Tonle Sap Lake into the Mekong River. The highlight of the three-day festival is the boat races that are held in Phnom Penh. Individual villages build their own boats by hollowing out a log to make a dugout canoe that is rowed by as many as forty people! The prow and the stern of the canoe turn upward and the prow is painted with an eye, just like the war vessels on the wall of the temples at Angkor Thom. On the first two days of the festival, pairs of boats race each other. At sunset on the third day, there is a big race and everyone believes that the river is happy, the fish will be plentiful and the rice crop will flourish.

Day of Hatred

Cambodia must be one of the only countries in the world which has a holiday called the "Day of Hatred!" This was a holiday in May which was created by the People's Republic of Kampuchea and the State of Cambodia as a national holiday to remember the crimes of Pol Pot and his regime. Therefore, the government tried to change this fear and resentment into an annual "Day of Hatred" in which the crimes of Pol Pot were remembered in ceremonies at village cemeteries and Tuol Sleng (the Khmer Rouge torture center). However, although this is still a public holiday, most people do not think of it as a holiday to think about hatred!


Weddings are the most important social events in the lives of young people. Men usually get married between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four and women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two. Most families want their children to be married by the age of twenty-five, otherwise other people might wonder why the family is unable to find people willing to marry their children!! There are traditional ways in which a family should decide if a partner is suitable or not. Each family appoints a representative to investigate the other family who makes sure that the other family is honest and, hopefully, wealthy. Once the two families agree to the wedding, they exchange gifts of plants and food and then they consult an astrologer who chooses a lucky date for the ceremony. The wedding ceremony takes place at the bride's house. The bride and groom exchange gifts and rings. Their wrists are tied together with red thread that has been soaked in holy water. A Buddhist priest delivers a sermon, and married guests pass around a candle to bless the new couple. After the ceremony, there is a grand feast. People eat fruit, meat, and small round cakes filled with rice or coconut. Musicians play traditional instruments like the ones seen in this unit's figurine collection.


Most Cambodians are Buddhists. Accordingly, they do not look on death as the end of life. Rather, they consider it the beginning of a new life that they hope will be better than the one which ended. Therefore, just as performing the wedding rituals correctly is very important, it is also very important to perform the ceremonies for death in the correct Buddhist tradition. Otherwise the relative will not be able to pass on to their new life. When a person dies, their body is washed, dressed and put into a coffin. Flowers and a photograph of the deceased are usually put on top of the coffin, which is then carried to a special Buddhist pagoda to be cremated. All the family members walk with the coffin to the pagoda. If the dead person was important, everyone in the village also joins the procession. Family members sometimes show their sorrow by wearing white clothing and shaving their heads. White is the traditional color of death instead of the Western idea of black. Because the rituals connected to death affect the ability of the dead person to have a happy next life, many Cambodians were distraught that they were not able to perform the correct rituals for loved ones who died under the Khmer Rouge regime.


Cambodian children do not celebrate their birthdays and it is not a special day for them. Often their parents just remember what season they were born in, but not the exact day so they don't know for sure. During the Khmer Rouge years, many people were separated from their families and they lost their birth certificates. However, all Cambodians know which year they were born, and what it means in the Chinese animal calendar: Do you know which year were you born in and which characteristics you should have?


Khmer Language and Literature


Cambodia's national language is Khmer. It is the only language taught in the country's schools and is used in government documents. The Khmer writing system comes from an Indian alphabet that was brought into Cambodia over a thousand years ago. In Khmer, everyone refers to each other as older brother and older sister, or Aunt and Uncle. Many ancient words are borrowed from Pali or Sanskrit and many more recent words are from French, words such as "chocolate" and "gateaux." Khmer grammar is very simple. For example, there are no tenses. If you want to change "I go to the market" into the past tense, you just add the word already. But Khmer is precise in ways that English isn't. Like many languages, it has many words for articles which are useful for Cambodian people, for example there are over one hundred words for rice!! Also, there are different words for "you," depending on whether you are speaking to a child, a parent, a Buddhist monk, or a member of the royal family. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, they tried to forbid some of these pronouns so that everyone was placed on the same level. Among educated Cambodians over forty years of age, French is still a second language. In the mid 1980s, however, French was overtaken informally by English as the European language that urban Cambodians wanted to learn. In rural areas, not many people speak a foreign language.


The greatest piece of literature in Khmer is called The Reamker. It is the Cambodian adaptation of the Indian epic of the Ramayana. It dates from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The story of Hanuman and Sovann Macha (which is described separately) is derived from this story and made into a dance. Many Cambodian dances, and shadow plays are also taken from the Cambodian version of The Ramayana. The Ramayana is found in many cultures throughout Southeast Asia. Cambodians also like to tell their children "chbap"s or moral proverbs which school children memorize, as well as stories from the Reamker of folk tales. The chbap teaches the values of Cambodian society, such as being obedient to your elders and protecting those who are less fortunate than yourself.

Some messages similar to these "chbaps" are sung on the tape "Silent Temples, Songful Hearts" Side A, Songs 1-3.

Here are some examples of Cambodian Proverbs:

"Don't take the straight path or the winding path. Take the path your ancestors have taken."

"Don't let an angry man wash dishes; don't let a hungry man guard rice."