1 - The Khmer, from origins to contemporary times

If one is to believe the legend, the ancient dynasties of the Khmer empire were derived from the union of a Hindu prince, Preah Thong - who had been banished from Delhi by his father - with a "female serpent-woman", the daughter of the Nagaraja who was sovereign of the land. She appeared to him in radiant in beauty, frolicking on a sand bank where he had come to make camp for the night. He took her as his wife, and the Nagaraja, draining the land by drinking the water that covered it, gave him the new country, called it Kambuja and built him a capital.

A variation, revealed on an inscription at Mison in Champa (mid Vietnam) and reproduced in various descriptions of Cambodia, substitutes for the prince the Brahman Kaundinya, who "married the nagi Soma to accomplish the rites" and, throwing the magic lance with which he was armed, founded at the point of its landing the royal city where Somavamsa, the race of the moon, would rule.

Another popular tradition, though less widespread, gives as the origin the coupling of the maharashi Kambu and the apsara Mera, whose union is symbolic of that between the two great races, solar (Suryavamsa) and lunar (Somavamsa). This survives particularly in the word Kambuja - son of Kambu - from where derives the name "Cambodian" by which we now call the present descendants of the ancient Khmer.

Whichever version one takes, the mythical implication is undeniable and the truth remains - that the Khmer people are born of a joining of two distinct elements; Indian and native. They are not, as some would believe, simply a people of purely Indian or Hindu origin who had come, following migration, to settle in a region devoid of any inhabitants, or where the indigenous race had been eliminated by mass deportation.

Established since prehistoric times in the lower Mekong valley of the southern Indo-Chinese peninsula, that included not only present day Cambodia but also Cochinchina and parts of Siam and Laos, they were in fact a mixture - from an ethnological rather than a linguistic point of view - of people from lower Burma and various barbarous people from the annamitic chain, themselves in turn quite probably deriving from Negroid and Indonesian roots. The Indian contribution apparently resulted from a natural expansion towards the east for commercial, civil and religious reasons rather than for any brutal political motivation.

Moreover, with the fall of the Khmer empire - that so captures the imagination in the extent and apparently abrupt timing of its destruction - came perhaps a total decline and abandonment of the capital, but, mysteriously, not the entire extinction of the race. With a little help from France and a clear understanding of the glory of their past, these people soon regained an awareness of their value and began to rise again, having never ceased to exist. Having retained their fundamental characteristics - their traditions, their religion and their language - their artistic talents need only the opportunity to revive.

Some physical catastrophe, earthquake, flood, or a drying up of the country's economy has been suggested, and though it is difficult to accept that an earthquake could leave so many stone structures standing, there are however indications, such as the filling of the enormous basins and low areas of Angkor Thom and its suburbs, that render the suggestion of an overflow of the Great Lake or the rupture of some dike plausible - and it is common that such disasters usually result in epidemic and devastation. Likewise, the collapse of a perfected hydraulic system that gave life and fertility to the region could have quickly transformed to inhospitable areas of land that had until then been populated and plentiful.

But human causes suffice. Although only five centuries separate us from the date of Angkor's abandonment as capital, it should not be forgotten that a hard and far less glorious time followed the four century period - from the 9th to the 13th - of her splendour. Already exhausted by builder kings seeking to ensure their posthumous glory, the Khmer people could no longer offer resistance to a series of bloody wars followed no doubt by the systematic transfer of the population to slavery. Ruin came, but not total extinction.


The geographical framework of the ancient Khmer empire is reflected in that of its monuments. Although these are found grouped in a particularly dense manner in the Angkorian region to the north of the Great Lake, one can however include in totality more than a thousand remains scattered over the whole of the area between the gulf of Siam and Vientiane on the one side and between the Mekong delta and the valley of Menam on the other - that is to say in Cambodia itself, the major part of Cochinchina, lower and middle Laos, eastern Siam and a part of the Menam valley. The changes that occurred over the centuries came not from any lack of unity in the population, but rather from a contrast of a physical nature between the dry regions to the north of the chain of the Dangrek mountains and the fertile plains to the south.

Present day Cambodia is found bordered by the Gulf of Siam to the south-west, Laos to the north and Vietnam to the east and south-east. Its main artery is the Mekong valley, which crosses from north to south. This is joined at Phnom Penh by the Tonle Sap, spreading to the north-west in a large plain of water that extends for some 140 kilometres by 30 and irrigates the surrounding plains.

The Tonle Sap - once a maritime gulf that now forms a lake - has the peculiarity that each rainy season, from May to October, its waters are no longer able to flow into the flooding Mekong and become choked, rising by ten metres and so forming a huge regulatory basin, whose surface area triples that of the dry season. Large water festivals with canoe races during November's full moon mark the end of this period, and the King, in a symbolic ritual, presides over the reversing of the current.

Each annual deluge sees the Tonle Sap rise still further, completely flooding the forested zones that border its banks and ensuring a particularly abundant source of nourishment to its fish - so making it the richest fish pond in the world.

Cambodia lies between 10 and 14 degrees latitude north, and the climate nears the equatorial with an almost constant temperature. The contrast between the dry season and the season of the heavy rains is, however, quite marked, and although the average temperature of the year is 28 degrees, the nights of December and January - that are particularly fresh - see the temperature fall to around 20 degrees, while the months of April and May are distinguished by a torrid heat reaching 35 degrees in an atmosphere charged with storms which never break.

Although under the influence of the monsoons, the country is protected from the coast by chains of mountains ranging from 1000 to 1500 metres in height - notably the Elephant mountains, where the Bokor altitude station is located - giving it a less humid and unhealthy climate than Cochinchina. Here the skies are often quite fresh and clear - and extremely favourable to moonlit nights.

With its eight million inhabitants for an area of 180,000 square kilometres, Cambodia is an under-developed country with little cultivation. Thin agricultural resources are complemented with fishing, a little rearing of cattle and some forestry, while a large part of its area is mostly covered with unbroken forest and bush, and remains deserted.

Rice and fish are the staple diet, and the harvest is regulated by the rhythm of the rains and floods. The fish are plentiful - even in the paddy fields where they hibernate in the underground mud during the dry months to re-emerge with the first rains. On the Tonle Sap, during the dry season, entire villages are established on the open lake - their belongings suspended from poles with the racks of drying fish.

The rural Cambodian lives a rudimentary existence, by the water if possible, in straw huts or in wooden houses raised from the ground on posts of two metres in height. He is sheltered from the animals and the floods and keeps his meagre livestock under his home. With just enough work to be able to pay his taxes and support his family he lives preferably in the middle of his small-holding, and, without much of a taste for business, is content to let the Chinese or Vietnamese deal with the surplus produce from his paddy or sugar palm, pigs, chickens or the fruits of his garden.

The extensive crossbreeding over the centuries - the happiest of which has resulted, particularly in the towns, from a mixing with the Chinese - does not appear to have fundamentally changed the nature of the people. Cambodians are broad and muscular (standing on average 1m.65), are brachycephalic and generally dark in colour. The nose is broad, the lips are thick and the eyes straight and fairly narrow. The hair is worn short, even on the women. When they feel that one shows them some interest, they are hospitable and sweet natured.

Sensitive and religious, the family centres its life on the pagoda, where the male youth is obliged to spend some of his time. Generous towards their priests - the innumerable monks whose bright orange robes animate the landscape and to whom subsistence is readily assured - they take every opportunity to venerate the Buddha and gain merit, marking the year with numerous festivals to satisfy a distinct taste for leisure.

The national religion is Buddhism of the Small Vehicle, or Theravada, of the Pali language - which is also practised in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand and Laos. The monastic life here plays the principal role and the popular faith, while rudimentary and sometimes tinted with remains of ancient superstition, is based on the transmigration of the soul and the search for personal salvation through work during the course of an existence in which each action is accounted for in the regulation of the future. After death the body is carried to the pyre, and the cremation ends with either the deposit of the ashes in a small funerary monument (Cedei) or their scattering on sacred ground.