Cambodian traditions and customs

What traditions and customs are there in Cambodia?

We will get to know the customs and traditions of Cambodia, in Southeast Asia.


Food in daily life

The staple foods are rice and fish. Traditionally, a home-cooked meal is served on a mat on the floor or with diners sitting together on a raised bamboo platform. Meals are eaten in shifts according to status, with the adult men and guests eating first and the food preparers afterwards.

Breakfast typically consists of rice porridge or rice noodles. Lunch and dinner can be a combination of a broth seasoned with fish or meat and vegetables, fish, fresh vegetables eaten with a fish-based paste, and vegetables sautéed with minced meat.

A strong-smelling fermented fish paste called prâhok is the quintessential flavoring of Khmer food. Fruit is savored, and its display is considered a mark of abundance. It is often given as a gift. Teuk tnaot, a liquid extracted from sugar palms and drunk at various degrees of fermentation, is generally not taken with meals.

The tradition of Khmer cuisine in restaurants is poorly developed, with restaurants often serving what is considered Chinese food. There are no food taboos, although devout Buddhists refrain from alcohol. Monks are also not allowed to eat after noon and are ordered to eat whatever is given to them without making any special requests.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

During the festivals, carefully prepared and seasoned dishes are prepared, such as curries, spiced fish sauces, complex stir-fries and a variety of sweets. At a temple festival, each family brings dishes that are ritually presented to the monks. After the monks have eaten, the rest of the food is eaten by the lay community.


Traditionally, the marriage is organized by the parents of the bride and groom or by someone who acts as their representative. Ideally, the groom initiates the courtship process by asking his parents to approach the parents of a woman he is attracted to.

Neither the bride nor the groom are required to marry, although parents can have considerable influence on the choice of partner. Considerations of benefits to both families often figure more prominently in the choice of a marriage partner than romantic love.

It is not unusual for decisions about marriage to be made before a couple has had much contact. Specialists in horoscope reading are often consulted about the advisability of a wedding, although their advice is not always followed.

The groom pays the bride’s wealth to the bride’s family; this money is sometimes used to buy jewelry or clothes for the bride or to defray the cost of the wedding.

Although polygamy was legal before 1989, true polygamy, sanctioned by ceremony and both wives living in the same household, was rarely practiced outside royalty in modern times.

However, a mistress is referred to as a second wife, and although bigamy was prohibited by the 1993 constitution, the practice of keeping a second or third wife does not carry a social stigma.

There is strong social pressure to marry and for those who marry to have children. Divorce is a socially recognized option, although there is social pressure against it and a certain reluctance to grant it.


Khmer has a complex system of pronouns and terms that distinguishes between people of formal rank, people with whom the speaker relates in everyday life (also distinguished by their relative age), and those with whom a marked informality is assumed., including people of clear inferiority status and those with whom the speaker shares a long-standing family equality.

Those addressing monks or royalty are expected to use even more complex linguistic systems that, in addition to special pronouns and terms, include special vocabulary for sleeping, eating, walking, and, in the case of royalty, for parts of the body. Body.

Relative rank is also distinguished by the order in which traditional greetings are made, palms together raised in supplication, the degree of elevation of the hands, and consideration of whether this greeting or a Western handshake is used.

An important part of etiquette is knowing these systems and how to negotiate their ambiguities; the systems were partially abandoned during the socialist periods, but since 1991 they have been revived with a new emphasis.

There is a much stronger taboo against public contact between men and women than in Western countries, but same-sex contact is more accepted than, for example, in the United States.

Conventional wisdom holds that the head is the highest part of the body and the feet the lowest, and it is rude to touch the head of another adult, just as it is rude to point your foot at another person. However, a certain type of intimacy between equals is characterized by the breaking of the norm, with friendly wives at the head of the other person.


Religious beliefs

Theravada Buddhism spread in the last years of the Khmer Empire and is traditionally considered the religion of the Khmer ethnic group. Animistic practices and so-called Brahmanical practices are also part of the culture and deeply intermingled with the daily practice of Buddhism.

They are not considered separate religions, but rather part of the spectrum of options for dealing with moral, physical, and spiritual needs. Buddhism is a national tradition, with a bureaucracy and a written tradition. Brahmanical and spiritual practices are more localized and are passed down from person to person rather than as a formal institution.

All religious traditions were weakened by North Korea’s ban on religious observances and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s religious policy, which restricted religion and emphasized Buddhism consistent with socialist modernity.

Since the restrictions were lifted in 1989, the religion has enjoyed a revival. Christian converts returned from refugee camps and foreign countries, and Christianity has established a strong presence among the ethnic Khmer.

Other religious movements resort to attracting powerful traditional cultural icons and financing Khmers abroad.

Religious practitioners

Theravada Buddhist monks can be seen in saffron robes walking in procession in the early hours of the morning, going from door to door begging for food. A lay specialist, the achar, also plays an important role as the person who leads the public singing and as an expert in the formulas of the different rituals.

Outside the formal sphere of Buddhism there are other practitioners. The krou (or krou khmaer) specialize in traditional medicine and magic, including the making of amulets and negotiating with certain types of spirits; the thmuap is a kind of krou specialized in black magic. The roup or roup arâkk is a spiritual medium through which special knowledge can be obtained.

Rituals and holy places

The Buddhist temple complex, or vott, is central to community life, as is the Buddhist festival calendar, which is linked to the seasons and the agricultural cycle. Monks must reside in a single temple throughout the rainy season, and ceremonies mark the beginning and end of the retreat.

The period around the end of the rainy season, after the rice transplant but before the harvest, includes two major holidays: Pchum Ben (a two-week period of rituals in honor of the spirits of the dead) and Kâthin (a day for processions and the ceremonial presentation of the monks’ robes).

The day of the Buddha’s birth and enlightenment (May) and the day of the Buddha’s last sermon (February) are also important holidays. The start of the Buddhist lunar calendar occurs in April and has both religious and secular aspects.

Death and the afterlife

Cambodian Buddhists believe in reincarnation, although this can include temporary periods in realms that resemble heaven or hell. The dead are usually cremated after an elaborate procession. Ceremonies in memory of the dead are held on the seventh and hundredth day after death.

Secular celebrations

In Phnom Penh, the most popular secular festival is the Water Festival, from November 21 to 23, with its colorful boat races and nightly display of illuminated boats. The spiritual practices also associated with the regattas mean that the festival is not entirely secular.

Independence Day (November 9) and the King’s Birthday (October 31) have in recent years involved large government-sponsored celebrations.

However, these holidays, and smaller ones such as Constitution Day, Royal Plowing Ceremony Day and Victory over Genocidal Crime Day, do not have the widespread cultural resonance of more religious celebrations such as the Year New, Pchum Ben and Kathin.

Arts and Humanities

Arts support

Since 1979, there has been a government effort to restore aspects of the traditional culture destroyed during the DK period. Most of the state and international funds have gone to the restoration of Angkorean antiquities, but support has also been given to classical dance and recording of traditional music, as well as to the establishment of workshops for the manufacture of traditional instruments..

In recent years, there has been support from NGOs to preserve and develop marketing strategies for traditional weavers. Some musicians, singers and theater groups earn money by performing at village festivals and weddings.

The most successful perform on radio and television and market their work on cassette tapes. Overseas Cambodian music groups and video producers also sell their works in Cambodia.


There is a long tradition in the use of writing, with important religious texts, royal chronicles, and epic poetry, but modern literature is poorly developed. Oral traditions are strong: domestic storytelling and a genre of narrative singing to a banjolike-like instrument play an important cultural role.

Virtually no literature was produced during the DK period, and many writers were killed or fled. The literature of the eighties had a socialist orientation. Since 1991, there has been more freedom to publish pre-1975 literature, but little money to publish new books.

Small newspapers have flourished, and some satirical writing has appeared. Before 1975, authors living abroad and younger writers published Khmer books in their resettlement countries.

Graphic arts

Although much work is produced in the graphic arts, it is often regarded as mere craftsmanship and has received little attention. Some art is produced for tourists and decoration of houses and offices.

Since the early 1990s, the most important project for painters has been the restoration of murals in Buddhist temples. Graphic art is rarely seen as the individual expression of the artist.

Performing arts

Classical dance and music, originally associated with the court, enjoy great prestige, although live performances by national companies are not frequent.

Fewer professional musicians, singers and theater artists keep local traditions alive. Virtually every town has musicians who play at weddings. A pop tradition has been revived since the end of socialism.

Although cinema revived in the 1980s, production remains small and budgets low. Television is dominated by Thai and Hong Kong movies and soap operas, dubbed in Khmer.

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