Shaped by the extremes of the monsoon season, Cambodia boasts an astonishing diversity of wildlife. Home to one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, the Mekong River winds its way through the verdant countryside, carving and molding the land as it feeds the great Tonlé Sap lake.
But Cambodia’s diversity doesn’t stop with the environment. Cambodian culture plays host to a variety of ancient traditions and peoples. Today, the Khmer comprise more than 90 percent of the population. There are also the Khmer Loeu of the Highlands, the Cham Muslims, and ethnic groups such as the Vietnamese and the Chinese.
Cambodia boasts a rich and ancient culture rooted in the Khmer culture, Buddhism, and even Hinduism. Let’s take a look at some essential things to know about this incredible country, steeped in centuries of history.
Language in Cambodia
The official language of Cambodia is the Khmer language. Used in most social settings, Khmer is spoken by about 90 percent of the population and used in all levels of education.
Modern Khmer is based on the dialect of the capital city Phnom Penh. Many Khmer words, especially those used in the military, administration, and literature, stem from Sanskrit or Pali.
Because of Cambodia’s past as a former colony of France, Modern Khmer also contains many French words. But English, rather than French, has come to dominate education and business as the second most studied and spoken language.
Religion in Cambodia
Ninety-five percent of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism draws inspiration from the Pali Canon (a.k.a. Tipitaka or Tripitaka), considered to be the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings.
Buddhist monks, known as bonzes, comprise a unique and highly respected social class in Cambodia. In fact, the Khmer language contains specific vocabulary for talking to and about Buddhist monks. How can you tell if you’re in the presence of Buddhist monks? By their iconic appearance featuring shaven heads and saffron-colored robes.
Besides bonzes, the other cornerstone of Cambodian Buddhism remains the wat or spiritual center. Between five and more than 70 bonzes may live at each given wat. Bonzes are divided into two classes, novices (a.k.a. nen or samani) and ordained monks or bhikku.
Cambodia’s Hindu Heritage
Centuries have passed since Hinduism played a significant role in Cambodian daily life. But evidence of this rich past still marks the nation. Cambodia’s national treasure, the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, remains the world’s largest Hindu temple. So, don’t be surprised to find Khmer versions of Hanuman and Ganesha gracing the park’s temples. You’ll also see bas-relief carvings pulled straight from the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana.
The Ramayana translates as the “Glory of Rama” and represents one of two major ancient Indian epics. These tales first came to Cambodia along with Hinduism between the first and fifth centuries AD. The Ramayana tells the epic tale of Rama (Ream in Cambodia) including his quest to reclaim his kidnapped wife, Sita (Neang Seda), from the demon king. Along the way, Rama is aided by Hanuman, the monkey warrior. These events come to life in carvings at Angkor Wat.
Other signs of Hindu influence include a collection of Hindu statues in the National Museum of Cambodia. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh also boasts a sword said to be a gift from the Hindu deity, Indra, to the ancestors of the Cambodian royal family. What’s more, popular Cambodian names include Rama, Vidya, Devi, and Krishna, all evoking important figures and deities from Hinduism.
The Richness of Cambodian Culture
Cambodian culture remains a rich melting pot of influences from ancient civilizations and religions. Although it has held strongly to Buddhist identity for nearly 700 years, Cambodia also proves deeply indebted to Hinduism. Many of its primary tourist destinations pay homage to Hinduism and show the markers of ancient Indian civilization. But Cambodia also proves a nation that’s rapidly modernizing. English is spoken, and tourists are warmly welcomed. This makes traveling Cambodia with kids a safe and enriching experience.
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At Our Whole Village, we create transformational trips for curious families who want to create lasting memories while making a difference. We’re here to help you and your family experience the world, its peoples, and its cultures. Contact us today to learn more about the unforgettable experiences that we handcraft for curious families just like yours.