The exceptional wealth of the Angkor region is not limited to its singular archaeological and artistic remains, but includes a living cultural heritage of inestimable importance in anthropological and linguistic terms.
Angkor’s People are known to be particularly conservative with respect to ancestral traditions, and a great number of archaic cultural practices that have disappeared elsewhere continue to be performed in its villages. What is more, many of these maintained traditions are found only here, reflecting the specificity of the Angkor region’s rich historical legacy.
It is possible to distinguish between three major types of village community in the Angkor region, an area of several thousand square kilometers stretching from the Tonle Sap north toward the Kulen foothills.
Each of the groups occupies one of the major ecological sub-zones of the region; the socio-cultural differences observed are largely determined by geographical and environmental factors in the context of a long history of human habitation.
One group consists of traditional subsistence rice farmers living in small family groups or villages scattered throughout the Angkor plain, and in particular those within the Angkor Park. These farming communities depend for their livelihood principally on one crop a year of rain-fed paddy.
The second group contains the inhabitants living along the Puok, Siem Reap and Roluos rivers down to and including the shore and flood plains of the Tonle Sap lake. These people live in concentrated clusters and have a mixed economy characterized by self-sufficiency in rice and fish supplemented by seasonal market produce.
The third community group consists of the “floating villages” on the Tonle Sap whose inhabitants are specialized in fishing activities, supplying their own subsistence needs and selling their surplus catch in order to purchase other essential foodstuffs and tools.
On the whole, these are very old agglomerations. Settlements existed during the Angkor period in many of the same locations where present-day villages are found, indicating that these human establishments date back at least several centuries. The two pagodas inside the enclosure of Angkor Wat, as well as those at other Angkorian period temples such as the Bakong or Lolei, are undoubtedly also very old: just as having a nearby temple is a vital element of villagers’ lives, so the temples cannot function without the support of the lay population, and this necessarily implies the presence of nearby villages.
Due to the limitation of productive land imposed largely by water availability, the settlement system is a relatively closed one in that new villages are typically established by the surplus population moving out from old, overcrowded hamlets and not by migration from outside the area. Traditionally, it is primarily through marriage or adoption that an outside person becomes part of the community. This traditional pattern is reinforced by restrictions on any other inward migration in order to protect the heritage zone from overcrowding.
While Angkor’s most spectacular temples such as Angkor Wat and the Bayon continue to be major religious pilgrimage destinations of national and international renown, other lesser sites harbor smaller-scale local cults. While Buddha images are often placed in ancient sanctuaries, temple remains are invariably inhabited by local protective spirits (“neak ta”) to which villagers make offerings on a regular basis. Various rituals are often performed at ancient sites, for example, playing an important role in individual or communal healing processes. In this way, the Angkor site remains very much alive.
Though inhabitants maintain the temple complexes as they can, these efforts are at times detrimental to the archaeological heritage of the sites. Stones are sometimes displaced or removed. Cement is sometimes poured tin efforts to re-erect ancient structures. Yet these types of endeavours are themselves determined for the most part by traditions as old as the oldest of the temples: at the height of the Angkorian period, one of the major architectural activities consisted in renovating or altering existent monuments, and so if it is necessary for the APSARA National Authority to engage in discussions with villagers to seek compromises and mutual agreement regarding any changes.
Fundamentally, this wide-spread desire on the part of local inhabitants to preserve their cultural heritage is indeed compatible with the conservative demands of archaeological research. What is more, it is necessary for preserving the site’s socio-cultural wealth, and it is only through careful and sensitive management that these various and sometimes conflicting demands can be harmonized.
The main economic activity of the inhabitants of the upper plain is the cultivation of rain-fed or irrigated rice paddy. However, throughout this region there is a shortage of land appropriate for rice cultivation. While on the lower plain in times of peace, each family cultivates approximately two hectares, with an average yield of 800 kg/ha, here, each household’s rice field is on the order of one half hectare, sometimes less, sometimes none at all. Typically, a number of traditional varieties of rice are grown, each one adapted to different soil types and, particularly, water conditions. New high-yielding varieties are not readily accepted because of their unfamiliar taste and because of their unproved reliability during adverse drought or flood conditions. Traditional farming techniques are used, such as the swing plow pulled by oxen or buffalo, and animal fertilizers. Many families do not own a draft animal. In addition to the paddy, each family cultivates in general a field prepared by slash and burn techniques, where rice, cucumbers, occasionally corn, and other vegetables are grown.
Between ninth and fifteenth centuries, Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire. Some scholars believed that the population estimates range up to about one million. The settlement occupation was scattered in patches throughout the urban area, far beyond the central enclosures and temples. During the Angkor era, people lived along canals and surround temples sites. Most of the houses were built in timber with roofs covered by ceramics tiles or thatched roofs, and raised on stilts, as they still are today.
The early form of religion in Cambodia was the belief in Animism or spiritual forces which are still worshipped in modern times. Spirits reside everywhere, it is believed — in the trees, rivers, mountains, stone and earth. In the early centuries of the Common Era, the main formal religions from India, Hinduism and Buddhism, reached Cambodia and became the main themes of Khmer art. During the Angkor period, even though Hinduism and Buddhism, as favored by different the ruling Kings predominated in formal ceremonies and ritual, the worship of Animism continued to be a part of the Khmer daily life. Buddhism also absorbed animistic beliefs into its doctrines and borrowed a few of Hindu deities. At the same time, Hinduism embraced several gods from Animism as well. This coexistence of belief is clearly reflected in Khmer art and it is not uncommon to see stories depicted on bas-reliefs that incorporate different aspects of Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism.