Though by no means as ethnically
diverse as neighbouring Laos or Viet Nam, Cambodia is home to
some 20 culturally distinct hill tribes, which reside mainly in
the remote mountainous districts of the north east.
Overview of ethnic diversity in Cambodia:
Figures on the ethnic make-up of Cambodian society are somewhat
difficult to determine, and the most recent population census
in 1998 did not address the question of ethnicity. However it
is thought that ethnic Khmers - drawn from the Eastern Mon-Khmer
group of the Mon-Khmer language family - make up around 96 per
cent of Cambodia's total population.
Ethnic Khmers living just outside the kingdom in An Giang, B?c
Liêu, Kiên Giang, Sóc Trang and Trà
Vinh Provinces of southern Vi?t Nam (an area known in Cambodia
as Kampuchea Krom or Lower Cambodia which was ceded to the Vi?t
kingdom in 1749) maintain their own distinct cultural identity.
The largest single minority group in Cambodia is that of the Cham-Malays
- drawn from the Chamic
branch of the Austronesian or Malay-Polynesian language group
of the Austro-Thai language family - who are settled mainly along
the Mekong River to the north of Phnom Penh. Descended from the
inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Champa in what is now south-central
coastal Vi?t Nam, they adopted their faith and script from the
Malays, who settled in Kampot at the invitation of Muslim Khmer
King Chan in 1642. Consequently their language and script differs
somewhat from that of their cousins in Vi?t Nam. Partly urbanised,
often educated and much involved in trade and commerce, the Cham
were severely persecuted during the Pol Pot years and their present
population of 220,000 (1992) compares to a figure of over 800,000
during the 1950s and 1960s.
Numbering around 50,000, the ethnic Chinese - drawn from the Han
(Sinitic) language group of the Sino-Tibetan language family -
constitute another important ethnic group in Cambodia, although
as in neighbouring Thailand, they have been assimilated to a greater
degree than in many other parts
of South East Asia. Over the past few years there has arguably
been a fresh wave of siniticisation as ethnic Chinese business
people from Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore have invested in Cambodia
and the Chinese government has provided important bilateral aid.
Chinese language schools are popular and there are now several
local Chinese-language newspapers in Phnom Penh. Major Chinese
festivals such as Chinese New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival
are widely observed. Although they are not official holidays,
market traders and stallholders close shop in such large numbers
that in the centre of Phnom Penh, business activity almost comes
to a halt.
A community of some 95,000 ethnic Vietnamese (Viet-Muong branch,
Mon-Khmer language group, Austro-Asiatic language family) is dominant
in Cambodia’s fisheries and manual trades.
Cambodia is also home to numerous hill tribe peoples, collectively
referred to by the government as Khmer Loeu (‘Highland Khmer’),
a name coined in the 1960s by Prince Norodom Sihanouk to help
generate a feeling of unity between the highlanders and the lowland
ethnic Khmer majority. The most numerically significant of these
hill tribes are the Pnong (or Mnong, 19,000), the Kui (16,000),
the Brau with their sub-groups the Kravet and the Krung (15,000),
the Rhade (or Ede, 15,000), the Jarai (15,000), the Tampuan (13,500)
and the Stieng (5,000).
The majority of Cambodia’s hill tribes hail from the Mon-Khmer
speaking group of the Austro-Asiatic language family, of which
three distinct ethno-linguistic branches are represented: the
Bahnaric language branch of north eastern Cambodia, the Katuic
language branch of northern and north-central Cambodia and the
Pearic language branch of western and south-westerm Cambodia.
The traditional homeland of the Bahnaric peoples straddles the
border with southern Laos and the central highlands of Vi?t Nam.
Ethnicities drawn from this branch and settled in Mondulkiri,
Ratanakiri, Stung Treng and eastern Kratie Provinces of Cambodia
include the Brau and their sub-groupings the Kravet and Krung
(West Bahnaric); the Lamam, Kaco and Tampuan (Central Bahnaric);
and the Pnong - including their Kraol sub group - and Stieng (South
The Katuic branch of Mon-Khmer is represented in Cambodia by the
Kui of Preah Vihear and northern Kompong Thom Provinces.
Ethnicities belonging to the Pearic branch of Mon-Khmer include
the Pear of Kompong Thom, the
Samre of coastal Koh Kong Province, the Saoch of the coastal Kampot
Province, the Somray of northern Pursat and southern Battambang
Provinces and the Suoy of Kompong Speu, Kompong Chhnang and eastern
Pursat Provinces. The Pearic language branch is believed to represent
the ancient population of western Cambodia, and still had many
speakers in Angkor city when Chinese traveller and writer Zhou
Daguan visited the country seven hundred years ago. Today the
Pearic languages are on the verge of extinction, with only people
over the age of 50 or 60 years remembering when they were used.
The closest related language to Pear found outside Cambodia is
Chong, which is spoken in Thailand’s Chanthaburi province by some
3,000 speakers, including children.
Two hill tribe groups - the Jarai and Rhade (or Ede) of Ratanakiri
Province – hail from the Austronesian or Malay-Polynesian language
group of the Austro-Thai language family and are linguistically
related to Cham, probably representing an expansion of the Old
Cham language from the coastal kingdom of Champa into the highlands.
Today the great majority of Jarai and Rhade speakers are found
on the other side of the border in Vi?t Nam, where they number
several hundred thousand and are concentrated in the eponymous
Gia Lai Province.
minority music and dance:
The ethnic Cham community of Cambodia no longer has an active
tradition of performing arts. In contrast, several Chinese community
associations in Cambodia have Lion Dance teams which perform during
Lunar New Year and other Chinese festivals.
Each of the hill tribes residing within Cambodian borders has
its own unique music and dance traditions, which function together
with the production of art objects to propitiate the spirits and
celebrate the many social milestones in the lives of members of
Musical instruments are crafted with great ingenuity from natural
materials such as stone, wood, gourd, bamboo, animal horn and
reed to accompany a wide range of solo and group songs and dances.
In common with their cousins in southern Laos and the central
highlands of Vi?t Nam, many groups utilise bronze drums as an
integral part of their
ritual ceremonies. The Jarai and Rhade (or Ede) in particular
are renowned for their indigenous musical instruments, from stringed
bronze gongs to the unique k'longput, made of bamboo tubes into
which the players force air by clapping their hands.
Many of Cambodia’s ethnic minority groups still maintain the services
of shamans to intercede on their behalf with the world of the
spirits. These perform special ceremonies and trance-dances to
the accompaniment of ritual music.
Most of Cambodia’s hill tribes have their own dances, which originated
largely as a celebration of everyday events and pastimes. Many
of these have been adapted for theatre presentation over the past
The best-known ethnic minority dances are the skorl (bamboo) dance
of the Stieng, the warrior dance
of the Kui, the buffalo sacrifice and hot (bamboo pipe) dances
of the Jarai, plus a range of dances by Pearic peoples which include
the wild ox dance, the cardamom picking dance, the sen ploy spirit
possession dance and the Pursat peacock dance of the Pear, the
ritual and drum dances of the Suoy and the port chor rung dance
of the Samre.uh
The National Theatre Company of Cambodia Folkloric Dance Troupe
includes a wide range of these highly-choreographed ethnic minority
dances in its repertoire; however, those wishing to see the dances
in their original form must travel to the villages.
Craft production has long been one of the most important functional
aspects of material culture amongst
Cambodia’s ethnic groups. Some ethnic crafts are of ritual origin,
but most are produced for domestic use.
Handwoven textiles were once produced in a great variety of different
traditional designs, colours and weaves in this region, but that
skill has declined considerably with the increased availability
of cheap mass-produced textiles, particularly amongst those communities
living in close proximity to the majority Khmer population. However,
in more remote regions both the Malayo-Polynesian speaking Jarai
and Rhade (Ede) communities and the Mon-Khmer-speaking Bahnaric
peoples (Brau, Lamam, Kaco, Tampuan, Pnong and Stieng) still create
their traditional black costumes with elaborate red and gold brocade
for festivals and other special occasions.
Cambodia's Cham Muslim community still preserves a distinctively
Malay style of dress which is worn to the mosque and on special
occasions. This usually comprises a long tunic similar to the
Malaysian baju panjang, worn in tandem with a silk sarong, also
in Malay style. The distinctive Cham headdress known as the kiet
is made from spotted cloth patterned with
tiny three-dimensional peaks which are created by tying off the
fabric tightly with a resist material.
As traditional Khmer weaving skills declined amongst the majority
Khmer community during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period of 1955-1970,
the Cham themselves became highly proficient in this ancient art
and today many of the leading centres for Khmer weaving are still
run by ethnic Cham. It is interesting to note that in neighbouring
Thailand the late Jim Thompson’s efforts to pioneer the production
and promotion of what is now Thai silk were originally initiated
in a Cham settlement at Ban Khrua.
Basket weaving is prevalent in most hill tribe communities and
includes the production of fish traps, mats and containers from
all types of natural grasses. The ubiquitous bamboo basket known
as the khapa is woven in various sizes with straps made from rattan
and worn on the back to carry products to and from the market.
An important feature of both Mon-Khmer and Malay-Polynesian material
culture is the creation of elaborately-carved funeral houses decorated
with motifs and surrounded by wooden statues or totems, which
play an important role in facilitating the passage of the dead
to the spirit world. Those of the Jarai, Rhade, Brau, Pnong and
Stieng peoples of north east Cambodia are particularly noteworthy.
However, woodcarving is more commonly associated with the production
of everyday items, including traps (fishpots, pits, cages), spears,
bows and arrows, cowbells, tobacco pipes, bowls, spoons, combs
and children’s toys. Certain ethnic communities also preserve
the art of creating musical instruments such as lutes, fiddles,
flutes, reed trumpets, mouth organs and ideophones,
which are manufactured from a variety of natural materials including
gourd and bamboo.
Several ethnicities still utilise bronze gongs in their propitiation
ceremonies, though sadly in many areas the art of casting these
gongs is dying out. In times gone by bronze gongs were a symbol
of wealth and status in many communities, but today an increasing
number have been sold to collectors or tourists.
The Jarai and Rhade of Ratanakiri Province were once known for
their bronze jewellery, which was traditionally buried with the
owner, but the skills associated with this craft have now largely
dissappeared in the face of competition from modern mass-produced
Other hilltribe crafts practiced in Cambodia include iron forging
(a skill in which the Kui and several of the Bahnaric-speaking
peoples were once famous) and a very rudimentary form of pottery.
Outside the cities, both ethnic Khmer and ethnic Cham live in
villages of 20-150 stilted single-roomed houses with exterior
and partition walls made of palm mats or wood, and floors of woven
bamboo strips resting on bamboo joists.
Located in river valleys or on hillsides in stilted or part-stilted
houses of wood and/or bamboo with thatched roofs, the houses of
Cambodia’s Pearic communities differ little from this model. Small
villages of 20-60 square, mainly single-roomed houses, often clustered
around a communal house, can accommodate anything up to 150 families.
Traditionally the Bahnaric-speaking Brau, Lamam, Kaco, Tampuan
and Stieng peoples, Katuic-speaking Kui peoples and Austronesian
or Malay-Polynesian speaking Jarai and Rhade peoples built tall-roofed
long houses measuring hundreds of metres in length, which provided
living quarters for numerous extended families. Today such long
houses have mostly been replaced by smaller, individual dwellings
grouped in clusters of between 20 and 100, although some larger
up to 30 or 40 metres in length with high roofs decorated with
wooden sculptures may still be found in remoter Jarai, Rhade and
Traditional houses constructed by the Bahnaric-speaking Pnong
community are characterised by their low thatched roofs which
reach almost to the ground. Today most Pnong families prefer to
live in Khmer-style houses, but it is still common to find additional
temporary accommodation being constructed in traditional Pnong
style on the family chamka (small vegetable farm).
A common feature of many ethnic minority villages is the bamboo
spirit gate which marks the boundary of the village. A buffalo-sacrificing
ground may often be found nearby.
Both Mon-Khmer and Malay-Polynesian ethnic groups are known for
their elaborately decorated funeral houses. Surrounded by wooden
statues or totems, these play an important role in facilitating
the passage of the dead to the spirit world.
Ethnic minority literature is oral in nature. The Jarai, Rhade
(or Ede) and Pnong in particular preserve
a rich corpus of epic poems which have been passed down from generation
to generation through the ancient art of sung storytelling. Delivered
during festivals and other special occasions by village elders
who learned the ancient tales by heart, these poems serve to teach
morality as well as to perpetuate the various proverbs, myths,
legends and cosmology associated with each ethnic group.
Sadly this art form has died out in many areas, but it is still
practiced in some remoter villages.