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name Cambodia is the English version of the local name, Kampuchea. Kampuchea
is derived from the Sanskrit word Kambuja or Kambujadesa. The
Kambuja were a group of people in modern day Afghanistan that didn't follow
the same customs the Indians followed. In this way, the Indians later gave the same
name to the region of Southeast Asia, perhaps a term they used to reference any
outsider or any people who didn't follow Indian social customs.
On a map, Cambodia appears to have very little water
access, but the people's culture today and in the past is very much based on
the water, which fills lakes and rivers, as well as it creates rain forests and
other heavy vegetation.
Throughout history the people in the region have tended to settle on the rivers,
including the Mekong River or the lakes, most particularly Lake Tonle Sap, whose
size dramatically changes with the seasons. These waterways formed a method of transportation
and the greatest source of food for the people as fish and other sea life dominates
The jungles also altered life as, in stark contrast to the water ways, they prevent
movement due to their dense vegetation. The water and jungles have created both
an ideal place to live as well as one that can be easily defended.
As a fairly isolated region, the greatest contact with outsiders came via the waterways
inland and via some land routes. The Indians had the greatest
early impact as they introduced Hinduism and later Buddhism, the latter of which
is still the dominant religion in the country today.
In about the 1100s or 1200s the Khmers, or ethnic Cambodian
people, rose to power with the Khmer Empire, which created the base for modern day
Cambodian culture. This empire expanded its territory, but more importantly, they
gained the money to spend on lasting monuments including arts and culture, with
the most impressive and famous of these monuments being the city of Angkor and its
crown jewel, Angkor Wat (or temple). Even today the people view Angkor Wat as the
symbol of their culture and history.
Later, the Siamese took control of Angkor and much of the Khmer Empire, arguably
influencing the culture in Cambodia, although no Cambodian
will accept this argument (both Cambodia and Thailand
view the city of Angkor as their own as both people ruled from the city).
As the Cambodians power fell, the
French swept in and took power in the 1800s. Although not happy with the
alliance, the Cambodians accepted this rule in order to prevent war and over time
adopted many French customs and foods as the French baguette is seen everywhere.
In more recent history the Khmer people have become more and more confused on who
they are and in what direction they should go. The Khmer Rouge of the 1970s killed
much of the population and the people are now balancing between being proud of being
Khmer, while trying to escape their past and redefine what it means to be Khmer,
a movement shifting away from political parties and towards the culture, lifestyle,
and their past.
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