Khmer people (; km|ជនជាតិខ្មែរ, , Northern Khmer pronunciation:
) are a Southeast Asia
n ethnic group
native to Cambodia
, accounting for over 97% of the country's 15.9 million people.
CIA World FactBook.
They speak the Khmer language
, which is part of the larger Austroasiatic language family
found in parts of Southeast Asia
), parts of central, eastern, and north eastern India, parts of Bangladesh
in South Asia
, in parts of Southern China
and numerous islands in the Indian Ocean
The majority of the Khmers are followers of the Khmer style of Buddhism
, a highly syncretic
version that blends elements of Theravada
, and veneration of the dead
[''Faith Traditions in Cambodia''](_blank)
; pg. 8; accessed August 21, 2006
Significant populations of Khmers reside in adjacent areas of Thailand
) and the Mekong Delta
region of neighboring Vietnam
), while there are over one million Khmers in the Khmer diaspora living mainly in France, the United States, and Australia.
The majority of the world's Khmer people live in Cambodia, the population of which is over 90% Khmers.
Thailand and Vietnam
There are also significant Khmer populations native to Thailand
. In Thailand, there are over one million Khmers, mainly in Surin
(''Borei Rom'') and Sisaket
(''Srei Saket'') provinces. Estimates for the number of Khmer in Vietnam (known as Khmer Krom people
) vary from the 1.3 million given by government data to 7 million advocated by the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation
Due to migration as a result of the Cambodian Civil War
and Cambodian Genocide
, there is a large Khmer diaspora residing in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and France.
According to one Khmer legend attributed by George Coedes
to a tenth century inscription, the Khmers arose from the union of the brahmin Kambu Swayambhuva
and the apsara
("celestial nymph") Mera. Their marriage is said to have given the rise to the name ''Khmer'' and founded the Varman dynasty
of ancient Cambodia.
A more popular legend, reenacted to this day in the traditional Khmer wedding ceremony and taught in elementary school, holds that Cambodia was created when an Indian Brahmin priest named Kaundinya I
(commonly referred to as ''Preah Thoang
'') married Princess Soma
, a Nāga
( km|neak) princess. Kaundinya sailed to Southeast Asia following an arrow he saw in a dream. Upon arrival he found an island called ''Kok Thlok'' and, after conquering Soma's Naga army, he fell in love with her. As a dowry, the father of princess Soma drank the waters around the island, which was revealed to be the top of a mountain, and the land below that was uncovered became Cambodia. Kaundinya and Soma and their descendants became known as the Khmers and are said to have been the rulers of Funan
and the Khmer Empire
. This myth further explains why the oldest Khmer , or temples, were always built on mountaintops, and why today mountains themselves are still revered as holy places.
Arrival in Southeast Asia
The Khmers, an Austroasiatic people
, are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the area, having filtered into Southeast Asia from southern China, possibly Yunnan
, around the same time as the Mon
, who settled further to the west and to whom the Khmer are ancestrally related. Most archaeologists and linguists, and other specialists like Sinologists
and crop experts, believe that they arrived no later than 2000 BCE (over four thousand years ago) bringing with them the practice of agriculture and in particular the cultivation of rice
. This region is also one of the first places in the world to use bronze
. They were the builders of the later Khmer Empire
, which dominated Southeast Asia for six centuries beginning in 802, and now form the mainstream of political, cultural, and economic Cambodia.
The Khmers developed the Khmer alphabet
, the earliest alphabet still in use in Southeast Asia, which in turn gave birth to the later Thai
and Lao alphabet
s. The Khmers are considered by archaeologists
to be indigenous to the contiguous regions of Isan
, southern Laos
and South Vietnam
. That is to say the Cambodians have historically been a lowland people who lived close to one of the tributaries of the Mekong River
. The reason they migrated into Southeast Asia is not well understood, but scholars believe that Austroasiatic
speakers were pushed south by invading Tibeto-Burman speakers
from the north as evident by Austroasiatic vocabulary in Chinese, because of agricultural purposes as evident by their migration routes along major rivers, or a combination of these and other factors.
The Khmer is not part of Greater Indian but just adopting Indian religions, sciences, and customs and borrowing from their languages. The first powerful trading kingdom in Southeast Asia, the Kingdom of Funan
, was established in southeastern Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in the first century, although extensive archaeological work in Angkor Borei District
near the modern Vietnamese border has unearthed brickworks, canals, cemeteries and graves dating to the fifth century BCE.
The Kingdom of Funan is considered to be the mother of all later Southeast Asian kingdoms. During the Funan period (1st century - sixth century CE) the Khmer also acquired Buddhism, the concept of the Shaiva imperial cult
of the devaraja
and the great temple as a symbolic world mountain
. The rival Khmer Chenla Kingdom
emerged in the fifth century and later conquered the Kingdom of Funan. Chenla was an upland state whose economy was reliant on agriculture whereas Funan was a lowland state with an economy dependent on maritime trade.
These two states, even after conquest by Chenla in the sixth century, were constantly at war with each other and smaller principalities. During the Chenla period (5th-8th century), Khmers left the world's earliest known zero
in one of their temple inscriptions. Only when King Jayavarman II
declared an independent and united Cambodia in 802 was there relative peace between the two lands, upper and lowland Cambodia.
(802–830), revived Khmer power and built the foundation for the Khmer Empire, founding three capitals—Indrapura
, and Mahendraparvata
—the archeological remains of which reveal much about his times. After winning a long civil war, Suryavarman I
(reigned 1002–1050) turned his forces eastward and subjugated the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati
. Consequently, he ruled over the greater part of present-day Thailand and Laos, as well as the northern half of the Malay Peninsula. This period, during which Angkor Wat
was constructed, is considered the apex of Khmer civilization.
Khmer Empire (802–1431)
The Khmer kingdom became the Khmer Empire
and the great temples of Angkor, considered an archeological treasure replete with detailed stone bas-reliefs showing many aspects of the culture, including some musical instruments, remain as monuments to the culture of the Cambodia. After the death of Suryavarman II
(1113–50), Cambodia lapsed into chaos until Jayavarman VII
(1181–1218) ordered the construction of a new city. He was a Buddhist, and for a time, Buddhism became the dominant religion in Cambodia. As a state religion, however, it was adapted to suit the Deva Raja cult, with a Buddha Raja being substituted for the former Shiva Raja or Vishnu Raja.
The rise of the Tai
kingdoms of Sukhothai
(1238) and Ayutthaya
(1350) resulted in almost ceaseless wars with the Khmers and led to the destruction of Angkor in 1431. They are said to have carried off 90,000 prisoners, many of whom were likely dancers and musicians. The period following 1432, with the Khmer people bereft of their treasures, documents, and human culture bearers, was one of precipitous decline.
In 1434, King Ponhea Yat
made Phnom Penh
his capital, and Angkor was abandoned to the jungle. Due to continued Siamese and Vietnamese aggression, Cambodia appealed to France for protection in 1863 and became a French protectorate in 1864. During the 1880s, along with southern Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia was drawn into the French-controlled Indochinese Union. For nearly a century, the French exploited Cambodia commercially, and demanded power over politics, economics, and social life.
During the second half of the twentieth century, the political situation in Cambodia became chaotic. King Norodom Sihanouk
(later, Prince, then again King), proclaimed Cambodia's independence in 1949 (granted in full in 1953) and ruled the country until March 18, 1970, when he was overthrown by General Lon Nol
, who established the Khmer Republic. On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge
, who under the leadership of Pol Pot
combined Khmer nationalism
and extreme Communism
, came to power and virtually destroyed the Cambodian people, their health, morality, education, physical environment, and culture in the Cambodian genocide
On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge
. After more than ten years of painfully slow rebuilding, with only meager outside help, the United Nations intervened resulting in the Paris Peace Accord on October 23, 1992 and created conditions for general elections in May 1993, leading to the formation of the current government and the restoration of Prince Sihanouk to power as King in 1993. The Khmer Rouge continued to control portions of western and northern Cambodia until the late 1990s, when they surrendered to government forces in exchange for either amnesty or re-adjustment for positions into the Cambodian government.
In the 21st century, Cambodia's economy
has grown faster than that of any other country in Asia except for China
. Today, post-conflict Cambodia exports over $5 billion worth of clothing, mainly to the United States and the European Union
, is one of the top ten exporters of rice in the world, and has seen international tourist arrivals balloon from less than 150,000 in 2000 to over 4.2 million in 2013.
Cambodia is no longer seen as being on the brink of disaster, a reputation it gained in the 1980s and 1990s as guerilla-style warfare was still being waged by the Khmer Rouge until their ceasefire in 1998. Cambodians in the diaspora are returning to their homeland to start businesses, and immigrant Western workers in fields as diverse as architecture, archaeology, philanthropy, banking, hospitality, agriculture, music, diplomacy and garments are increasingly attracted to Cambodia because of its relaxed lifestyle and traditional way of life.
Culture and society
The culture of the ethnic Khmers is fairly homogeneous throughout their geographic range. Regional dialects exist, but are mutually intelligible. The standard is based on the dialect spoken throughout the Central Plain
[Huffman, Franklin. 1970. ]
Cambodian System of Writing and Beginning Reader
'. Yale University Press.
a region encompassed by the northwest and central provinces. The varieties of Khmer spoken in this region are representative of the speech of the majority of the population. A unique and immediately recognizable dialect has developed in Phnom Penh that, due to the city's status as the national capital, has been modestly affected by recent French and Vietnamese influence.
Other dialects are Northern Khmer dialect
, called ''Khmer Surin'' by Khmers, spoken by over a million Khmer native to Northeast Thailand
; and Khmer Krom
spoken by the millions of Khmer native to the Mekong Delta
regions of Vietnam adjacent to Cambodia and their descendants abroad. A little-studied dialect known as Western Khmer
, or Cardamom Khmer, is spoken by a small, isolated population in the Cardamom Mountain range
extending from Cambodia into eastern Central Thailand. Although little studied, it is unique in that it maintains a definite system of vocal register
that has all but disappeared in other dialects of modern Khmer.
The modern Khmer strongly identify their ethnic identity with their religious beliefs and practices, which combine the tenets of Theravada Buddhism with elements of indigenous ancestor-spirit worship, animism and shamanism.
Most Cambodians, whether or not they profess to be Buddhists (or Muslims), believe in a rich supernatural world. Several types of supernatural entities are believed to exist; they make themselves known by means of inexplicable sounds or happenings. Among these phenomena are (ghosts), (comes in many forms depending on their punishments) and (monsters) hese are usually the spirits of people who have died a violently, untimely, or unnatural deaths
(evil spirits, devils), krasue
, (tutelary spirit or entity residing in inanimate objects; land, water, trees etc.), ទះ(house guardians), (ancestral spirits), and (little mischief spirit guardians dressed in red). All spirits must be shown proper respect, and, with the exception of the and , they can cause trouble ranging from mischief to serious life-threatening illnesses.
The majority of the Cambodian live in rural villages either as rice farmers or fishermen. Their life revolves around the ''Wat
'' (temple) and the various Buddhist ceremonies throughout the year. However, if Cambodians become ill, they will frequently see a (shaman/healer), whom they believe can diagnose which of the many spirits has caused the illness and recommend a course of action to propitiate the offended spirit, thereby curing the illness.
The is also learned in herb lore and is often sought to prepare various "medicines" and potions or for a magical tattoo
, all believed to endow one with special prowess and ward off evil spirits or general bad luck.
Khmer beliefs also rely heavily on astrology
, a remnant of Hinduism. A fortune teller, called (astrologists) or in Khmer, is often consulted before major events, like choosing a spouse, beginning an important journey or business venture, setting the date for a wedding and determining the proper location for building new structures.
Throughout the year, the Cambodians celebrate many holidays, most of a religious or spiritual nature, some of which are also observed as public holidays
. The two most important are ''Chol Chhnam'' (Cambodian New Year
) and ''Pchum Ben
'' ("Ancestor Day"). The Cambodian Buddhist calendar
is divided into 12 months with the traditional new year beginning on the first day of , which coincides with the first new moon
of April in the western calendar. The modern celebration has been standardized to coincide with April 13.
has influenced Thai
cultures and vice versa. Many Khmer loanwords are found in Thai
, while many Lao and Thai loanwords are found in Khmer.
alphabets are also derived from the Khmer script
The Khmer people are genetically closely related to other Southeast Asian populations. They show strong genetic relation to other Austroasiatic
people in Southeast Asia
and East Asia
and have a minor genetic influence from Indian people
. Cambodians trace ~16% of their ancestry to a Eurasian
population that is equally related to both Europeans
and East Asians
, while the remaining 84% of their ancestry is related to other Southeast Asians, particularly to a source similar to the Dai people
Another study suggests that Cambodians trace ~19% of their ancestry to a similar Eurasian population related to modern-day Central Asians
, South Asians
, and East Asians
, while the remaining 81% of their ancestry is related specifically to modern-day Dai and Han people
The genetic testing website 23andme
groups Khmer people under the "Indonesian, Khmer, Thai & Myanmar" reference population. This reference population contains people who have had recent ancestors from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.
[23andMe Reference Populations & Regions. (n.d.). 23andMe. Retrieved June 14, 2020, from https://customercare.23andme.com/hc/en-us/articles/212169298-23andMe-Reference-Populations-Regions#h_f676b3fd-8072-48fe-8eeb-ea577ea2dfd2]
Hideo Matsumoto, professor emeritus
at Osaka Medical College
tested Gm types, genetic markers of immunoglobulin G
, of Khmer people for a 2009 study.
The study found that the Gm afb1b3 is a southern marker gene possibly originating in southern China
and found at high frequencies across southern China, Southeast Asia
, Sri Lanka
and parts of the Pacific Islands
The study found that the average frequency of Gm afb1b3 was 76.7% for the Khmer population.
File:Pchum Ben Khmer.png|''Pchum Ben, also known as Ancestors Day''
File:Art and culture.JPG|''Khmer groom and bride''
File:Khmer New Year GA2010-183.jpg|''Khmer New Year celebration''
File:Khmer New Year GA2010-223.jpg|''Khmer elder washing Buddha statues''
File:Trot Dances.jpg|''Khmer trot dance''
File:20171125 Cambodian Living Arts 4535 DxO.jpg|''Khmer traditional dancers''
File:Preschool Graduation.jpg|''Young Khmer children''
File:The girls who accompanied us during our visit. (3746624478).jpg|''Group of young Khmer girls''
File:Kraing Tbong VB 01 06 6.JPG|Group of Khmers at a village meeting
* Anvaya (organization)
* Cambodian cuisine
* Chinese Cambodian
* Khmer Krom
* Khmer Loeu
* Ethnic groups in Cambodia
* Ethnic groups in Thailand
* Ethnic groups in Vietnam
# Benjamin Walker
, ''Angkor Empire: A History of the Khmer of Cambodia'', Signet Press, Calcutta, 1995.
Center For Khmer StudiesThe Khmers via Tamtofi
Category:Ethnic groups in Cambodia