Cambodia has a rich and diverse cultural heritage dating back to prehistoric times, its most famous being the archaeological heritage of Angkor Wat. We will not describe here the cultural heritage linked to Pre –Angkor and Angkorian periods as it is widely available in all guide books. We just wish to alert you to the fact that the Angkor Complex is only one of the magnificent temple complexes that can be found in Cambodia. Other places such as Koh Ker or Sombor Prei Kuk are well worth a visit, without mentioning over 3000 temples dotting the country elsewhere.
Aside a few outstanding archaeological sites hardly mentioned anywhere, we’d rather focus here on other often neglected aspects of the intangible heritage of the country, such as music, dance, art, and textiles.
While most visitors come to Cambodia to marvel at Angkor Wat, there are many other equally significant cultural heritage assets worth visiting.
Banteay Kou, Memot, Kompong Cham Province
This is an archaeological site from the Neolithic period containing ‘circular earthwork’ artefacts. The site is called Banteay Kou and is located in the east. Banteay Kou means fortress. Sites of this type were first discovered in 1959 by Louis Malleret, who described a series of 17 circular earthworks (usually more than 200 metres in diameter), each with an outer wall and an inner ditch. In 1962, Bernard Philippe Groslier carried out excavations in a circular earthwork near Memot, later called the Groslier site, and named this civilization “Mimotien”. To date thirty-six of these large prehistoric villages have been discovered in Cambodia.
Sre Ampil Archaeological and Conservation Project, Kandal Province
A museum opened in 2006 in the grounds of Sre Ampil pagoda in Kien Svay district, close to Phnom Penh. Located in between the two main rivers of Bassak and Lower Mekong, the archaeological site is rich in mounts (86), where numerous cultural artefacts have been found. From a surrounding area human and animal bones have been uncovered by villagers who work in the area, and it is a very important source of archaeological study.
Temple foundations also scattered on the site are similar to those in the Sombor Prei Kuk site, which date back to the pre-Angkorian period. Moreover the names of the Angkor kings, King Jayavarman I and Bhavarman II, appear only in inscriptions found in the Sre Ampil and Sombor Prei Kuk sites. The site is believed to have developed in the prehistoric period and may have continued to play a role throughout the Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods.
2,000 years ago Indian culture deeply influenced the people not only in language and religion, but also art styles and music.
Traditional Cambodian music flourished in both the royal court and in village settings. Most functions are typically accompanied by an ensemble called Pinpeat, a form of music that was used in religious ceremonies, but also for things like shadow puppets and pantomimes. In the realm of secular music, Mohori music takes precedence. This kind of music has more than 600 musical themes and is most often heard at royal banquets, played to folk dancing. Lastly, PlengKar is the music that is played at weddings.
Classical Khmer dance is an ancient dance tradition that is performed for the purpose of ceremonies or entertainment. Known as Cambodian Court Dance or the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, it was historically performed by the consorts, concubines, relatives, and attendants of the King’s palace. Before 1953, Khmer classical dance performances were rarely seen by the public eye, limited to performances for royalty, guests and attendants of the royal palace.
Khmer classical dance is of a unique style. It uses stylized movements and gestures to convey meaning and tell a story. These abstract gestures are forming a sort of alphabet and represent various things from nature such as fruit, flowers, and leaves. The costumes are highly ornate and heavily embroidered, sometimes including sequins and even semi-precious gems.
A pinpeat orchestra plays the music used for Khmer classical dance. This type of orchestra consists of several types of xylophones, drums, oboes, gongs, and other musical instruments. When the pinpeat orchestra is not playing, a chorus of several singers will sing lyrics which tell the dance’s story.
Nowadays, Cambodia is also becoming famous for its Hip Hop street dancers.
The ceramics of the Khmer empire are believed to have been produced as early as the 9th Century. Ceramics of extremely good quality were produced in high volumes during the 11th and 12th centuries, especially around the kilns of Mount Kulen, near Angkor, and in provinces which are now part of Thailand.
A majority of Khmer ceramics are glazed brown or celadon, covered with a natural wood-ash glaze with iron, dark jade/green or deep olive/green colours, but can vary to nearly white, grey, or yellow.
The ancient clay kilns were capable of firing stoneware ceramics to a temperature of 1000 – 1200 degrees centigrade. Potters would also fire their pots in the open air at a temperature as low as 700 degrees centigrade.
Today, the majority of the ceramics made in Cambodia come from the province of Kompong Chhnang (chhnang meaning pot). Look for the potters carrying their pots on oxcarts around the country, but for more refined ones, visit the Cambodia ceramics centre featured in this guide, which has revived the ancient techniques.
The use of bronze casting in Cambodia began sometime between 1,500 and 1,000 BC. Following the permeation of political and religious ideas brought from India around 1AD, a tradition of casting bronze Hindu and Buddhist divinities emerged in Cambodia. This tradition reached its pinnacle of output and skill during the Angkor period. The large bronze figure of the ‘Reclining Vishnu’ (late 11th century) demonstrates the level of mastery that Khmer bronze artists achieved.
Besides objects that were made in veneration of religious divinities, other types of bronze objects can be divided into two categories: ritual objects and secular goods. Many of the more ritual objects, including popils (stylised candle holders), bells, bowls and conch shells for water ceremonies, are still used in a variety of Khmer ceremonies today. Secular objects include ornate hooks for palanquins, gilded rings from the handles of parasols, fans, and military or official seals.
The stone carving skills of the ancient Khmers were inherited from India but later evolved into its own unique Khmer style, however many sculptures represent the Hindu deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahmans, the elephant god Ganesha, as well as Hindu gods and goddesses and mythical monsters. Some large sculptures even portray the epics of the Hindu myths such as Mahabharata and Ramayana.
The most astounding Buddha statues are found in Angkor Thom (Bayon) where the magnificent statues of four-faced Bodhisattava Avalokiteshvara, the lord Buddha, were sculpted on fifty towers.
Although each sculpture bears the common characteristics of the supernatural being it represents, its details reveal the personal imagination of its sculptor. Good examples can be seen in the 2000 sculptures of Apsara in Angkor Wat; the Apsara are the female devatas (angels), and each was beautifully carved with her own supple posture, personal decorations and unique ornaments.
Some sculptures depict important events such as the war against foreign invaders while some reveal the everyday life of the Khmer people such as the relief carvings of Angkor Thom or mythology on the magnificent carved walls of Angkor Wat galleries.
There are three important silk textiles in Cambodia. They include ikat silks, hol twill-patterned silks, and the weft ikat textiles. Since ancient times, women have learned highly complex methods and intricate patterns related to weaving, one of which is called the hol method. It involves dying patterns on the silk before weaving. Patterns are made by tying natural and synthetic fibres on the weft threads and then dyeing them, repeating the process for different colours. What remains unique to Cambodian weavers is the uneven twill technique.
Traditionally Cambodians wear a chequered scarf called a krama. The krama has been a symbol of Cambodian dress since the first century reign of Preah Bath Hun Tean although it is not clear when exactly the krama became fashionable in the streets. The scarf is used for all purposes including for style, protection from the hot sun, an aid (for your feet) when climbing trees, a hammock for infants, a towel, or a sarong.