Tag: Khmer

Khmer Folktales or In Which There is Always a Clever Hare


A recent Ricochet Dueling Book Club question asked about children’s picture books, and it occurred to me that I had never read any Khmer children’s books, picture or otherwise, growing up. I don’t think there are any worth mentioning. But what we have, though, are folktales.

Khmer people have always prided themselves on being clever. And they took great pleasure in cleverly composed discourses. The use of words and witticisms, riddles, rhyming, and quickly formed punning and spoonerism were and continue to be a Khmer national habit. And this habit is reflected in our folktales. Khmer folktales are classified into two groups: children and adults, and wit and cleverness reign supreme in both. Though wit and cleverness aren’t necessarily used in the pursuit of justice, they are used for self-preservation and sometimes for pure pleasure. Folktales are full of mischief and humor. They have lively spontaneity, vigor, and realism. To Khmer people, folktales, along with songs, are considered to be the real literature of Cambodia. Their style is quite simple, with plenty of colloquial speeches. A lot of tales are concerned with stupidity. Some are quite dark, with chaos and exploitation as the main themes and talking animals as the stars. Cynicism and satire abound. Puns and sophistry are very common.

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Just like everywhere else on the planet, the Chinese virus wrecked Cambodia as well. People’s livelihoods were destroyed. Festivities, religious or otherwise, were canceled. The Water Festival is likely to be canceled later this month. Pchum Ben was shut down after the first few days early last month. Pchum Ben, better known as Festival of the Dead […]

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Nom Kom: A Simple Cake


Nom Kom is a very old, very traditional Khmer cake wrapped in banana leaves in a pyramid shape. It is a simple cake, made with glutinous rice flour and has coconut, palm sugar, and black sesame seed filling. All the ingredients you can easily find in your local supermarket. While banana leaves are available at the frozen aisle of Asian markets, fresh leaves can sometimes be found at Latin markets as well. Nom Kom is one of several traditional cakes my grandmother likes to serve at our family’s various religious ceremonies throughout the years.

It is a simple cake, as stated above, but nom kom also bears a religious connotation as well. It represents the yoni (vulva, womb), a personification of the divine feminine creative power, the mark of Mother Shakti. In Hinduism, the yoni is the counterpart to the linga, the symbol of Lord Shiva. So of course, num kom has its counterpart, num ansom. At engagement and wedding ceremonies, num kom and num ansom are always presented together to symbolize the union of the linga and the yoni, the representation of the eternal process of creation and regeneration, the union of male and female principles. In Khmer, that union is called mea ba (mother, father).

Group Writing: Fish’s the Season


To outsiders, Cambodia has two distinct seasons: the wet season and the dry season. But to the Khmer people, there is a third one, rdauv prohok, a prohok season. Prohok is a fermented fish paste. It is the heart and soul of Khmer and Cambodian cuisines, and yes there is a difference between the two cuisines, but that is a topic for another day. Prohok season generally starts in December and ends in February, coinciding with the fishing season (November to March). This year, the first phase of the season began on December 20 and ended on the 29th.

To understand why a fermented fish paste is so important to our food culture, one has to understand Cambodia’s geography and its dependency on fish. I mentioned Boeung Tonlé Sap, also known as the Great Lake, before in one of my posts here. As the largest inland fishery in the world, the lake has been sustaining the Khmer people since the beginning. It is integral to Khmer food culture (we eat 140 pounds of fish per capita annually, compared to the global rate of 64 pounds). Lives in Cambodia essentially revolve around this abundance of fish, with 45% of the population working in fish related employment during this short peak fishing season. People from all over the country travel to the Great Lake, the Mekong, and every waterway to buy or trade rice for fish to make pha’ak (fish fermented with sweet fermented alcoholic black rice), sun-dried salted fish, smoked fish, and of course to make prohok, to ensure that fish products are available throughout the year.

Group Writing: Conduct for the Good Life


Before we start, I just want to say that this is not doggerel. There is no such thing as doggerel in Khmer poetry, unless you count imperfect or near-rhymes as such. This is about chbab, which is one genre in Khmer poetry. Chbab is the Khmer word for law, but in poetry, it means code of conduct; it is referred to a series of didactic poems mostly composed by Buddhist monks to teach reading, writing, and morality in the monastery schools between the 15th to 19th centuries. But the origin of chbab dated back long before the arrival of Buddhism in Cambodia in the 3rd century CE. The oldest of these poems were passed down orally. They were only put on paper, or rather palm leaves, by Buddist monks near the end of the Angkor Era in the 15th century, when Hinduism was in decline and Khmer started to replace Sanskrit as the language of literature proper.

Most poems from the chbab genre are short, the shortest is only 27 stanza long. They deal with all kinds of themes, from how to raise children to how to safe-keep cultural heritage to how to take pride and feel enthusiastic in one’s own work. And their subjects range from etiquette to finance, education to marital issues to religion. As stated above, most of these poems were transcripted/composed by Buddhist monks, and as such, elements of Buddhism presented prominently in them, the oldest ones included.

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When I signed up for this group writing, I was thinking about my grandfather’s glorious garden, which a few music videos were filmed at. But sadly I ran out of things to say after five sentences. So instead, I am introducing you to the most famous scene in Cambodian ballet. What does ballet have to […]

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Group Writing: The Art of Flirting


I used to watch Cambodian films from the 1950s to mid-1970s and it always tickled my fancy whenever characters break into songs (not unlike Bollywood but without the dancing). Sometimes, characters would belt out a cheery song in a cheerful scene and a sad song in a sad scene. But when it comes time for the male character to woo the female, he always, and I mean always, breaks into song. One can find the same thing repeated all over Khmer traditional literature such as plays, lyrics, and especially the verse-novels written between the 17th to early 20th centuries. If there is a flirting scene, then there is a song. It even appears in a few epic poems, though curiously enough, only the supporting characters sing.

The most famous scene in Khmer literature is a flirting scene from the verse-novel Tum Teav, where the main characters sing a lengthy duet in their first scene together. You can read the duet near the end of my post here. My all-time favorite comes from The Yaksha with the Magic Finger, a chapter from the epic Ramakerti II (2nd version of the Khmer Ramayana), where the male character upon seeing a woman so beautiful, he bursts into song. She, of course, replies. Here is how the duet goes:

The Khmer Holy Trinity: the Mother, the Father, and Lord Shiva


“Venerate the Gods in your home before the one in the vatt (Buddhist monastery).” — Khmer Proverb

Buddhism is the state religion of Cambodia, where 96% of the population consider themselves practitioners of Theravada Buddhism. But when it comes to veneration, the mother and father always come first; veneration of the Buddha is relegated to the very back of the line. To us, our mother and father are what we refer to as the Gods in our home.

Cambodian Popular Music


I recently introduced Cambodian popular music to a few friends. One thought the Khmer language sounded odd but the songs sounded interesting, and the other two thought it was okay. So I thought I should do the same to my fellow Ricochet members.

From the late 1940s to 1975, Cambodia had a pretty thriving pop music scene. Our pop music is influenced by our traditional and folk music as well as French, English, and Japanese Enka. Cambodian popular music consists of pop, rock, and dance songs. Dance songs are based on several of our folk tunes. We sing and dance to these folk-based pop songs on New Year Days and at wedding receptions. All songs are pre-1975, and since all songs are pre-1975, the majority of the artists are dead.