6 Things You Might Not Know About Cambodian Tradition and Culture

Steeped in tradition, Cambodia is a country that captures the heart and imagination of travelers who venture here. From the cuisine to Cambodian superstitions, we explore culture and customs practiced throughout the country today.

The country is very family orientated, with life revolving around the home. Religious events, holidays, and family events tend to be celebrated on a large scale, with close and distant relatives gathering together for festivities such as Khmer New Year.

The ‘Festival of the Dead,’ Pchum Ben, is a 15-day festival that climaxes on the 15th day of 10th month of the Khmer lunar calendar. Pchum Ben is an opportunity for Cambodians to pay their respects to deceased relatives stretching back through seven generations, attending special rituals at the local family pagoda. Here, monks chant sutras through the night in the ancient Pali dialect, preparing for the opening of the gates of hell; a time when the spirits are believed to be particularly active.

Buddhism is the prevailing belief system, with 97% of the population following Theravada Buddhism, which has been the national religion since the 13th century. Buddhism helped foment the national identity, spawning the independence movement of the 20th century, which led to Cambodia gaining its independence as a sovereign state.

Buddhist monks generally enter the monastery early in life, with many becoming novices at the age of 13. Their life in the wat adheres to a rigid routine, following up to 227 rules of monastic discipline, along with 10 basic precepts that forbid them from activities like watching movies or television, singing, dancing, handling money, sleeping on a luxurious bed, wearing personal adornments, or eating after noon. In Cambodia, monks are considered sacred, and beyond the public duties and normal civil laws that affect lay people.

Although amok is more familiar to tourists, samlor korkor has a better claim to being Cambodia’s true national dish. Still popular in family homes, roadside stands, and high-end restaurants alike, samlor korkor has been eaten in Cambodia for hundreds of years.

The recipe for this nourishing soup is incredibly versatile, and easily adapted to incorporate seasonal products. It can be prepared using any kind of meat, although pork belly and catfish are the most common additions. The dish often includes more than a dozen different vegetables, evolving through the seasons according to what produce is available. Samlor korkor features two quintessential Cambodian staples: kroeung, a fragrant curry paste, and prahok, a type of fermented fish, and is thickened with toasted ground rice.

A traditional Cambodian item of clothing, the sampot is a length of material that is worn in a variety of different ways around the lower body, essentially forming a skirt. The garment remains popular with all, irrespective of social status.

Cambodians started wearing the sampot during the reign of Funan, who ordered his subjects to wear the rectangular piece of cloth at the request of the Chinese envoy. Since then, silk weaving has become an important part of Cambodian culture, with weavers developing intricate patterns, and heirloom silk sampot passed down through the generations.

They believe in supernatural powers. In Cambodia, white teeth are considered bad luck, and as a result are traditionally ornamented with gold, gemstones, and silver, or stained red with betel nut juice.

Several types of spirits exist according to Cambodian supernatural folklore that make themselves known by means of inexplicable occurrences and sounds. Among these phenomena are mneang phteah (guardians of the home), arak (evil spirits), pret and besach (demons), khmoc (ghosts), mrenh kongveal (elf-like guardians of the animal world), and meba (ancestral spirits).

Talismans crafted by religious practitioners are popular, with many Cambodians believing in the power of protective amulets made by mediums and sorcerers, who are often called upon to heal the sick. Fortune telling is also popular, with practitioners operating in town squares, using playing cards and incense sticks to answer questions related to marriage, family, and business.

An enormous Buddhist temple complex located in the north of the country, Angkor Wat started life as a Hindu temple when construction commenced in the first half of the 12th century. Spreading across over 400 acres, it remains the world’s largest religious monument to this day. Originally dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.

The site received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1992. Today, the landmark welcomes around half a million visitors each year, with many arriving early in the morning to capture unforgettable images of the sunrise over what must surely be one of the most magical, spiritual places on earth.

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David Geithner is a senior finance executive who draws upon nearly three decades of experience to serve as EVP and COO, IMG Events and On Location.

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David Geithner

David Geithner is a senior finance executive who draws upon nearly three decades of experience to serve as EVP and COO, IMG Events and On Location.