Situated in the southwest of the Indochinese peninsula, Cambodia occupies a total area of 181,035 square kilometers and borders Thailand to the west and northwest, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east, and Gulf of Thailand to the southwest.
Cambodia’s geographic coordinates are 13 00 N, 105 00 E.
Cambodia’s terrain consists mainly of low plains, with mountains to the southwest and north.
Two dominant physical features of Cambodia are the Mekong river, which runs from north to south of the country, and the Tonlé Sap Lake.
Natural resources include oil and gas, timber, gemstones, iron ore, manganese, phosphates, hydropower potential.
Cambodia’s population is approximately 14 million. Ninety per cent of residents are Khmer; the rest are Cham (Khmer Muslim), Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Thai, Phnorng, Kuoy, Stieng, Tamil, etc. Population density is 78/ km2.
Like most of Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s climate is hot and warm almost all year round. The climate is dominated by the annual monsoon cycle of rainy and dry seasons. The rainy season lasts from May to October, and the dry season from November to April. December to January are the coolest months, while the hottest period is in April. The average temperature is around 27-28ºC.
The flag of Cambodia symbolizes the country’s slogan: Nation, Religion, King. The two large blue stripes represent royalty and the center red stripe represents the nation. The image of the white temple stands for the nation’s religion.
The romduol, a small yellowish-white flower, is the national flower of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Since ancient times, Cambodian women have often been compared to the Romduol flower because of its attractive fragrance; a unique scent that is prominent in the late afternoon and can travel over long distances with the wind. With its sturdy stems that measure up to 30cm, the Romduol plant can grow to a height of 12 meters. These plants are being planted to enhance public parks.
Theravada Buddhism is the prevailing official religion in Cambodia and approximately ninety percent of the population is Buddhist. Islam, Hinduism and Christianity are also embraced in Cambodia.
Since Buddha statues and images represent the revered Buddha, visitors are asked to treat all such statues and images with respect, so as not to offend local people.
In Cambodia, regardless of religion, the country maintains a harmonised state.
The race that produced the builders of Angkor developed slowly through the fusion of the Mon-Khmer racial groups of Southern Indochina during the first six centuries of the Christian era. Under Indian influence, two principal centers of civilization developed. The older, in the extreme south of the peninsula was called “Funan” (the name is a Chinese transliteration of the ancient Khmer form of the word “Phnom”, which means “hill”). Funan was a powerful maritime empire that ruled over all the shores of the Gulf of Siam. In the mid-sixth century, the Kambuja who lived in the middle Mekong (north of present day Cambodia), broke away from Funan. Within a short period, this new power known as Chenla, absorbed the Funanese Kingdom. In the late seventh century, Chenla broke into two parts: Land Chenla (to the north) and Water Chenla (to the south along the Gulf of Thailand) dominated by the Chinese. Land Chenla was fairly stable during the 8th century, whereas Water Chenla was beset by dynastic rivalries. During this period, Java invaded and took control part of the country.
At the beginning of the ninth century, the kings set up their respective capital in the present province of Siem Reap. For nearly six centuries, the kings enriched it by building temples one after another and each being more sumptuous than the other. Two hundred of these temples are spread all over in the Angkorian area some 400 square kilometers in the Siem Reap Province. The temples and their sanctuaries are best known for their architecture and sculptures.
The first founder of Angkor was King Jayayarman II (802-850), who built one of his residences on the plateau of the Kulen in 802. King Indravarman I (887-889), a nephew of King Jayavarman II, constructed a vast irrigation system at Lolei and then built the tower of Preah Ko in 879 and Bakong in 881. King Yasovarman (889-900), the son of King Indravarman I, dedicated the towers of Lolei to his memory in 893 and founded a new capital to the northwest which was to remain the very heart of Angkor. He built the Eastern Baray, a 7km X 2km size artificial lake also.
King Harshavarman I (900-923), the son of King Yasovarman, who took to the foot of Phnom Bakheng, consecrated the little temple of Baksei Chamkrong, and built Prasat Kravan in 921. King Jayavarman IV (928-941), uncle of King Harshavarman I, reigned in northeastern Cambodia near the present town of Koh Ker. He erected several majestic monuments. King Rajendravarman (944-968) returned to Angkor in 952 and built the Eastern Mebon and Prè Roup in 961. In 967, the Brahman Yajnavaraha, a high religious dignitary of royal blood, erected the temple of Banteay Srei, about 20 km northeast of the capital. King Jayavarman V (968-1001) founded a new capital around Takeo Temple.
In the eleventh century, King Suryavarman I (1002-1050) seized Angkor and founded a glorious dynasty. It was at this time that the Gopura of the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom was completed with the sober pyramid of the Phimeanakas at its center. He also erected the temple of Phnom Chiso, some parts of Preah Vihear, and Preah Khan in Kampong Svay District.
King Udayadityavarman II (1050-1066), son of king Suryavarman I, built the mountain temple of Baphuon and Western Baray. King Udayadityavarman’s brother, King Harshavarman III, succeeded him and ruled from 1066 to 1080 when violent strife led to the fall of the dynasty. King Jayavarman VI (1080-1113) continued to build Preah Vihear Mount in Vat Po and Phimai.
King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) extended his power from the coast of the China Sea to the Indian Ocean and built the temples of Angkor Wat, Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, Preah Palilay, Preah Pithu and Banteay Samrè. After these dazzling achievements, the Khmer civilization began to decline due to internal strife and an attack by the Chams.
King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) was the most fascinating personality in Khmer history. He re-established his rule over all of southern Indochina and is best known for his huge building program. He built Ta Prohm (1186) and Preah Khan (1191) as a dedication to his parents. Then he erected Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang, the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of the Elephants, Neak Pean, Ta Saom, Ta Nei, and a few monuments in other parts of the country. It was he who founded his great capital, Angkor Thom and in the center of which, he built the Bayon temple with its two hundred stone faces.
It is understandable that the country was exhausted after these enormous efforts. The decline of the Angkor era began after the death of King Jayavarman VII in the early thirteenth century. Due to Siamese invasion and the limitations of the irrigation system, Khmer power declined so drastically that the king was finally obliged to move to the vicinity of Phnom Penh in 1431. Then, resulting from a series of Siamese and Cham invasions, the country was placed as a French protectorate in 1863.
After regaining Independence in 1953, the country resumed several names:
- The Kingdom of Cambodia (under the Reachia Niyum Regime from 1953 to 1970)
- The Khmer Republic (under the Lon Nol Regime from 1970 to 1975)
- Democratic Kampuchea (under the Pol Pot Genocidal Regime from 1975 to 1979)
- The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1989)
- The State of Cambodia (1989-1993)
- The Kingdom of Cambodia (1993 until now).
Customs and Tradition
Cambodian culture and tradition have had a rich varied history dating back many centuries. Over the years, the people of Cambodia developed a set of unique tradition from the syncretism of indigenous Buddhism and Hinduism.
Cambodians have been raised to respect their culture and are very traditional in their way of life. Tourists will see the well mannered Cambodian expressing a friendly “Chumreap Suor” when they meet one.
Cambodians traditionally greet with a Sampeah, which involves pressing the palms together before the chest with a slight bow and greeting with a polite ‘Chumreap Suor’. Customarily, the higher the hands are held and the lower the bow, the more respect is conveyed. Except when meeting elderly people or government officials, between men, this custom has been partially replaced by the handshake. Women usually greet both men and women with the same traditional greeting. Although it may be considered acceptable for foreigners to shake hands with a Cambodian, it is more appropriate to respect the custom and respond with a ‘Chumreap Suor’.
There are many classical dance forms in Cambodia, of which a highly stylized art form was once confined mainly to the courts of the royal palace and performed mainly by females. Known formally in Khmer as Robam Apsara, the dancers of this classical form are often referred to as Apsara dancers.
This dance form was first introduced to foreign countries and best known during the 1960s as the Khmer Royal Ballet. The first royal ballerina was Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, a daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk.
The Apsara Dance is particularly inspired by the style from around more than a thousand Apsara carvings in the Angkor temple complex. As evidenced in part by these Apsaras (celestial dancers), dance has been part of the Khmer culture for more than a millennium.
A visit to Cambodia is only complete when one has attended at least one such traditional dance performance.
Kbach Kun Khmer Boran ( Martial Art )
Khmer martial arts date back more than a thousand years, as evidenced by carvings and bas-reliefs in the Angkor temples. The martial arts include Bokator, Pradal Serey, Baok Chambab, Kbach Kun Dambong Vèng, amongst others.
Bokator, known formally as Labokatao, is a Cambodian martial art form that involves close hand-to-hand combat, ground techniques and weapons.
Bokator is one of the earliest Cambodian martial art and is said to be the close quarter combat system used by the armies during the Angkor era.
Practitioners are trained to strike with knees, elbows, hands, feet and even the head. Short sticks are commonly used as weapon.
Baok Chambab is Khmer wrestling; a sport in which two opponents try to pin (hold) each other’s back to the ground. A match consists of three rounds. Wrestlers perform pre-match ritual dancing. A wrestler wins a match by two out of three rounds. However, after each round, the loser is asked if he still wishes to continue with the match.
A Baok Chambab match is traditional accompanied by drum beats; two drums known as Skor Nhy and Chhmol, (female drum and male drum).
Traditional matches are held at the Cambodian National Olympic Stadium during the Khmer New Year and other Cambodian holidays.
Kbach Kun Dambong Vèng
Kbach Kun Dambong Vèng literally refers to an ancient Cambodian martial art form involving the use of a long staff.
It has traditionally been practiced to prepare against enemies bearing eventual malice towards their villages and their country.
Now, it is particularly popular with youths in main sports clubs in Cambodia.
Pradal Serey is traditional Khmer kick boxing. A match consists of five rounds and takes place in a boxing ring. There is a one or two-minute break in between each round. Before a match, boxers perform the praying rituals known as the Kun Krou. Traditional Cambodian music is played during a match. The instruments used are the Skor Yaul (a drum), the Sralai (a flute-like instrument) and the stringed Chhing. Boxers are required to wear leather gloves and shorts.
Victory is instantaneously granted when a boxer delivers a knockout which is determined when the knocked down boxer is unable to continue the fight after a 10-second count by the referee. Victory is also determined at the end of the match when judges decide by a point system which fighter was more effective. If the fighters end up with the same score, a draw is called.
Traditional Cambodian weddings are intricate affairs that consist of multiple ceremonies lasting three days and three nights. The wedding begins with the groom and his family traveling to the bride’s home bearing gifts to the bride’s family as dowry. Family members and friends are introduced, and wedding rings exchanged. Customarily, three traditional songs accompany this first segment; the first song announcing the arrival of the groom and the next is on the presentation of the dowry followed by a final song to invite the elders to chew Betel Nut, an age-old Khmer tradition. Then it is the Tea Ceremony, at which the bride and groom offer tea to the spirits of their ancestors.
To prepare the bride and groom for their life as a married couple, their hair must then be symbolically cut to represent a fresh start to their new relationship together as husband and wife. The master of ceremony performs the first symbolic hair cut; the bride and groom’s parents, relatives, and friends then take turn to symbolically cut the bride and groom’s hair and give them blessing and good wishes.
The finale is the most memorable segment of the wedding. Family members and friends take turns to tie the bride’s and groom’s left and right wrists with ‘blessing strings’. The praises and wishes of happiness, good health, success, prosperity, and long-lasting love are acknowledged and witnessed by the loud sound of the gong and joyful cheers. Then, they throw palm flowers over the new couple accompanied by a traditional song. After the couple is pronounced husband and wife, the groom holds the bride’s fabric into the bridal room accompanied by a traditional song.
At the close of this wedding ceremony, all of the guests are invited to a wedding reception accompanied by an orchestral concert. The Khmer wedding is a rowdy and joyous event.
Nowadays most families reduce the three-day and three-night ritual to a one-day affair.
The Khmer traditional medicine is a form of naturopathy using natural remedies, such as roots, barks, leaves and herbs to motivate the body’s vital ability to heal and maintain itself. It has been used to treat various diseases for many years. The ancient Khmer people first formulated this medical lore during the Angkor period. It offers a holistic approach avoiding the use of surgery and drugs. Practitioners of this therapy are known locally as Krou Khmer.
Khmer traditional doctors are receiving recognition and training from the government at the National Center of Traditional Medicine. Medical books in Pali text have been gathered from all the pagodas throughout the country; collated and interpreted into the Khmer language at the center. The center welcomes traditional healers from across the kingdom to share knowledge and train healers to a uniform level and to assimilate their localized knowledge.