Cambodian Voices in the Bay
Khmer Cultural Heritage
Cambodian Temples & Spirituality: Wat Khmer
While most Cambodians practice Theravada Buddhism, it is important to acknowledge that Cambodian spirituality has been influenced by countless other religions over the centuries. These include ancestor worship (which predates the arrival of Buddhism), and there are still traces of Hindu beliefs in Cambodian spirituality, which is a remnant of the distant past during the Angkor period, when the state religion was Hinduism. Today, Cambodian temples known as “Wat Khmer” (Cambodian Pagodas) are Buddhist temples that exist all over the Bay Area. They serve as cultural centers for Khmers from Cambodia & Cambodian Americans alike.
Each temple has several monks that speak the Khmer language & live at the temple 24 hours a day, 7 days a week just as the monks do in Cambodia. The monks offer dharma lectures (usually in Khmer), meditation lessons & other spiritual practices such as “boun”, which are blessing ceremonies for all occasions. The monks are also highly involved for hosting a handful of Khmer traditional holidays such as Chaul Chnam (Cambodian New Year) & Pchum Ben (Cambodian Ancestors Day) – in which the communities flock to pay respects to the Buddha, the monks at the temples & celebrate with one another.
Here are a few Wat Khmer in the Bay Area:
Nagara Dhamma Temple
3225 Lincoln Way, San Francisco, CA
Oakland Cambodian Temple
633 Douglas Ave, Oakland, CA
Wat Khemararam Buddhist Temple
2751 Mervyns Way, San Jose, CA
Wat Khemara Rangsey
1594 Cunningham Ave. San Jose, CA
Wat Khmer Kampuchea Krom
66 Sunset Court, San Jose, CA
297 Millbrae Ave, Santa Rosa, CA
Culinary Tradition: Morhab Khmer
Most Cambodians cook their traditional foods & share it in communal fashion at the temples. However, the Bay Area has been lucky to have had a lengthy history of Cambodian restaurants in existence. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, there were many more Cambodian restaurants in the Bay Area. In 2021, the number of them has decreased but every restaurant that is still open is very inviting & offers an array of different Cambodian dishes on their menus. The flavors range from sweet to sour, many items are indigenous to the Khmer people but a lot of Cambodian food is noticeably similar to their Thai, Lao & Vietnamese neighbors.
Here are the Cambodian restaurants still open in the Bay Area:
Phnom Penh House
1514 Webster St, Alameda, CA
850 Broadway, Oakland, CA
Cambodian Street Food
2045 Foothill Blvd, Oakland, CA
923 Oakland Road, San Jose, CA
949 Ruff Dr, San Jose, CA
2155 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA
Art & Traditional Heritage: Salabat Khmer
In the past, the Khmer used robam (dance) as a way of communicating with their deities. They retold stories of great heroes & heroines, highlighting legends & epic poems that derived from Hindu traditional folklore. During the 1960s, Queen Sisowath Kossamak of Cambodia played an influential role in re-standardizing the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. She designated her granddaughter Princess Bopha Devi “prima ballerina,” and the royal family is credited for organizing our dance culture into modern methods of practice. When Cambodian refugees arrived from the horrors of the killing fields and the refugee camps, they brought with them the hope that their Khmer culture can also survive as they did. A few amateur dance troupes were installed in the big cities all over the United States, where the temples served as places for these dance troupes to hold practice and give lessons.
In the Bay Area, a few Khmer dance troupes teach the youth the folkloric and iconic dances, such as Robam Apsara, The Reamker, the legend of Preah Thong Neang Neak, and others.
Below are Cambodian dance troupes that teach Robam Khmer in the Bay Area:
Charya Burt Cambodian Dance Troupe
North San Francisco Bay
See Charya Burt at San Francisco City Hall (Video)
Chhayam Dance Group of Oakland
See Chhayam Dance Group at the Cambodian Buddhist Temple (Video)
This project is made possible with support from California Humanities.