Khmer Culture

 Cambodians comprise a variety of kids who are commonly called Khmer. The Khmer constitute about 90 percent of the population. The population also includes a diversity of other ethnic backgrounds: Chinese, Vietnamese, Chams, and hilltribes, called Khmer Loeu.  

The Khmer are believed to have lived in the region from about the 2nd century CE. They may constitute a fusion of Mongul and Melanesian elements. They have been mainly influenced over the centuries by the powerful Indian and Javanese kingdoms. The Khmer-Loeu - or upland-Khmer - are one of the main tribal groups and live in the forested mountain zones, mainly in the North-East. Traditionally, the Khmer-Loeu were semi-nomadic and practiced slash and burn agriculture. In recent years, because of their increasing numbers, they have turned to settled agriculture and adopted many of the customs of the lowland Khmer.

There are about 500.000 Cham-Malays, descended from the The Chams of the royal kingdom of Champa, based in the present day central Vietnam. They now constitute the single largest ethnic minority in the country. The Chams were badly persecuted during the Pol Pot regime and their population more than halved. They are Muslims and their spiritual centre is Chur-Changvra near Phnom Penh. The Chams are traditionally cattle traders, silk weavers and butchers. The Chinese migrated in the 18th and 19th century to Cambodia, where most of them became involved in commerce. During the Pol Pot years and later many Chinese left the country or were killed. Today there is a population of about 100.000 left in Cambodia. Estimated 200.000 Vietnamese live in the country today. The southern part of Cambodia has always had many inhabitants of Vietnamese decent as well as the area around Phnom Penh.


The Cambodian religions on the whole are strongly influenced by early Indian and Chinese cultures. As early as the beginning of the Christian era the Indian traders brought - along with their products - their religion to the first Khmer state in Funan. Most of them were followers of Brahmanism (a forerunner of Hinduism), which merged with the existing animistic beliefs into a kind of new religion - hinduistic and local deities existing side by side.

During the Angkor period, which started at the beginning of the 8th century, various Hindu sects were promoted by the Angkor kings, especially the cults of Shiva and Vishnu, which is still to be seen in the art and architecture of that period. Jayavarman II crowned himself as a reincarnation of Shiva and reigned on the basis of the Hindu concept of the god-kings or devaraja. Hindu cosmology had a great impact on the whole Cambodian culture. Today, almost 90% of the population are Theravada-Buddhists - the faith has had a formative influence on everyday live and still has. It was reintroduced as the national religion in 1989.

Theravada-Buddhism entered the country in the 13th century and began to spread under King Jayavarman VII in the whole country, till it became state religion in the 15th century. As a popular religion, it held great attractions to a population which for many centuries had been denied access to the more elitist and extravagant devaraja cult. Many Cambodian males at some point of their lives, spend time in a Buddhist monastery and almost every village has a Buddhist temple - or wat - around which village life centers. Buddhist rituals follow the lunar calendar and there are several significant religious holidays and festivals that are widely observed.

Cambodian Buddhism appears an easy going faith and tolerates ancestor and territorial spirit worship, which is widely practised. There are often small rustic altars to the guardian spirits in the corner of pagodas. Many Khmer communities have achars, who share in the spiritual guidance of people but do not compete with the monks. Most important ceremonies - weddings, funerals, coming of age - have both Buddhist and animist elements. Today other religions in Cambodia are Islam and Christianity - there are around 500.000 Cham-Muslims60.000 Christians, most of them Roman Catholics. Almost all the Chinese in Cambodia are Taoist or Confucianist. belonging to the Sunni school and approximately 60.000 Christians, most of them Roman Catholics. Almost all the Chinese in Cambodia are Taoist or Confucianist.

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The height of Khmer art and architecture dates from the Angkor period. All the surviving monuments are built of stone or brick, and all are religious buildings. The culture and art of the early kingdoms of Funan and Chenla were central to the evolution of Angkorian art and architecture. Relics of the pre-Angkorian periods have been found all over South-Cambodia. Most of it is Hindu art, but a number of Mahayana-Buddhist Bodhisattvas have been found also. During Angkor period, architecture and its decoration were governed by a series of mystical and religious beliefs.

Common motifs in Khmer sculpture are apsaras (celestial nymphs), which have become a kind of symbol of the Khmer culture. The apsaras are carved with splendidly ornate jewellery, clothed in the latest Angkor fashion and represented the ultimate ideal of feminine beauty of that time. Other motifs are nagas (sacred aquatic snakes), which play an important part in Hindu mythology and are possibly more than any other motif charac-teristic of Southeast Asia. Most of these motifs have been taken from Indian art and have been modified into what is now known as traditional Khmer art.

Temples were designed to represent the cosmic Mt. Meru, the home of the gods of Indian cosmology, surrounded by oceans. Angkor literally means "city" or "capital", Wat means "temple". Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous of the architectural masterpieces of Cambodia and probably the largest religious building on earth. Conceived by Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat took an estimated 30 years to build. It is generally believed to have been a funeral temple for the king. It has been continuously occupied by monks and is well preserved.

Intricate bas reliefs surround Angkor Wat on four sides. Each tells a different story. The most celebrated of these is "The Churning of the Ocean of Milk", which is located on the east wing. Again, the central sanctuary of the temple complex represents Mt. Meru, the five towers symbolize Meru's five peaks, the enclosing wall represents the mountains at the edge of the world and the surrounding moat, the ocean beyond.

The symmetrical towers of Angkor Wat are stylized on the Cambodian flag and have become a symbol of Khmer culture.


Inscription and Khmer Language


Khmer or Cambodian, is the language of the Khmer people and the official language of Cambodia. One of the more prominent Austroasiatic languages, the language has been considerably influenced by Sanskrit and Pali, especially in the royal and religious registers, through the vehicles of Hinduism and Buddhism. As a result of geographic proximity, the Khmer language has affected, and also been affected by, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Cham which all form a sprachbund in peninsular Southeast Asia.

Khmer differs from neighboring languages such as Thai, Lao and Vietnamese in that it is not a tonal language. It has three main dialects that are mutually intelligible:

  • Battambang (considered the standard)
  • Phnom Penh
  • Northern Khmer, also known as Khmer Surin, spoken by ethnic Khmer native to Northeast Thailand
  • Cardamom Khmer, an archaic form spoken by a small population in the Cardamom Mountains (Phnom Krovanh) of western Cambodia.


The earliest written language to have been found in the region is in Sanskrit, an Indian sacred language. The writings were carved in stones which could be dated back to 5th and 6th century, which show a strong influence of the Indian culture over the indigenous people.

Sometimes later, the Khmer Language seems to appear with many of its characters and words derived from Sanskrit. An oldest stone inscription written in Khmer language were found to be carved in 612 A.D. as its text said.

The contents of these stone inscriptions which were housed in the temples were mostly concern with religions, its ritual and philosophy, Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Kings' salutations and some poetic verses. Some of these stone inscriptions also list the assets which were owned by the temples and by the dignitaries as well as the different objects needed for ritual ceremonies. Although these assets and objects had long been disappeared, these listings served as another jigsaw in our quest for knowledge of the Angkor.   Little things had been said about the ordinary life of the local people, however, these stone inscriptions had helped us to retrace the history of Khmer and to understand its political and cultural structure.

Around 1,200 stone inscriptions written in Sanskrit and Khmer had been discovered.

The inscriptions were careful engraved on the stone with a great work of real arts in order to show high respects to the gods of the temples.  This could lead us to imagine that the Khmers were devout to their gods in whom they revered as their protector, and god's blessing would bring them prosperity.

Many Angkor temples had been found to contain the stone inscriptions in both languages - Sanskrit and Khmer, however, their contents could be differentiated into two distinct characteristics although both of them served for a religious purpose.   Those inscriptions written in Sanskrit addressed more or less directly to the gods in term of religious prayers and rituals. Sanskrit is the sacred language of India and was maintained in the original form by the Khmers so that its value to their gods would not be deviated by any form of translation.

Generally, the Khmer inscription had its own distinction and the content was mostly a listing of assets, covering from paddy fields, cattle, objects and furniture, as well as the names of slaves which were owned by the temples.  In many instances, some of the stone inscriptions were placed in the shrine by donors who could be the dignitaries or the elites of Khmer ruling class.  These inscriptions could be varied, ranging from the listing of assets to some poetic verses.  

According to Zhou Daguan in the Chinese annals, the ancient Khmers knew how to write on the latina leaves as well as by chalks on the animal's skin.  Unfortunately, these materials seem to have been decayed over the past centuries due to damp weathers and insects. 

It is hard to believe that such a high civilization of Khmer with a well-developed writing system would barely have any literature.  Only three Khmer literatures are known since they were preserved in the stone inscription. Many literatures and other Khmer manuscripts, being written on unendurable materials other than on stone, are believed to have been lost with time, and some may have been survived until present day as local folklores. 

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Khmer Literature

Cambodian Literature


Judy Ledgerwoord

Dept. of Anthropology

Northern Illinois University

Aksar roluat jeat roleay Aksar ponnareay jeat thlai thla .

If letters disappear, the nation will disappear
If letters are brilliant, the nation is excellent.


The Khmer word, aksarsastra, generally defined as "literature", comes from the base, aksar, meaning letter or script. In addition to what we would think of as literature, the study of texts, the word also has the connotation of the study of writing, of "letters". Thus studies of Khmer aksarsastra generally begin with the study of Khmer stone inscriptions. Rather than a complete review of all such works, what follows is only a brief glimpse of some of the different genres of Khmer literature and a sense of change over time. The earliest inscriptions in Khmer date from the 7th century AD The "classical" works of Khmer literature were written between the 16th and 19th centuries. Nepote and Khing write of these works:

For centuries, classical Cambodian literature followed a well-defined
pattern. Comprised mostly of verse, its language is characterized
by symmetry and circumlocution, with the rhythm of the sentence
prevailing over punctuation. Its vocabulary was carefully selected and
comprised archaism, borrowed terms and metaphors, the hallmark of
"appropriate" language. It was partly inspired by Indian literature and
was linked to two institutions: the palaces of princes and mandarins,
and the Buddhist monasteries (1981:56).

The stylized language, the use of complex rhyme schemes, and archaic language means that these works are extremely difficult to read. Jacob writes for example of the Ramakerti (the Cambodian version of the Ramayana) that, "with its early pages full of archaisms, obsolete vocabulary and unfamiliar words spelt in a variety of ways, the printed text looked formidable even to Cambodians and was not much read or studied until the 1960's" (1986: xii).

But we know that these texts were set to memory by professional storytellers who would then often travel doing performances. Such was the case with the man that Bizot interviewed in 1969, Ta Chak . Ta (grandfather) Chak had memorized the Ramakerti in 1920 at the age of 23 from palm leaf manuscripts. "He quickly became known," Bizot writes, "and was called to perform at village festivals and then on the stage in the monastery theaters during the big people's celebrations lasting several days" (1981: 263). The entire performance, given five hours each day, lasted about 10 days. It is through such performances that most Khmer
would have known classical literary works.

The whole body of these works is little known. Few of then have been published, and many exist only as palm leaf manuscripts. Given the large number of deaths over the last thirty years, and the disruptions to Khmer society, perhaps no storytellers survive who can give complete performances like Ta Chak .

But the entire body of work has not been lost; rather, some of these stories, such as Neang Kakey and Dum Deav, are among the best known of Khmer works. This is due first to what Nepote and Khing refer to as a "renaissance" of classical Khmer literature in the mid-20th century. Scholars began to collect and study, and then to publish these works. With changes in the education system in the late 50's and early 60's, those works became textbooks in the classroom.

"Modern" versions of these stories began to appear in prose. Nepote and Khing write,

owing to the development of printing, which was cheap and popular,
classical literature, formerly oral (folk) or handwritten, took on a new
dimension. An enormous amount of classical literature was soon being
produced, ranging from traditional publication to the progressive adaptations
using modern audio-visual techniques, including comic strips and television
films; all this proved very popular with the Cambodian public (1981:57).

Piat (1975) also writes about the popularity of this new popular literature. She says that prices were extremely low. The classical poems had all been done in "film strips". These "comic books" used film strips with "bubbles" drawn in with dialogue. Piat points out that these served the extra purpose of acting as advertising for the movie, though they were more expensive to produce than hand-drawn cartoons (1975:251-252).

But still, buying books or attending movies, even attending school, was the realm of a limited percentage of the population. One of the final major factors in the revival of classical stories was radio. They were regularly read on the air, and potentially, Khmer throughout the country could hear them.

A second genre of Khmer literature that virtually all Khmer would be familiar with are the Jataka tales, tales of the previous lives of the Buddha. While the body of Buddhist religious literature is extensive, unless a man remained in the monkhood beyond the brief stay common to most young men, his exposure will be limited to the memorization of a few oft-repeated prayers. The greater depth of knowledge of the vinaya, sutras, and discourses was the exclusive realm of monks. But this is not the case with the Jataka tales. While both enjoyable and useful for conveying religious messages, these stories were and are a popular medium for preaching, and standard pictorial adornment on Khmer temple walls.

Of all these 547 stories, by far the most popular with the Khmer is the Moha Vessandar Jataka . It is regularly recited in its entirety in Pali, with Khmer translation and commentary at religious festivals. The entire performance can take several days. Khmer may not know that a particular story is from the Jataka collection, and may just call it one more reuang preng, folktale, or simply a reuang or story.

A third genre is the chbap, or didactic codes. Composed in verse, these works provide specific advice for daily living to several different and overlapping groups. For example, there are chbap kaun cav, grandchildren's chbap; chbap srey, women's chbap; chbap bros, men's chbap; as well as the chbap peak cas; chbap of ancient advice; and the chbap ker kal , or safekeeping of the heritage chbap.

These works are generally of unknown authorship and are undated. Thierry points out that besides a couple of works that are known to be of more recent origin, these works have generally been passed on from the 14th to the 18th centuries without ceasing to be copied, and without ceasing to be memorized (1978:18-19). She also notes that it is clear that the authors had knowledge of Sanskrit texts, the Niti Castra or "texts of conduct", which are cited in inscriptions and known to be part
of an intellectual inheritance from Angkorian times (1978:18).

The chbap are meant to be memorized and chanted according to particular bat or rhyme schemes. They were learned in temples and later in state schools. The chbap srey was often passed on at home from grandmother to granddaughter or mother to daughter. As Thierry points out, the memorization of the chbap accomplished many goals at once: "the students gained in the same blow the acquisition of religious ideas, of wisdom of experience, and thus of reading and writing itself: a
simultaneous apprenticeship of the text and of the language, of good manners and of tradition" (1978:19-20). The goal was to shape young people who would fulfill proper familial obligations, act according to certain religious precepts, and be good subjects/citizens.

Reuang Preng, folktales, make up the fourth genre. These stories have been told and retold for centuries by all types of individuals. These include a wide variety of storytellers, often travelers who accompanied the telling with a chabey (a two-stringed guitar), sometimes blind men who positioned themselves at a temple or along a main path. But Thierry points out that the notion of "professionalism" with regard to telling these stories is misplaced. Although some, gifted with an exceptional memory, have made a living at it, "old people" would likely be the ones to tell stories in any given village (1978:90). Thus the common reply to the question of where people learned a story is "from my grandmother" or "from my grandfather."

Some of the stories may have been written as early as the fifteenth century on palm leaf and then recopied, but generally they were not written until the early 20th century. The folktales received specific attention in the 1920s and 1930s when the Commission des Moeurs et Coutumes du Cambodge, a research organization begun by the French, and the Buddhist Institute collaborated to collect stories from around the country. The Brachum Reuang Preng Khmaer, collected Khmer folktales, was published by the Buddhist Institute as eight separate volumes between 1967 and 1971. In 1926, the magazine Kambuja Suriya began publication and included some folktales as well as proverbs, Buddhist commentaries, and serialized novels.

The final genre I will mention here is the modern novel. The first novels written in prose appeared in the late 1930's. Since it was difficult to get books published and the author often had to bear printing costs in advance, many works were first published as series in newspapers. Among the most popular were Phka Srapon by Nu Hac, 1940, Sophat by Rim Gin, 1938, and Koulap Pailin by Nuk Thaim, 1936. All three were used as texts in state schools, and all three were made into popular films. Between 1950 and 1975, nearly 1,000 novels were published; in the early 70's they appeared at a rate of about 50 books per year (Nepote and Khing 1981:64).

During Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), nothing of significant literary importance was produced within the country, but a few works were published by Cambodian refugees in France (see Khing Hoc Dy 1994). During these horrific years, much of Cambodias literary heritage within the country was destroyed. The national library was used as a storage facility and the grounds were used for raising pigs. The library at the Buddhist Institute was destroyed, though many publications from their presses have survived. It has been estimated that 80 percent of the books and manuscripts in Khmer in the country were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period (see Ledgerwood 1990b for a discussion of the National Library).

Since 1979 Khmer literature has begun to revive, both abroad and in Cambodia. In Cambodia in the 1980s, under the Vietnamese backed Peoples Republic of Kampuchea, literature was specifically used for state propaganda, and stories often related the heroic acts of soldiers serving the revolution (Khing Hoc Dy 1994). During this time much of the Khmer works published in the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border and abroad were reprintings of classic works of literature, including folktales and chbap. This same process occurred in Cambodia after the UN sponsored elections in 1993. Classic stories, folktales, novels and other pre-revolutionary literature began to appear in re-printings. The Buddhist Institute has also begun to reprint Buddhist texts. The publication of new works was hindered in the 1990s by a lack of funding, authors generally had to front the money to pay for the printing, without any guarantee that their books would turn a profit. There is also the issue of slowly rebuilding a literate reading public, since a new generation is only now reaching adulthood after the death and destruction of the Khmer Rouge period.



Bizot, Francis
1981 "The Reamke," IN Asian Variations in the Ramayana, Iyengar K.R. Srinivasa, ed. Pp. 263-275. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Jacob, Judith
1996 The Traditional Literature of Cambodia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
1986 "The Deliberate Use of Foreign Vocabulary by the Khmer: Changing Fashions, Methods and Sources," IN Context Meaning and Power in Southeast Asia, Mark Hobart and Robert H. Taylor, eds. Pp. 115-129. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program.

Khing Hoc Dy
1994 "Khmer Literature Since 1975," IN Cambodian Culture Since 1975: Homeland and Exile. May Ebihara, Carol Mortland and Judy Ledgerwood, eds. Pp. 27-38. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ledgerwood, Judy
1990a Changing Khmer Conceptions of Gender: Women, Stories and the Social Order. Ph.D. Dissertation, Anthropology, Cornell University.
1990b "A Building Full of Books" Cultural Survival Quarterly. 14(3): 53-55.

Nepote, Jacques and Khing Hoc Dy
1981 "Literature and Society in Modern Cambodia," IN Literature and Society in Southeast Asia. Tham Seung Chee, ed. Pp. 56-81. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Piat, M.
1975 "Contemporary Cambodian Literature," Journal of the Siam Society. 63(2): 251-259.

Thierry, Solange
1978 Etude dun Corpus de Contes Cambodgiens Traditionnels. Thesis. University
of Paris. 
How to sleep, walk, stand, sit and speack

Every culture trains its children to become good members of society in order to insure harmony, peace, and stability. Cambodian parents teach their children how to sleep, walk, stand, sit, and speak. For the parents, the values below capture the essence of a well-mannered Cambodian.  

How to Sleep

  • You must wake up before sunrise or you are lazy.
  • Sleeping places in the home are determined according to status. (Cambodian families often live in one or two rooms, and everyone sleeps on the same bed, a large slatted wooden platform about eight- or ten-feet square. The parents sleep at the "head" end and the youngest children sleep at the "foot.")

How to Walk

Tell people where you are going and when you are coming back. (This is important to show respect to others and to keep them from being embarrassed if someone asks and they don't know where you are.)

  • If someone of higher status is passing you, bend lower (from the waist) than that person.
  • Don't make sounds with your skirt when you walk.
  • Don't wear shoes or hats when you enter a house or temple.
  • Close doors softly when you go through them.
  • When you meet someone on the street, ask where they are going.

How to Stand

  • Stand with your arms crossed at the waist. (Arms at the side means you are signaling that you are strong. Hands on the hips or arms behind your back or across the chest means you are rich, powerful, threatening, or disrespectful of other people.)

How to Sit

  • Sit with your legs straight down. (Crossing legs shows disrespect.)
  • Never put your feet on a table or show the soles of your feet to others.
  • Men can sit on the floor in the lotus position while eating.
  • Women must sit on the floor with legs aside.

How to Speak

  • You must speak softly and gently.
  • Show feelings only at home.
  • Children have no right to speak unless spoken to.
  • A guest is polite and doesn't talk unless spoken to.
  • Let others talk more than you.
  • There should be limited talking at meals. Speak only if spoken to.
  • If you speak with anger or emotion or express feelings, you will not be respected. You are behaving like an immature and uneducated child.
  • Patience is a virtue. (Parents make a comparison between a gasoline fire which ignites quickly and burns to nothing, and a charcoal fire which is difficult to start but cannot easily be extinguished and becomes more intense.)
  • Do not make aggressive movements or gestures--such as making a fist, pounding the table, or throwing something--while speaking.
  • Moderated feelings are best, i.e., those that are neither very happy or very angry or sad.
  • Giving criticism or discussing an individual's problems must not be done in public. (That person will lose face, want revenge, and will be unable to accept your idea.) If you must give criticism, do so in private and indirectly.
Talk around the issue, ask for information about the issue, and then let the individual reach her own conclusion in her own time and way.

How to Eat

  • Men can eat a lot but must not eat fast.
  • Women can eat only a small amount.
  • Take food only when asked or directed to.
  • Use the communal spoon. Not using it indicates you are insincere or not part of the group.
  • People of high rank do not expect to have to get their own food (especially at a buffet). They are often seated in a private or special place and served by others to show status and respect.
  • All guests must be served water or another drink even if they come for only a short visit. Give a drink rather than ask what they want which is impolite. If asked, they are obligated to choose the least expensive drink.
  • If guests come during a meal, they must be invited to eat.

How to Greet

  • Offer a traditional greeting with hands in front of face, palms together, in prayer-like fashion.
  • Men can shake hands with men.
  • Men should not shake hands with Khmer women unless they offer their hand.
  • Men should not hug, kiss, or touch the body of a Khmer woman while greeting her. (She will lose respect and feel embarrassed.)
  • Men should not look women directly in the eye. (They may become confused, feel uncomfortable, nervous, shy, and not respected.)
  • Men should not give "strong" visual attention to other men.

How to Dress

  • Formality is very important for respect in the office and at important occasions, when teaching, or when being welcomed as a guest.
  • Men wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and shoes. No T-shirts and sandals.
  • Women should avoid skirts above the knees and sleeveless or low-cut blouses.
  • Shorts are not appropriate in public or when a guest.
  • The goal in dressing is to blend in with others, not to stand out.
  • Men's hair should be short.

How to Work

  • Maintaining proper relationships in the office takes priority over the work.
  • Proper behavior is more important than work performance.
  • You will get honor if you show respect and politeness to those of higher status or power.
  • Your performance will be evaluated based on allegiance to those in power.
  • You will be rewarded with money or power or job security if you give respect and allegiance to your superiors.
  • It is better to agree than to disagree, especially if the other person has a higher status.
  • It is the responsibility of those in power to make decisions.


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