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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. This life on the
water is based on the lakes and rivers, plus the rain forests and other heavy vegetation
found throughout the country. Water is the center of life in Cambodia and the culture
began near or on these many waterways as they provided transportation, food, and
life for thousands of years.
Throughout history the people in the region of modern day Cambodia have been drawn
to the rivers, particularly the Mekong River, or the lakes, most particularly Lake
Tonle Sap, whose size dramatically changes with the seasons. In the past most people
lived simple lives based on the land so rains and waterways were essential. Many
people worked as farmers, while others made a living by fishing. No matter their
occupation, the rains and waterways were needed for the lifestyle of the people
and these waterways also connected the people, creating a culture thousands of years
The jungles also altered life, however the jungles prevented movement due to their
dense vegetation, instead of catering to movement. The swamps and jungles in the
country maintained the historic culture and prevented many foreigners from entering
the country in past centuries, although eventually foreign powers did make their
way into the country.
Prior to significant foreign influence, some of the few outside contributions that
were introduced to Cambodia have stuck for centuries. The greatest of these outside
influences came via the waterways, with the Indians having the greatest impact in
early history as they introduced Hinduism and later Buddhism, the latter of which
is still the dominant religion in the country today. The introduction of Buddhism
remains an important part of the culture and lifestyle in Cambodia today.
In about the 1100s or 1200s the Khmers, or ethnic Cambodian people, rose to power
with the Khmer Empire, which built upon the earlier cultures, but also had many
similarities, such as a reliance on the waterways and their Buddhist faith. This
empire expanded its territory, but they also 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 Cambodian 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
now seen everywhere.
In more recent history the Khmer people have become more and more confused regarding
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 pride in
being Khmer while trying to escape their past and redefining what it means to be
Khmer, a movement shifting away from political parties and towards the culture and
lifestyle of their past again defined by the landscape, foods, language, religion,
architecture, and culture of the people.
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