Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/January 1887/A Scientific Mission to Cambodia

972946Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 January 1887 — A Scientific Mission to Cambodia1887M. Maurel



THE countries now known as Cochin-China, Annam, Cambodia, Laos, and Siam, and probably the whole Indo-Chinese Peninsula, were occupied primitively by a dark-colored race, remnants of which are still to be found in the mountains, on whom their conquerors, all having the same feeling toward them, have imposed names which in their several languages mean savages. At a period in the past which probably answered to the beginning of the Christian era, two conquering peoples took possession of the richer parts of the country and drove these tribes back into the mountains. They established the kingdom of Thiampa in the south, and that of Cambodia in the central region. Cambodia, now small in extent and weak, was formerly a powerful empire, and held under its allegiance, either directly or as tributary states, more than half of the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. Its splendor is attested by its numerous monuments of grand dimensions and beautiful architecture. Yet this Khmer people, which has left such admirable traces of its power and civilization, is an enigma to the world. We know very little of its origin, and hardly more of the period of its power. Its history, as we have it, prevents various phases of struggle and alliance with its neighbors, China, Siam, Thiampa, and Tonquin. It is supposed to have attained its highest state of splendor in the arts in the eleventh century. At the beginning of the eighteenth century it divided Thiampa with Annam and Tonquin. From that time on it suffered a succession of losses of territory till, in 1863, Norodom, its king, placed it under the protectorate of France.

Cambodia is situated between 10° 30' and 14° north latitude and 100° 30' and 104° 30' east longitude, and has an area of about 100,000 square kilometres, and a population of 1,200,000 souls, of whom 700,000 are Khmers. It is traversed by the great river Me-Kong, which rises on the eastern skirts of the Thibetan table-land, crosses Yunnan and Laos in a narrow valley, and, entering Cambodia, pours its waters over it for about four months of every year. In the heart of this country the river is divided into three arms, two of which continue their course as the front and the back river, while the third turns back toward the Toulé-Sap lake. This arm presents the phenomenon, which is believed to be unique, of flowing during part of the year in one direction, and the rest of the time in another. When the snows melt, it is swelled to above the level of the lake, and turns its flood into it, and away from the sea. The lake thus serves as a waste-weir and regulator, and is capable of holding in reserve some thirty-five milliards of cubic metres of water. But this is not enough, and in some seasons the water, overflowing the banks of the river and its affluents, covers at least a third of the country and transforms it into a sea navigable for boats having a very respectable draught of water. This periodical inundation has impressed the manners and customs of the Cambodians with a peculiar stamp. The lake itself forms a prominent feature in the life of the people. It is about seventeen miles wide and ninety miles long, and furnishes in its fisheries one of the most reliable sources of the country's wealth.

The character of the Cambodian house is largely determined by the phenomenon of the inundation. It is built on piles, often, on one side at least, some twenty or twenty-five feet above the ground. The piles on one side stand in the river, and the door is on the other side. All that the proprietor asks is that the floor shall be a few inches above the water in time of freshet. He might put it on the level ground near the stream, but he prefers to have it overhang, in part at least, and slope. The floor is reached by ladders, which are drawn up in the evening—the surest mode of closing the house in a country where there are no locks.

Under the floor the pirogue is moored on one side, while the poultry, dogs, and pigs live on the other side. The pigs have hollow backs and their bellies drag on the ground, but their owner does not disdain to share his abode with them. I have seen the Cambodian and his pig lying side by side at noonday, enjoying their siesta. Places are also found under the house for the wagons, plows, and fishing-tackle. The floor is usually a wicker-work of woven bamboo laths, which bend and creak at every step, and which we, with our shoes and heavy walk, find it hard to get over. But the Cambodian walks light-footed and carefully, much as we try to do when we go on tip-toe, but, not being troubled by shoes, with vastly better success. Bending his legs a little and leaning forward, with his arms brought up toward his chest, he puts his foot delicately on two or three of the slats at a time, and walks noiselessly on, while we would always feel as if we were going to break through. These open floors are easily cleaned with a dash of water which runs off, no one cares where. In case the inundation should threaten to rise above them, the owner can make another floor higher up, with some bamboo sticks and a few hours of time.

The house is only one story high. The framing of the roof except for the larger pieces, which are of timber, is made with bamboos of sizes graduated to correspond with the weight they are intended to support. It is covered with a shingling of palm -leaves, or with wisps

Cambodian Pirogue

of straw, after the fashion of a European thatch. The outside walls and the partitions are often made in the same way. Inside, the house is divided into three or more apartments. The first, the vestibule, usually open in front, is reached by the ladder. Next to it is the principal room, serving for salon, dining-room, and bedroom, and from this doors open into the private family rooms or apartments of the women and children, to which Europeans are not admitted, and native visitors but rarely. Two small rooms are also occasionally built by the sides of the vestibule for the young men. The girls, whatever their age, always live with their mother. The whole structure is some thirty-five or forty feet square. Besides his dwelling-house the Cambodian builds a taller house, also on piles and having no entrance except by a small window, which he is particular to make tight against the rain; and this is the granary for his rice.

This description answers for the more common houses of the country—for those which are occupied by people in moderate circumstances. There are also other kinds of houses. The poor sometimes have to be contented with a low hut covering only a few square yards. The wealthy citizen may use timbers and planks instead of bamboo, but even the highest functionaries do not possess jointed planks. Luxury demands fine wood, but it is not carefully worked; and in the houses of the ministers of state one can walk on planks two or three inches thick, showing very evident gaps, and not even nailed to the joists on which they rest.

These primitive huts are far removed from the ideas we have of Oriental luxury, and still further from those which we might conceive from the ruins that exist in the country. At present Cambodian construction does not go beyond wood. Only the pagodas are of stone, and there is nothing in any of those which are standing to remind us of the splendors of the past.

There is one town, the city of Compong-Chnang, of variable population, which may rise to five thousand during the fishing season, that is built entirely on floating rafts. The people carefully follow the movements of the water, drawing their houses toward the land when it rises, and pushing them out into the stream when it falls, but always so that they shall be close to the shore without getting aground. Nothing can be more picturesque than the appearance of this town at evening when lighted by Chinese lanterns. The houses are separate from one another, and never but one story high; and the streets are regularly laid out.

The Cambodian's furniture is of the most primitive character. A table, a few stools, some earthen or copper spit-boxes, a few jars, and a bedstead made of boards, compose the useful part, while the ornamental is furnished by the arms and musical instruments hung on the walls, and mats laid upon the ground. When we go into these large rooms, we find them so scantily furnished, in comparison with our overloaded apartments, that we can hardly realize that they are occupied. But, then, what use has the Cambodian for bureaus, chairs, and tables? He has no wardrobe but his sampots, and he sits and eats on the ground. Our furniture would be a superfluity to him. What luxury he indulges in is in the line of wives, slaves, pirogues, and elephants. The table is made of wood, the stools are of bamboo, and the jars are of copper, or cocoanut, or calabash. The inventive spirit of the people has been particularly exercised on the bed. While he is satisfied with a few rough-dressed planks for a bedstead, the Cambodian has received from his fathers and still displays great skill in

Cambodian Arms. 1. hand-spear; 2. sword; 3. 4. 5. 6. 9. white arms of different forms; 7. javelin; 8. trident; 1. poignard.

making his mat and his mattress. The mat is an ordinary mat with tightly twisted tufts of cotton on the under side. The art of making these tufts is a special one, peculiar to the Khmer people. The mat is a valuable article in a country where journeys are often taken, for it furnishes a sufficient bed, and is easily packed with the baggage. The necessity of making frequent removals has also inspired the Cambodian mattress. The mat is not thick, and furnishes a comfortable relief; but the Cambodian sybarites have sought for something better, and found it. They have invented a mattress as soft as our own and much more convenient for journeys; it can be folded up into so compact a space as to take up very little room, and it is made in such a way that, however thick it may be, it can always be done up so exactly that every part shall be sure to fit into the smallest possible space. These luxurious bed-clothes are, of course, only found among the better-off Cambodians. The poorer ones have to content themselves with a common mat, or a board, or the ground itself.

King of Cambodia


The spittoon is in universal use. It varies in size and material, but not in shape. It is swelled out at the base, narrowly contracted above, and flares out into a funnel at the top—the whole giving it a shape well adapted to its use. The Cambodian is a constant betel-chewer; he has to be spitting all the time, and is under the necessity of having a dish always at hand to receive the blood-red saliva that escapes from his lips. The poor use an earthen spittoon. The rich man uses porcelain, and King Norodom has a spittoon of massive gold, carved and dressed with great taste. The housekeeping leaves much to be desired. One of the prominent characteristics of the people is to build and not keep up. This applies to their monuments, their houses, their boats, and their objects of art. But they do some cleaning, and use in it brooms made of the median nerves of palm-leaves and of cocoanut-fibers. They do very little in the evening. Their labors are performed during the day, which in that latitude is of nearly even length the year round. But if a man wishes to light his house or travel by night, he can use various torches, the most common of which is made of dried palm-leaves, tied together and steeped in resin. They are good enough to go around by, and are identical with the torches used by the natives of the Malabar coast. When they want a more steady light in the house they make little candles by dipping a cotton wick in melted wax and working it in the hand. This is really an article of luxury and is usually employed only before the altars in ancestral worship.

The Cambodian lives on rice and fish, and drinks water. Every other article of food or drink is to him only an accessory. Cambodian rice is one of the poorest kinds, being small and generally mixed with hard grains. It is thrashed out roughly, and is decorticated only as it is used. Fish is eaten fresh or salted, and, as the fishing-season is constant, there is always plenty of it, with a considerable surplus for exportation. The "extras" are chickens, eggs, pork, vegetables, and fruits, the chief of which is the banana. Tea is rarely taken at meals, but is served during the day, and offered to visitors. But little use is made of fermented liquors, and drunkenness is very rare. The liquor met most frequently is an alcohol of rice perfumed with essence of roses, which is known as chum-chum.

Their cookery is so strongly spiced that it is repulsive to Europeans. The Cambodian addresses himself by turns to pepper, ginger, mace, and various spices; but it costs the foreigner a long exercise to endure them. These, however, are condiments to which we are accustomed, and the only difference between our habits and theirs is in the quantity. But it is a different affair when we come to a product which the Cambodian likes well enough to set everywhere—the nuocman, or oil of fermented fish. The Annamites use this, too, but they refine it. The Cambodian prefers for his sauce to have it of the most pronounced flavor, without its having undergone any filtration or other process to attenuate its taste or odor. Offensive as it is at the first interview, I have known Europeans to learn to like it and to eat it with relish.

Instead of fireplace and chimney, the Cambodians use ingeniously constructed portable furnaces of terra-cotta. I find in this another illustration of the fact I have already referred to, that the inundation, by compelling the Cambodian to be a water-man for a part of the year, has given a special direction to his industry, the characteristic feature of which is the invention of portable utensils equally adapted to service on land and on his narrow pirogue, and also occupying but little space. The furnace of Campong-Chnang is in the shape of a calabash, divided by a horizontal plane into two parts. The smaller end, provided with three legs, is the kettle; and the other end holds the coal, wood, and ashes. With this apparatus the native can do his cooking anywhere, on the ground or on the lightest boat, without danger of fire. Nothing could be better for its purpose. The people also have a taller kind of furnace, but it is less convenient and more fragile, and is not in general use. The vessels for cooking have nearly always the same shape, and differ only in size. Vessels of the same kind are also used for pitchers, and when designed for this purpose are furnished with a withe, which, after being wrapped around the narrow part several times, is formed into a handle. They are used in pairs, and carried by means of a bar over the shoulders. The meals are eaten sitting on the ground. Tables are used only to put things on temporarily. The countrymen have two meals—the first at ten o'clock in the morning and the other at five o'clock in the afternoon. In the towns they sometimes have three—the first at nine o'clock, the second at one, and the last at six o'clock in the evening. The one-Cambodian Elephant and Tent. o'clock meal is light, and consists chiefly of a pottage of rice. The others are more substantial, and include, besides rice, which takes the place of bread, fresh fish in the morning and salt fish in the evening; and when they have chicken and meat, it is at these meals. At meal-time the members of the family collect around a mat which is set in a particular part of the house, the usual place for that house, but different in different houses. They sit on the ground, with their legs thrown over to one side. Some of them, perhaps, will squat, in what is an habitual position of resting with this people. The wife in a poor family, or a slave in wealthier ones, then brings in a dish furnished with bowls containing the meats, one of which is given to each commensal. In the event of a more elaborate repast, where a variety is provided, the different dishes are brought on in succession. But this is rare; for the Cambodian, like the people of warm climates generally, is extremely sober, and it is not without considerable astonishment that he sees us swallow, at a single meal, a quantity that would suffice him for two or three days. The whole dish is screened with a hood of straw, covered with cloth, which protects the meats against dust and keeps them warm. The head of the house removes the cover, and they all fall to with a will. When several dishes are provided, they all take a little of each at once, and it is only a little, so that the plate is often passed back. For service, the Cambodian employs his fingers, not even having the Chinese chopsticks, and using a little bowl, or a Chinese spoon, only to take up the sauce. The repast is usually eaten in silence, and occupies but a few minutes. When it is over, the servant brings a towel and the family wipe their hands; then they rise and go to the water-jar to wash their hands and drink a cup of water. The Cambodian never drinks while he is eating. Such is the meal of ordinary well-off people, as simple as possible, and free from all parade of dishes—no linen, no covers, no knives, no glasses; hardly a cup for each person, and only a family drinking-cup at the water-jar after the meal. Such simplicity should seem to exclude all idea of luxury; but it exists. It is shown in the enrichment of the few dishes that are used. The plates of the poor man are Cambodians plain; those of the rich are decorated; and they may be of earthenware, of porcelain, of copper, plain or chased, of silver or gold.

Tea is reserved for refreshment between meals, and to be offered in compliment to visitors. Whoever goes into a Cambodian's house is offered tea, and it is a sign of esteem and friendship to take it. A refusal would be misconstrued.

The costume of the Cambodians is peculiar to them. The sampot is their only native garment, for all others that they may wear may be regarded as Siamese or Annamite importations. The manner of wearing it is distinctive to the Khmer race, for the other people of the country wear it differently. The sampot is a strip of cloth about a yard wide by three yards long, generally woven whole, and after patterns that have come down from remote antiquity. With the common people it is cotton, with well-to-do people it is silk, while the rich sometimes have it trimmed with silver or gold. It is put on by wrapping around the loins and bringing the ends forward; then, taking it by its upper edge, at about half a yard from the body, the two handfuls of cloth are twisted round each other, and it is tied with the same kind of a knot as the Chinese and Annamites use to fasten their trousers, while the parts of the ends beyond the knot hang down in front; then they are twisted up, passed between the legs, carried back and fastened behind to the strip over the loins. The legs are thus enveloped in a kind of wide breeches. This constitutes the whole of the Cambodian's country costume. He is otherwise barefooted, bareheaded, and barebacked. Richer men, however, wear under the sampot short drawers of light, white goods; and townspeople wear over it a belt with a metallic plate, which they have adopted from the Siamese. Another imported garment is the Siamese paletot, a coat fitting the shape, opening and buttoning in front, and coming down to the hips. The sleeves are straight and of the full length of the arms. The nobles and mandarins have very recently adopted the European short-coat; and the dandies have borrowed a scarf which properly belongs to the women. They usually wear it tied around the waist, while a few throw it over the upper part of the body; but this is a violation of the rites, and those who commit it are cautious enough to let their scarf drop when they see any high functionary of their race coming. The hair is worn short behind and three or four inches long in front. It is parted in the middle or at one side, and set off with a flower behind the ears. "Women also wear the sampot arranged in the same fashion as that of the men, but without the drawers, and of a different color from the masculine garment, it being the woman's peculiar privilege to wear green and rose color. Their scarf is usually of silk, and of some striking color, different from that of the sampot, and is gracefully thrown over the body so as not so much to hide the breasts as to give them support; and the Cambodian woman is not at all concerned if her breasts are fully exposed. Some women wear a kind of robe or chemise with tight sleeves extending over the sampot to just above the knees. They wear their hair short; and this, with the likeness of their dress to that of the men, and the men's smooth faces, makes it a matter of no little tact to tell a man from a woman.

Children of both sexes go nearly naked till they are about seven years old. Their hair is the object of one of the most cherished customs of the Khmer people. At two years of age it is cut off, all except a tuft on the top of the head, which is left to flow, or is tied up or fastened with a pin till the youth reaches the age of puberty. It is then cut off with a solemn ceremony, marked by rites which have come down from antiquity, to witness which all of the family and the homes are invited. In the royal family the occasion is honored by grand festivals, in which all the people participate.

The Cambodian is an indefatigable walker, a good horseman, and a boatman of rare skill. His favorite sports are boat-races, tennis, and shuttle-cock, to the last of which adults devote themselves with great zest. The shuttle-cock, which is thrown by the toe, often passes from one pair to another fifteen or twenty times without touching the ground. These games of skill are, however, second in favor to the games of chance, of which bacoing and the game of the twenty-six

Stieng Savage, Cochin China.

animals are the chief. The former game is common to all the extreme East, and even numbers many Europeans among its votaries. The game of animals is more peculiarly Cambodian. It is a lottery, in which the numbers are represented by animals; and these give it life and touch the fancy of the players in a thousand ways. Roulette-players are sometimes struck by a particular number, and put a great deal of trust in it. How much more should an animal enlist their confidence! Its appearance, its voice, the direction of its course, are precious signs to the Cambodian player; and as he is, moreover, superstitious and frequently idle, it is easy to see how prominent a place these fascinating diversions occupy in his mind. Like all people who have struggled for existence through centuries, the Cambodians rigorously preserve their usages. It appears that as the power of a nation declines, and its means of defending itself against foreigners become less effective, the people feel the need of establishing a rallying-point for their nationality, and find it in their institutions; and these they learn to cherish all the more as a memorial of the time of their national glory. Numerous old customs are preserved in this way in Cambodia. Perhaps the most interesting of them are those which relate to betrothals and marriage. Betrothals sometimes

Statue of the Leprous King. Founder of Angkor Wat.

take place at a very early age; but in case the parents have not entered into any engagement, and the young man has made his own choice, he addresses a woman whose business it is to attend to such matters, and employs her to sound the heart of his chosen girl and the disposition of her family. If his overtures are accepted, he visits the house of the young woman, making his salutations at the foot of the stairs and at the top, and explains the object of his visit to her parents. They receive him, and generally accept him as a betrothed suitor, when he takes up his abode in the house and becomes a kind of domestic, almost a slave, to the family, assisting them in all their labors. In this way they have an opportunity of judging what he is good for. The length of this time of trial is controlled by the degree of hesitation manifested by the young woman; but the waiting has its compensations. She makes it her business to prepare the quids of betel and the cigarettes for her swain. This done, she puts them in a convenient place where he will find them, or she may venture to offer them to him herself. The residence under a common roof is accompanied by corresponding privileges. If the authorized relations are passed, and children are born, they are regarded by the law as legitimate. Betrothed are protected by the same legal sanctions as married women, and the groom has the same right over her as he would have over a wife. The difference between betrothal and marriage is that betrothal is more easily withdrawn from. If the rupture comes from the groom, he has only to go away; if from the young woman, her parents must pay him an indemnity proportional to the services which, he has given during his residence in the house.

To admire the arts of Cambodia we must go back into its past. We can gain some conception of what they were by looking at those immense monuments that confound our Western pride by their dimensions, the beauty of their proportions, and the finish of their details. Angkor Wat, although deserted by the crowds that once gave it life, plundered by the vandalism of conquerors, and disintegrated by time, still bears comparison with the finest of our monuments. The religious sentiment has never conceived anything more elevated or grander. We are forced to believe that when architecture had reached such a height, the other arts must follow it if only at a distance. The two thousand square yards of bas-reliefs which decorate the halls of the pagoda of Angkor, and the hundreds of statues it contains, testify for sculpture. The condition of music and poetry is attested by the airs and songs which we still hear—the same that resounded under the ceilings of the holy places centuries ago. There is no room to doubt that luxury and the arts once flourished in the Khmer country.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.