What Does Khmer Mean?

Globetrotters who have spent some time in Cambodia (or are planning to) may have noticed the word Khmer everywhere. There is a Khmer language, plenty of Khmer villages and restaurants, and even a Khmer New Year. Not to mention the worldwide infamous Khmer Rouge regime.

Khmer New Year

But what does Khmer mean, exactly, and how do you use it? This article will help you figure out all you need to know about the Khmer culture and all the main situations in which the word Khmer is used so that you can arrive prepared and start your exciting Cambodian holiday without worrying about a cultural faux pas.

What Does Khmer Mean in English?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word Khmer was first recorded in 1881. However, the etymology of the term can be traced further back according to many, who attribute it to the Pali therm Khemara. Khemara means ‘one who is wholesome.’

In itself, therefore, we can say that Khmer has a positive connotation. Of course, the meaning of a word can then change depending on its use over time.

Khmer: Today’s Meanings

Nowadays, the word Khmer has several meanings and can be used as a noun as well as an adjective. Keep reading to explore the most popular uses.

The Khmer language

One of the most common uses of the word Khmer refers to the Cambodian language. It is the country’s official language and the majority of the population speaks it. In fact, it is the second most widely spoken Austroasiatic tongue after Vietnamese.

In total, there are about 16 million people using Khmer in the world. The majority live in Cambodia, but there are larges communities of Khmer speakers in southeastern Thailand and southern Vietnam too. Regional dialects do exist but they are mutually intelligible.

Written recordings of Khmer date back to the 7th century. The direct ancestor of today’s Khmer is Old Khmer, the language used by the Khmer Empire. You will be able to see plenty of inscriptions on Cambodian ancient monuments like those in Angkor Wat.

If you are planning a trip to Cambodia and do not speak Khmer, you have no reason to worry. English is widely spoken across the country, especially in urban and tourist areas.

The Khmer people

97% percent of the Cambodian population identify as Khmer, a SouthEast Asian ethnic group.

Most Khmers are found in Cambodia, but there are also significant communities in Thailand (more than 1 million Khmer) and the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam. Estimates of Khmer presence in Vietnam are unclear, while the government reports 1.3 million residents,  the Khmer Krom Federation claims the number is actually over 7 million.

As a result of the Cambodian diaspora, moreover, there are Khmer communities in France, the United States, and Australia.

There are several myths concerning the origin of the Khmer people. According to the most popular one, Cambodians are the descendants of Indian Brahmin priest Kaudinya (also known as Preah Thoang) and Naga Princess Soma. The legend goes that Cambodia was originally an island of which only the top could be seen above the waters. That would explain how mountaintops are still revered as holy places across the country.

Most Khmers are deeply spiritual and believe in a supernatural world made of entities like ghosts, devils, protective spirits, and house guardians. The beliefs of the majority of Cambodians can be identified with Theravada Buddhism with strong elements of indigenous ancestor-spirit worship, animism, and shamanism.

Cambodians are considered warm, welcoming people. Do not hesitate to ask locals for directions or clarifications but make sure to be respectful at all times.

The Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide

Khmer Rouge is the name popularly given to the people behind the regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. The name of the party was actually the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and its leader was Pol Pot.

Pol Pot was inspired by the communities living in the rural northeastern region of the country to imagine a new Cambodia living like an agrarian utopia, isolated from other nations and self-sufficient. He went on a mission to empty the cities and move the majority of the population back to farmlands. He abolished property, money, and religion.

Pol Pot’s dreams came at an enormous cost for the Cambodian population. While it was ruling the country, the Khmer Rouge regime tortured and executed up to 2 million people and starved hundreds of thousands more.

Today, visitors can learn about this dark page of Cambodian history in the many museums and memorial sites like the Killing Fields Memorial Museum.


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