Khmer culture Society and Customs
Lifestyle Today's Cambodia is both modern and traditional. In the present world, institutions and laws ensure that advancing in society is possible for anyone with ambition and talents. But Cambodian culture has old and deep roots, and traditional Cambodia society is established in customs and attitudes that are centuries old. Cambodians believe they are born into a place in society that is determined by the Karma (the effects of thought and deed) of their past lives. However, for their acts of Thveu Bonn - making merit- they can advance their social position. Despite this, there will always be people they deal with who are higher or lower status. And this must be acknowledged by proper speech and the relevant gestures and actions appropriate to the given social situation. Thus, for most Cambodian, there are always superiors to respect, meaning people who are given special treatment because of their higher status.
Khmer Traditional Greeting
Cambodians traditionally greet each other with a Sompeah. This is a pressing of the palms together as in prayer and bowing the head slightly. Younger people or people of less status usually initiate the greeting and the lower the bow and higher the hands are held, the more respect is shown. Hand shaking has also been largely accepted in Cambodia. Restraint and courtesy are the focal points of Cambodian social relations. The language of both speech and gesture features these qualities. Even in greeting one another, Cambodian indicates status, for the type of greeting used depends on the rank of the person addressed.
Gestures used by those of lower ranks automatically recognize the status of the higher ranks. The most complex gestures are reserved for the royal family or Buddhist monks. Those automatically given respect-that is, those who are recognized as of higher social rank-include patrons, employers, teachers, parents, grandparents and, in general, anyone older. The superior returns a simpler greeting that acknowledges the respect given.
But the readiness with which Cambodian smiles is one of the more charming aspects of the Cambodian.
No visit to Cambodia is complete if you do not at least catch sight of women the ancient art of Apsara dance, as depicted on the wall of Angkor's temples. Donning glittering silk tunics and sequined tops (into which they are sewn each performance to get the required snugness of fit), and elaborate golden headdresses, they execute their movements with great deftness and deliberation, knees bent in pile, heels touching the floor first at each step, copy smiles on their faces. Every position has1ts own particular symbolism - a finger pointing to the sky indicates “today",
While standing sideways on to the audience with the sole of the foot facing upwards represents flying. In the reign of Jayavarman VII there were over three thousand apsaras dancers at court- the dances were performed exclusively for the King - and so prized was their skill that when the Thais sacked Angkor in the fifteenth century, they took a troupe of dancers back home with them. Historically, the art form was taught only at royal court, but so few exponents survived the ravages of the Khmer Rouge that the
Genre was very nearly extinguished.
Subsequently, when Princess Boupha Devi - who had been a principal dancer with her royal troupe-, wished to revive it, she found it helpful to study temple panels to establish the movements. It was not until 1995, a full sixteen years after the fall of Khmer Rouge, that Cambodians once again witnessed a public performance of Apsara dance, at Angkor Wat.
These days, the school of Fine Art in Phnom Penh takes responsibility for training a new generation of dancers, who are chosen not only for aptitude and youth (they start as young as 7), but for the flexibility and elegance of their hands. It takes six years of arduous application for students to learn the intricate positions the dances entail numbering more than 1500- and a further three to six years for them to attain the required level of artistic maturity. Also taught here is the other principal genre within Cambodians dance, Tonty, in which the focus shifts to the portrayal of folk tales, especially episodes from the Reamker.
The school of Fine Arts mounts performances of Apsara dance on special occasions (such as the Khmer New Year or the King's Birthday ) in front of Angkor Wat and sometime in Phnom Penh. More commonly, you will be able to watch both styles of Cambodian dance in the cultural performances put on by hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, where you should get memorable glimpse of the Joy of the Apsara as they emerge from the primordial ocean of milk.