Mon - Khmer Ethnic Group

Khmer Ethnic Group

The Khmer, officially designated as Khmer K'rom in Vietnam, are the largest ethnic group.

They are the ethnic group that has the largest population among all the Mon- Khmer speaking ethnic groups. The Khmer speak a language belonging to the Mon-Khmer language group.

Before the 17th century, the Khmer and their culture dominated the Mekong delta. The Khmer are wet-rice cultivators who use the plough. In their near-perfect and efficient agricultural tool set, there are unique tools that are well suited to the geography and ecology of southern Vietnam. For example, instead of the plough, the Khmer use something called phang, which is better for cultivating soil that has salt and alum. There is a kind of scythe called pok to gather grass, a stick called so chal which is the reminder of the pointed digging stick used in the old days to make holes in the ground when transplanting the young rice plants. And finally, a reaping scythe-like tool, called kan dieu to cut rice plants.

The Khmer are very good at fishing, mat and textile weaving, knitting, making sugar from sugar palm-trees, and making pottery. Their technique of pottery making is simple: the main tools are a stone (kleng), and a shaping table (cho). The Khmer don't use a turning wheel or a firing kiln. Khmer pottery wares are generally plain, with no colour, and baked in low temperature, from 600C to 800C degrees. Potters produce mainly household wares; most popular are ovens (ca rong), and cooking pots (ca om). These are fondly used by the Vietnamese and Hoa people of the Mekong delta region.

The Khmer plant more than 150 different varieties of rice. They eat both regular and sticky rice. Daily foods also include shrimp, small fish, frogs, and vegetables. They process many kinds of sauces: on pu sauce made from small shrimps, po inh sauce made from a kind of small fish, but the most famous one is a sauce made from a combination several kinds of fish, small shrimp, rice flour, and salt. The Khmer love sour (tamarind), and spicy (pepper, garlic, vervain, hot pepper, carry) food.

Before, both man and women wore wrapped skirts made from silk which they wove themselves. Today, young people like to wear trousers and shirts. Middle-aged and older people often like to wear loose-fitting black blouses and pants. Wealthy men sometimes wear loose- fitting white clothes, with a bandanna wrapped around their heads, or thrown over the shoulder. Only during weddings do young people wear traditional clothes. The groom wears a wrapped skirt with a red blouse that has standings collar and a line of buttons on the breast. On his left shoulder hangs a long white scarf (kal xing) and a wedding knife (kam pach); its symbolism is to protect the bride. The bride wears a purple or pink skirt (xam pot), a long red blouse, with a traditional wedding veil and hat.

The Khmer live on the Mekong delta, especially around the districts of southwest Vietnam. Moreover, they concentrate around these three areas; on the delta, along the coast, and in the southwest mountainous area near the Cambodian border. Before, the Khmer lived in houses-on-stills. Now, however, they live in houses built on the ground, with a simple straw roof and thatch wall.

The Khmer use a cart and wagon on the road and on dry fields to transport agricultural products during harvest. Since they live in an environment filled with ditches and small canals, the Khmer use many kinds of boats: speed boats, sampans, and several local kinds of boats. However, a special kind of sampan called ngo (tuoc muaj, 30 meters-long, made from wood, has between 30 to 40 rowers. On the bow and side of this sampan, there are pictures of the sea eagle, elephant, lion, and waves. This ngo sampan is used only on the occasion of the greeting-the-moon ceremony, ok ang bok (in October of the Lunar calendar). Otherwise, it is kept in a temple like a sacred object.

The Khmer have small monogamous families, and are economically independent. However, in some families, 3 to 4 generations live together. There are still remnants of matriarchy in the Khmer society. The Khmer have many different surnames.

There are surnames from the Nguyen dynasty like Danh, Kien, Kim, Son, Thach. There are surnames from the Vietnamese and Hoa (ethnic Chinese) like Tran, Nguyen, Duong, Truong, Ma, Li, etc. There are also purely Khmer last names such as U, Khan, Khum. Adultery, polygamy, incest, and divorce seldom happen, and are strict taboos.

Parents arrange their children's marriage; though the young couple are involved in the discussion. Marriage has to go through 3 steps: match-making, proposing and engagement, and finally the wedding, which is celebrated at the bride's house. When all of this is done, the groom has to stay with the bride's family for some period. After couple of years, or when they have children, the young couple will live on their own, but still reside with the wife's family.

The custom of cremation has been with the Khmer for quite some time. After cremating a dead person, the ash is kept in a tower called Pi chet day, which is built next to the main room of a temple.

There are two main holidays every year: the Chuon Chnam Thmay Festival and the Ok ang bok festival. These are in April and October respectively, with the exact date moving around. There are also boat races during the latter.

The Khmer are primarily Buddhist, and also worship their ancestors. They also have several agricultural rituals, such as “Worshipping the god of the fields” (Neak Ta Xie), “Calling the rice spirits” (Ok Ang Leok) and “The Moon” (Ok Ang Bok).

When boys reach a certain age, they are sent to the pagoda by their parents to be monks for three to five years. During this time they will study Buddhist sutras and learn the Khmer language. Only after fulfilling this requirement can they get married within the community.

The Khmer have a treasure trove of folklore literature, including myths, legends, fairy tales, fables and funny stories. Of particular interest is the traditional theatre of Du Ke and Di Ke, which have musical influences from India and wider Southeast Asia.

The art and architecture of the pagodas and towers are considered to be the Khmer’s most special cultural trait. At the Therevada Pagoda, the main statue of Shakyamuni Buddha is placed in the centre, surrounded by various statues depicting humans, animals and gods. There are also remnants of Brahmanism and folklore religions to be observed here.
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