Few countries on earth can match the cultural highs and lows that Cambodia has experienced in the last millennia, a history of disparity spanning the pinnacle of civilisation to the darkest depths of humanity. That Cambodia is now back on the world’s cultural stage is a tribute to the endearing and enduring qualities of the Khmer people, its most priceless legacy. Built upon a fabled past of triumph and tragedy, the culture is one of contradictions and paradoxes that fuse together to create an inimitable character.
Like its history, the foundations of Khmer cultural society are a unique blend of divergent influences. Khmers have been exposed to more than most, and have chosen the precepts which suit them best. All but destroyed under the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the national culture survived and is once again emerging from a period of darkness into a new dawn. With thousands of years of expression and emotion, the culture of Cambodia is magnificent, morbid, and guaranteed to astonish.
Guide to Cambodian culture – art, temples and turbulent history
The earliest influences were much the same as today, with India and China shaping the society in antiquity as in the present. Early Indian civilisation provided the basis for much of what would become Cambodia’s own cultural identity, as religion, language, music and dance were all brought to the region by the 1st century AD, a period often referred to as Indianisation.
However, Cambodia was in fact inhabited from the Neolithic period, where the emergent ethnic groups were believed to have emigrated south from China. This meant an ancient, organised society, with its own principles and beliefs, was already in place along the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River. As cultural styles continued to flow into the country, the Khmer interwove their traditional animistic beliefs into Hinduism and Buddhism to produce their own way of life.
Most temples were dedicated to Hindu gods, with prevailing rulers often vacillating between Hinduism and Buddhism. The country flourished in the 4th century as India and China established trade routes, which culminated in the golden age of Angkor, between the 9th and 14th centuries. It was here that Cambodia gave the world one of the greatest societies ever constructed, and one which has influenced the culture of the region ever since.
Jayavarman II implemented the Hindu concept of god-kings, proclaiming himself the reincarnation of Shiva, and Theravada Buddhism became the state religion in the 13th century. Sanskrit-based literature, widely used as the basis of many European languages, is prominent at the Temples of Angkor, where the architectural styles and epic dance tales have become symbolic of the nation.
The Angkorian Empire slowly waned, crippled by its own magnificence, and a succession of kings and cultures found themselves invaded, sacked and weakened by their larger neighbours. Complete implosion was only averted when the French brought their brand of colonisation in the 19th century, establishing significant influences in architecture, cuisine, art and literature.
The ultimate cultural revolution enacted by the Khmer Rouge a century later all but annihilated the last remnants of Khmer culture, with an entire generation of artists and artisans condemned to death. The country survived, though much of its soul had been systematically destroyed. The contemporary society celebrates what it can of the past, but looks to the future more than most nations. The young, modern Cambodia is still very much trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.
The growth of tourism and foreign investment, essentially impossible for decades, has provided the new generation of Cambodians with employment and education. In turn, the increased involvement has created a resurgence of interest in traditional cultural forms as literature, art, music and dance all find new support.
A strong sense of patriotism has been infused in the people as the country slowly opens itself, and the customs and etiquette of the past are still very much at the heart of the of everyday life. No visitor leaves Cambodia without gaining some measure of affection and admiration for the extraordinary culture of this enigmatic kingdom.