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Cambodia Culture, Geography and History
Culture and Customs of Cambodia
The Khmer culture has lasted for centuries, and is based on tradition, honouring ancestors, respecting elders and living a life of honesty, humility and kindness. Which is probably why Cambodians are known for being some of the most warm, hospitable and humble people in the world. Above all these qualities, Cambodians are known for their remarkable ability to get on with life after enduring the atrocities that ravaged the country in the 1970s.
As with other neighbouring nations like Thailand, the concept of “saving face” is important. Displaying control and keeping a peaceful nature in public is paramount, as is not losing your temper or ridiculing others.
Most Khmer people are Buddhist. Monks are highly regarded and respected in society, and religious festivals and ceremonies are important parts of daily life. When visiting Cambodia, expect to see orange-robed monks and many displays of faith - from people visiting large, elaborate temples to them praying over small, humble shrines.
Despite the infiltration of modern ideas and concepts, Khmer customs and traditions are kept alive with traditional dance, art, festivals and costume enduring alongside modern pop music and dance.
Geography and Environment of Cambodia
Bordered by Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, much of Cambodia is covered by forested area, although sadly, this is rapidly changing due to the growth of agriculture, logging and deforestation. Home to the largest lake in South-East Asia, Tonle Sap (Great Lake) connects to the Mekong River and swells to four times its normal size during the monsoon season.
Most of the country is low-lying, except for pockets of mountains. Large cities like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are typically built-up, busy and filled with modern conveniences like nightclubs, bars, public transport, internet cafes and restaurants. Smaller towns and rural areas enjoy more peace and space, with low-density, simple housing and a reliance on agriculture for income.
History and Government of Cambodia
Evidence of early life in Cambodia dates back to 1500BC, and further evidence suggests that by the 1st Century, rice cultivation, fishing and animal husbandry were the basis of organised society in Cambodia. Various empires arose in the early stages of Cambodian history, with the Funan and Chenla Kingdoms reigning before the rise of the Khmer civilisation. Regarded as one of the most powerful empires in the world, the Khmer Empire prospered from the 9th to the 13th centuries. This was a time of growth and expansion, and many of the artistic treasures and archaeological monuments that Cambodia is known for come from this era. The world-famous temples of Angkor were built during this period, and hold important clues to how life was lived back then. Temple inscriptions depicting daily life, religious ceremonies and military exploits give us important insights into this fascinating civilisation. There are many theories that speculate on the decline of the Khmer Empire. It’s more than likely that a combination of factors including drought, the arrival of the Plague and the rise of neighbouring Thai superpower Ayutthaya resulted in the loss of momentum for a once-powerful empire. A period of decline followed, with the 15th to the 19th centuries marking a time of Cambodia having a lower profile in international affairs, until coming under French Colonial rule in 1863.
The events that have shaped Cambodia’s recent history began with the Communist Party of Kampuchea overpowering the Khmer Republic after more than 100 days of fierce fighting. What followed was a radical change in society, with Pol Pot leading the country now known as Kampuchea. This brutal regime soon set about restructuring society and was responsible for committing awful atrocities against the civilian population. Religion and education were repressed, currency and banking were abolished and people were sent to work in the fields. Business people, educators, scholars and other high-ranking members of society were hunted down and murdered by the Khmer Rouge. It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of people (possibly millions) were murdered between 1975 and 1979. In addition to this, many more died of starvation and disease due to lack of medical care and nourishment.
This nationalistic, murderous regime was finally overcome by the Vietnamese Army in 1979, signalling the beginning of the peace process and the establishment of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. In 1993, millions of Cambodians voted to elect a new government, which then ratified a new constitution, and in 2004 a tribunal was established to serve justice to the people who committed atrocities during the Khmer Rouge era.
Today, Cambodia is rebuilding and moving on from it’s tragic past. Many NGOs have set up programs that empower and support Cambodians with education, health care, training and counselling. While wide-scale poverty and other social problems remain, Cambodia continues to gain strength from its burgeoning tourism industry, and has recently been successful in increasing access to education and health care as well as improving overall living standards.
Cambodia at a glance
- Phnom Penh (population 2,000,000)
- 14.7 million
- (GMT+07:00) Bangkok, Hanoi, Jakarta
- Type A (North American/Japanese 2-pin), Type C (European 2-pin)
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