Thursday, July 26, 2012

Essay: On Cambodia

Cambodian People, Society, Culture, and Civilization

The Cambodians are “passive,” “shy,” “docile,” and “easy-going” people. They are also slow in changing their way of life and remain rather backward and “primitive.” The words in quotation marks are some of the adjectives used by scholars or “experts” of Cambodian study to describe the characteristic traits of the Khmer (Cambodian) people who have inhabited the western portion of the Indochinese Peninsular.

These perceptual observations, especially, the view of Cambodian society as “unchanged,” are both impressive and striking because the Cambodian ways of life, both in the past and present, seem to be forever intertwined. Without a doubt, if one looked closely at the Cambodian lifestyles as depicted in the carvings on the walls of the monuments at the ancient city of Angkor, and at the lifestyles of ordinary Cambodians who live around the region of Angkor nowadays, one could certainly see the resemblance. The similarity between present-day Cambodians’ way of life and their ancient counterparts is such a timeless attribute that many people (both scholars and casual observers alike) seem to fail to look beyond the surface. As a result, the view of Cambodian society vis-a-vis their way of life as backward and unchanged remains one of the prevailing precepts throughout the ages. After all, time changes; and, as time changes, so do people. Therefore, the Cambodian people, I believe, are no exception to this natural phenomenon.

Though most assessment of the Cambodian characteristic traits rendered by scholars who had or have studied Cambodian culture and civilization appears “valid” to a certain degree, the notion of describing cultural, social, and/or characteristic identity of a people is (and I strongly believe) nothing more than an intellectual stereotyping. Given the fact that, there are more to society, culture, and civilization than meeting the eye, the business of writing about or describing any particular people vis-a-vis their society, culture, and civilization is certainly a daunting task. Perceptional errors and prejudices are inevitably bound to occur. As far as human society, culture, and civilization are concerned, no amount of knowledge could uncover the complete truth. At best, we could perhaps only skim the surface and uncover a small portion of the overall picture while the rest of it remains hidden. In a sense, the study of human society, culture, and civilization is almost like the human genome project. There are so many more hidden facts out there waiting to be discovered.

I am neither a historian, nor an anthropologist, nor an archaeologist. My formal training is of that as a journalist. And my knowledge of Cambodia comes mainly from being born a Cambodian and having spent a good numbers of year reading, studying, researching on Cambodian history, culture, and civilization. I am, by no means, a Cambodian expert. I should acknowledge that my approach to writing this assay is more or less a form of investigative journalism in an attempt to put together a number of hypotheses related to the origin and formation of a country presently known as the Kingdom of Cambodia. I would also like to put caveat on this essay that it should not be, by any means, used as an official reference on Cambodia vis-a-vis her people, culture, and society because there are so many unclear and imprecise facts that need to be further investigated and analyzed. My purpose of writing this essay is to mainly create a text as a form of food for thought.

Based on one of the most popular Khmer legends, the Cambodian people think of themselves as descendants of the mythical Kamu people who lived in Northeastern India. According to this age-old legend, a Kamu prince named Preah Thong was exiled from the Kamu kingdom for displeasing his father, the Kamu king. Preah Thong was given a ship along with a number of sailors/soldiers to sail out of the Kamu kingdom. After floating in the sea for a while, Preah Thong’s ship landed on a chain of islands with beautiful sandy beaches. Preah Thong and his crews disembarked on one of the islands and began to wander out into other smaller islands. As evening came, the ocean tide began to rise and Preah Thong and his crews were stranded in one of the islands far out into the sea so they had to spend the night in that isolated island. That night, the nagini (Neang Neak), a daughter of the naga (snake) king who ruled the ocean floor, along with her entourage came ashore to play on the sand. She met Preah Thong and they both fell in love with each other. After their wedding, the naga king drank off the water around the islands and created a kingdom of Kambuja for them as a gift. Hence, the Khmer race and the Cambodian Kingdom were born.

Though, obviously, this legend is only a myth and a fiction, the story has nevertheless given us one important clue about the Cambodian people (or the Khmers) of ancient time, that they were the people whose culture and civilization were tied to water or lands which were close to water. This is certainly a given fact, for, if we looked at Cambodian society and culture now, we would see that water plays a major role in their civilization. The majority of the Cambodian people tend to prefer to live along or near the rivers and in the floodplains. Even those who are settling inland away from the rivers, they tend to form their villages near or around a lake or pond (Boeung or Tropeang). The word kompong, which means water port or place of landing, is used to name places almost all over the country. Also, one of the oldest and most important Cambodian national festivities is the water festival or Bon Omtouk which is celebrated yearly to give thanks and prayers to the god of the water or the naga king for creating a kingdom for the Cambodian people.

Another evidence of the Cambodian civilization’s tie to water could also be found at Angkor, an ancient Cambodian capital city from AD 802-1426. At Angkor, the Cambodians had built a civilization based almost entirely on the use of water resources. Whether this fact of using water as the basis for building civilization or the preference of settling near it could be construed as the primary building blocks of Cambodian society and culture remains a matter of debate. However, the tie to the water seems to nevertheless give us many important clues on the origin, culture, society, and civilization of the Cambodian people.

There are a lot of debates among scholars about the origin of the Cambodian people. Disagreements abound among different experts on the studies of ancient people as different theories and hypotheses on the origin of the Cambodian people were formed. So far, the result remains the same: Nobody knows for sure where exactly the ancestors of Cambodian people came from. Unlike their neighbors, the Vietnamese and Thais--who could trace their ancestral birthplace to Yunnan province of China (at least within the last few thousands years), the Cambodians have no clear evidence of ancestral origin in either Southern China or Northeastern India. One prevailing hypothesis accepted that the Cambodians are related to the Mon people of Southeastern Burma (Myanmar) and might also be related to the Kamu people of Northeastern India. This hypothesis is far from being valid, for, if we looked at the distance and degree of difficulty for pre-historic people to migrate from either Northeastern India or Burma, the travel by land from there to Cambodia would be more difficult if not impossible. On the other hand, if we took a look at the distance and accessibility between Cambodia and the insular islands of Southeast Asia, namely the Indonesian archipelagos, we would see that the distance is closer and the degree of difficulty for people to reach Cambodia is less arduous.

(To be continued)

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