Exploring the mighty Mekong River is the pursuit of a glorious past, the retracing of significant human accomplishments and cultural highs. But Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage is derived from more than two events; the golden pinnacle of the 9th to 15th century Khmer empire and the tragedy of its genocidal modern-day history, even as the two events have marked the country’s cultural and social fabric irreversibly. To deeply appreciate its culture-rich landscape, one should have a small insight into what forms Cambodia’s identity before visiting.
If there is something you should know about the country before you visit, it is its history. Much is known about the glittering age of the Khmer empire and its powerful seat in Angkor Wat, but prior to that the small kingdom of Kembuja-desa was fraught with revolts, warfare, usurpations, and invasions. Similarly, it is interesting how an empire responsible for the spread of art, culture, and religion collapsed into obscurity after infighting and warfare from increasingly potent neighbors before the ruins of Angkor were discovered by French naturalist Henri Mohout in 1860.
In fact, the country is no stranger to political instability, whether it was due to the dominant Tai court in the 14th century, the French protectorate, or the Siamese and Vietnamese dynasties in the 17th century. Independence from the French in 1954 fared no better, with internal politics developing in a complex manner at Prince Sihanouk’s hands, culminating in a coup that led to civil war. What comes next is a brutal chapter in Cambodia’s history, leaving between one and three million dead in the short period of only four years. Initially designed to turn Cambodia into an agrarian, communist society with no religion, no intellectuals, and no currency, the Khmer Rouge regime is recognized as one of most violent and drastic deliberate upheavals ever inflicted on a society. As guests of the Aqua Mekong, you will have the opportunity to visit S21 in Phnom Penh, the regime’s infamous former concentration camp now known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, in order to learn about this tragic moment in the country’s past.
Democracy has been a hard-won journey for Cambodians whose intellectuals, infrastructure, cultural and educational institutions were wiped out for an entire generation. Yet, despite the trauma, Cambodians are resilient people who are determined to forge a better, peaceful future.
Keeping the faith
Most Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism, the oldest existing school of the religion. It is more common however that their version of devotion encompasses a more relaxed approach and combines ancestor worship, shamanism, and animism that predate Buddhism since its proliferation in the 13th century. This also includes the influence of Hinduism which was one of the official religions of the Khmer empire. Angkor Wat was in fact the largest Hindu temple in the world, dedicated to Brahma, thus it is not surprising to find that the religion shapes Khmer Buddhist practices such as weddings, funerals, and even the use of astrology.
Despite the Khmer Rouge disrobing and killing monks and religious scholars during its reign of terror, the country remains about 95 percent Buddhist, a testament to the faith of the people, as well as their desire for peace. However, less than five percent of men become monks today, compared to 100 percent a century ago, when many poverty-stricken families, especially those in the countryside, sent their sons to temples to study as Buddhism was often the only way to provide an education. Nowadays, many Cambodian men who are ordained as monks do not always commit to a lifelong calling.
Art is in their blood
From religion came art. Inspired by Hindu and Buddhist principles as well as indigenous animistic beliefs, a unique Khmer style was born absorbing the influences of Javanese, Chinese, and Thai culture. Ancient Cambodian culture is filled with a long tradition of literature, oral storytelling, narrative singing, royal chronicles, and epic poetry thanks to the Sanskrit language, while classical dance and music were cultivated at court. Today, local traditions are kept alive by musicians, singers, and theatre artists, while you will find musicians in every village sharing their gift of song.
Most of Cambodia’s achievements in art, architecture, music, and dance come from the unparalleled output from the Khmer empire. The temple complexes of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thum are testament to the power and grandeur of the golden age in architecture and decorative art, themselves inspired by the vast output of the Indian civilization. These are reflected in the epic sculptural friezes depicting the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as Hindu deities of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahman, Ganesha as well as the naga serpent, demon kala, giant makara, and mythical lions, and later on in the Buddhist faces at Bayon.
Today, the most important artistic undertaking in Cambodia is the restoration of murals in Buddhist temples, as well as the artisanship of nearly forgotten crafts such as stone carving, silversmithing, pottery, and krama silk weaving, which you as a guest of Aqua Mekong will be privy to.
Most Asian cultures emphasize the concept of ‘face’, in which individuals act with restraint to protect their self-worth, dignity, and peer perception. This quality underpins the fact that Cambodians are mostly calm and avoid inappropriate behaviour or excessive displays of emotion. Similarly, they expect that politeness and respect is offered to them even in criticism, so as to save them from embarrassment.
Despite the difficult past Cambodians have endured, you will find that they are a cheerful community. Forgiveness and harmony seem to be pillars they hold on to move on from the tragedies of recent times, which is not to say that it does not resonate within them. It might be precisely this fact that allows them to place emphasis on honor and loyalty to their family, friends, and the collective so that harmony prevails.
Take a journey of a lifetime aboard the award-winning Aqua Mekong river ship for a truly immersive, meaningful, and personalized luxury experience in this culture-rich landscape. Itineraries depart from Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap. Aqua Expeditions is the only Mekong cruise that combines an exploration of the Mekong River, dotted with guided visits to temples, traditional artisans, and local markets, with a trip to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat by providing complimentary flight extensions to Siem Reap during the low water season.