Up until 1970, much of Cambodian culture and artistic expression was informed by Cambodians’ pride in the country’s history – including the longstanding presence of Buddhism and the ancestral connection to the Khmer Empire from the Middle Ages (also known as Angkor). However, Cambodian culture has been recovering and rebuilding in the wake of mass killings carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s. Contemporary Cambodia is experiencing a revival of traditional cultural values and practices while still coping with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Homogeneity and the Khmer Ethnicity
Cambodia is a fairly homogeneous society, with 97.6% of Cambodians identifying as ethnically Khmer. Many Cambodians today consider themselves to be descendants of the Khmer people from the Khmer Empire. Indeed, the terms ‘Cambodian’ and ‘Khmer’ are often used interchangeably, with the term ‘Khmer’ commonly used to refer to the Cambodian language, people and culture. This suggests that Khmer is more widely perceived as anand linguistic identity marker than a political entity.
The religious landscape of Cambodia is similarly homogeneous with 96.9% of the population identifying as Buddhist. Numerous Buddhist principles – such as tolerance, calmness and taking responsibility for one’s own actions – are values found throughout Cambodian culture. For more information on Buddhism in Cambodia, see ‘Buddhism’ in Religion.
Khmer Rouge Regime (1975–1979)
The Khmer Rouge – also known among Cambodians as ‘Pol Pot time’ – marks a dark period for most, if not all, Cambodians. The main goal of the regime, led by Pol Pot, was to create a socialist society where modern influences of the urban population (“New People”) were to be eradicated in order to return Cambodia to a pre-modern society of “Old People”. Consequently, millions of Cambodians were killed (an estimated 1.5 to 3 million) due to execution, forced hardships, disease and starvation. Buddhist monks, urban dwellers, government officials and people with a Western education were perceived by the regime as supporters of the “New People” culture and, as such, were among the initial targets of the regime.
Most Cambodians were forced to evacuate urban areas into labour camps in rural Cambodia in order to work in farming. This broke down previous distinctions based on class and the urban-rural divide among the population. Some attempted to escape by crossing the Cambodian-Thai border, with many Cambodians remaining in refugee camps for years until they were able to resettle in receiving countries around the world.
Many artefacts of Cambodian heritage and history – such as historical books, files, works of art, literature and religious temples – were also destroyed during this period. Much of the post-regime period has been dedicated to rebuilding the Cambodian culture in light of the tragedies. Nearly all Cambodian families were affected by the Khmer Rouge regime, experiencing immense loss or separation, suffering and trauma. While over half of the population has been born since the regime ended (50.26% of the population are between the ages of 0 and 24), the after-effects of the regime are still felt today.
Demeanour and 'Face'
The Cambodian proverb “Fear not the future, weep not for the past” captures the general approach to life followed by many Cambodians. Given the tragedies experienced during the Khmer Rouge regime, many have demonstrated immense forgiveness in order to live harmoniously with those who were a part of the regime as well as those Khmer who may have lost loved ones. Cambodians also tend to have a stoic and cheerful demeanour. They rarely complain or show discomfort. People often smile or laugh in various scenarios, regardless of whether the situation is positive or negative. Thus, for a Cambodian, a smile does not necessarily equate to expressing happiness, agreement or amusement.
The concept ofis also one of the underpinning factors influencing the way in which Cambodians behave and interact with one another. Many Cambodians also seem to have a calm disposition, while also avoiding excessive displays of negative emotions (e.g. anger, selfishness) or outbursts. This is partially as a way to maintain .
Many social interactions among Cambodians take into account another individual’s status relative to oneself (i.e. their age, level of education, line of work). In nearly all cases, how one sits, walks or otherwise interacts with others will depend upon the status of each person present. Therefore, it is not uncommon for Cambodians to ask personal questions to discern your status to ensure they address you correctly and behave appropriately.
Cambodians also tend to have a sense of attachment and pride for their family, village and district. Being asociety, strong emphasis is placed on honouring and being loyal towards one’s family. Indeed, loyalty to one’s family, friends or community will, at times, override social rules. For example, Cambodians rarely jeopardise the interests of the collective group and often take responsibility for fellow members. Moreover, one’s community or extended family is typically understood as more important than the individual. The individual generally has limited privacy and is expected to act for the good of their community in order to maintain .