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Home› Cultures› Cambodia› Society & Culture


Cambodian kidsCambodia is an ethnically homogenous country: 90 percent of its population is Khmer. The remainder is comprised primarily of Vietnamese and Chinese.  There are a small number of hill tribes - Chams and Burmese.  Many Vietnamese were repatriated (that is, sent back to Vietnam) during the early 1970s, thereby making the population even less diverse. 

The estimated population in 2003 was 13,124,764.  Both the growth rate (2.3%) and infant mortality rates are high, and the ravages of the AIDs epidemic are likely to adversely impact the demographic statistics of this country (Demographics of Cambodia, 2005).  Its population density is much lower in comparison to its neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand.  Most Cambodians live in the central plains; the malaria infested and thinly watered highland areas are sparsely settled.  The impact of years of war and civil unrest has resulted in 25% of households headed by women.  More than half its population is under age 18, and 58% of Cambodians over age 18 are women (Demographics of Cambodia, 2005). 

          The Khmer Rouge depopulated many of Cambodia’s towns and forced people into rural areas.  Re-urbanization began to take place in the early 1980s.

(Royal Government of Cambodia, 2004; Demographics of Cambodia, 2005).


Approximately 95% of Cambodians speak Khmer.  {LINK}Older Cambodians speak French—a legacy of the French colonial era.  Younger Cambodians are likely to speak English as a second language  (Demographics of Cambodia, 2005).


Many Cambodians believe that imbalance, caused by natural forces or changes in the environment, may cause illness. Some may also believe that illness can have spiritual causes, and they may deal with illness through traditional medicine and self-medication, often using more than one treatment for the same problem (This has been observed by the project fellows).  According to Wetzel, “herbal remedies, dermal techniques, ‘hot-cold’ balances and rituals” are all traditional techniques. Cupping (placing a candle on the forehead and covering it with a small jar to create bruises) (Bentley, n.d.), and coining (placing hot coins on the neck, forehead, chest) (Dinulos & Graham, 1999) pinching or rubbing or kos khyal are all examples of dermal techniques. These techniques may be used to treat any number of common ailments such as fever, cold, diarrhea, etc.  For example, according to Wetzel, “the hot-cold balance theory, illness is caused by a change in the natural balance between hot and cold elements in the universe. The patient adjusts drugs, herbs and food to restore balance and harmony.  If these remedies are not effective, Cambodians will seek help from a traditional healer” (Wetzel, 2002).  Some Cambodians also believe illnesses may be caused by evil spells cast by others or mistakes made in rituals. Spiritual healers may be called upon to heal this form of sickness (Ready, 2002). 

In Cambodia, traditionally family planning appears to be uncommon. Elders or a midwife are called during labor and delivery. The first month postpartum, women lie on a bed with a fire under it. They eat a particular diet while other women care for the baby.  Most women breast-feed their babies and may start them on rice soup as early as six weeks.  However, in the cities and in America, Cambodian women report that the custom of nursing the babies is changing. Cambodian woman are reported to be very modest and may have a tendency to avoid annual gynecological examinations because they involve pelvic and breast exams (Wetzel, 2002).

Wetzel (2002) reports that Cambodian refugees often may suffer from depression and posttraumatic stress syndrome.  There is no comparable term for such ailments in Khmer, and so many may not understand from what they are suffering. In addition, many avoid prescribed drugs. They fear becoming addicted or never awakening. According to the same author, Cambodians may also fear blood draws, x-rays, and surgery. They believe that when blood is drawn, it will weaken their body, because it is not replaced.  Surgery is viewed as the last resort. Cambodians are often stoic when in pain.

Educational System

The Khmer Rouge destroyed the educational system of Cambodia during their rule.  It has been rebuilt in the contemporary Kingdom of Cambodia. The majority of Cambodians living in the United States are the descendents of refugees and, therefore, are the product of the traditional rather than the product of the current Cambodian educational system.

Pre-1975 Cambodian Educational System

Cambodian kidsThe parents and grandparents of Cambodian students in the United States today are likely to be familiar with the education system that existed prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover. During the French protectorate, an educational system was created that was based on the French model. This system remained in place until 1975 and included primary, secondary, higher, and specialized levels. The primary level was split into two cycles each lasting three years. French was taught beginning in the second year. Although Khmer was the language of instruction in the first cycle, French was the language of instruction from the second cycle and beyond (Coutsoukis, 2004).

Similarly, secondary education included two cycles, the first cycle lasted four years, and the second lasted three years. When the first cycle was completed, students were required to take an examination. Upon passing the examination, candidates received a secondary diploma. When the first two years of the second cycle were completed, students took a state examination to earn a first baccalaureate, and, at the end of their final year, a similar examination could be taken for the second baccalaureate. The Cambodian secondary curriculum was based on the French system (Coutsoukis, 2004).

There were several universities in Cambodia with enrollments of over 9,000 students before the Khmer Rouge takeover by the (U. S. Library of Congress, 1987).  The University of Phnom Penh was the largest with 4,570 male students and 730 female students in eight departments. There was also a university for agricultural sciences and fine arts (Coutsoukis, 2004). 

The Current System

Today, the Cambodian education system is based on the Vietnamese system (Coutsoukis, 2004). The literacy rate has been steadily increasing with the emphasis on instruction in both English and French (Brigham Young University, 2003) and 35 percent of the total population of Cambodia is literate (Demographics of Cambodia, 2005). It is important to realize that most of the educated people were killed during Khmer Rouge rule (The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook, 1987)

Basic Education includes the following:

  1. Pre-school (in some areas) for ages 3-5.
  2. Primary education from Grades 1 to 6.
  3. Lower Secondary education from Grades 7 to 9.
  4. Upper Secondary education from Grades 10 to 12
  5. Higher Education from 1st to 4th year post secondary
  6. Graduate from the 5-7th year post secondary
  7. Post Graduate beyond the 7th year post secondary
  8. Alternative to post secondary – Vocational and Supplementary (see table below)

After successfully completing Grade 12, students receive a diploma. Performance in various subject areas determines whether a student can continue onto the next level and onto university. Currently, there are institutions of higher learning for health sciences, fine arts, law and economics, agriculture, management as well as other areas of study (Ledgerwood, n.d.).

Grade Level
University Post Graduate
University (5th–7th year) Graduate
University (3rd –4th year) Higher Education
University (1st–2nd year)
12th Grade*

Upper secondary

Technical and Vocational
Education *

11th Grade
10th Grade
9th Grade*

Lower secondary

Complementary Education (all kinds)*

8th Grade
7th Grade
6th Grade* Primary Education
5th Grade
4th Grade
3rd Grade
2nd Grade
1rst grade
Early Childhood – Ages 3-5 Preschool

Note: students are selected by examination in order to progress to the next level According to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (1999) students progressing to the lower secondary level is 87.6%; students progressing to the upper secondary level is 60.1%.

Sources: Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization. [SEAMEO], (2003).
Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports [moEYS] (1999).

Cambodian National Holidays

Date Name of Holiday
January 1 International New Year’s Day
January 7 7 January Day
March 8 International Women's Day
April 3 Cultural Day
14-15-16 April Cambodian New Year
May 1 International Labor Day
May 15 Visak Bochea Day
May 19 Royal Ploughing Ceremony
June 1 International Children's Day
June 18 Queen's Birthday, Samdech Preah Mohèsey Norodom Monineath Sihanouk
September 24 Constitution Day, 5th Anniversary of Re Coronation of H.M. Preah Bat Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk
24-25-26 September Pchum Ben Day
October 23 Paris Peace Accord on Cambodia
30-31 October and November 1 King's Birthday, H.M. Preah Bat Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk
07-08-09 November Water Festival, Moon Festival
November 9 Independence Day
December 10 UN Human Rights Day

Source: (Government of Cambodia, 2004c).

Other Elements of Popular Culture

Architecture/Archeological ruins  Cambodian-rich culture and ancient history is beautifully symbolized in its magnificent archeological monuments as well as its artistic and musical traditions. The most widely known image of Cambodia is the stone temple of Angkor Wat built in the 12th century in, Yasodharapura, the capital of the Angkor Empire that dominated Southeast Asia for three centuries (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2004d).  David Chandler (1991), a noted historian, states that Cambodia is the only country in the world to depict a “ruin” on its national flag. It is an indication of how much this structure is a part of the Cambodian national identity. (Shapiro-Phim, n.d. , n.d.)

Dance  The carvings on the temples of Angkor Wat give rise and inspiration to another art form that has endured over 1000 years, that of Cambodian dance (Shapiro-Phim, n.d.).  The carvings depict celestial dancers who performed for the gods and, therefore, Cambodian dancers have always been linked to religion and the monarchy of their country.  Performances strive to convey the essence of Cambodia’s mythico-historical traditions and to display metaphorically desirable social behavior through the “relationship” of the characters that every dance sequence has (Shapiro-Phim, n.d.). Cambodian classical dancers enter a dance academy at the age of seven or eight and go through a rigorous training for 9 years before they assume “starring” roles in formal dance productions (Shapiro-Phim, n.d.).

©2005 Maria de Lourdes Serpa.
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