Cambodians comprise a variety of kids who are commonly called Khmer. The Khmer constitute about 91 percent of the population. The population also includes a diversity of other ethnic backgrounds: Chinese, Vietnamese, Chams, and hilltribes, called Khmer Roeu.
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 Japanese 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 91% 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 aBuddhist 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-Muslimsbelonging to the Sunni school and approximately 60.000 Christians, most of themRoman Catholics. Almost all the Chinese in Cambodia are Taoist or Confucianist.
Arts & Architecture
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.
The official Cambodian language, called Khmer, is part of the Mon-Khmer family, enriched by the Indian Pali and Sanskrit languages and influenced by Thai and French. Khmer is related to the languages spoken by hilltribe people of Laos, Vietnam and even Malaysia. It has no tones and the script is derived from the South-Indian alphabet, written from left to right and leaving no space between the words. English and French are spoken also - French mainly by some old people, whereas the younger generation learns English.