By far the most popular Cambodian religion is Buddhism.
Though it’s Islam that dominates in Southeast Asia overall, it’s Buddhism that dominates in the mainland area of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.
No more than 5% of the population of Cambodia practice a religion other than Buddhism. What are the historical reasons for this, how does it affect Cambodia today, and what’s life like for the many Buddhist monks in Cambodia?
Cambodian religion in history and today
Theravada Buddhism has been the state Cambodian religion since the 13th century CE, but Buddhism in Cambodia began long before that, perhaps in the 5th century CE or even as early as the 3rd century BCE.
Buddhism itself originated in what is now modern Nepal. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (known as the ‘Buddha’, which means ‘The Awakened One’) is believed to have been born in 623 BCE, and lived and taught in what is now modern day India. Siddhartha Gautama taught a path of moderation, away from extremes of both suffering and self-indulgence.
Before Cambodia was called Cambodia, it was (from 100 BCE to 500 CE) part of the Funan Kingdom. Funan was ‘Indianized’, which means that it was heavily influenced by India and by Indian culture. Consequently the Funan Kingdom was Hindu, but with Buddhism as a secondary religion. Buddhism in Cambodian religion seems to have begun to become more popular and influential from around 450 CE.
Buddhism in Cambodia flourished during the Angkor Kingdom period, particularly during the reign of the Buddhist Khmer king Jayavarman VII. Jayavarman VII ruled between 1181 and 1215, and worked very hard during this time to establish Buddhism as the state religion. He saw this as saving the Khmer people. Jayavarman was successful, and after the 13th century CE Theravada Buddhism (one of the oldest Buddhist schools) become one of the religions of Angkor Wat.
Massive damage was done to Cambodian Buddhism during the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. Buddhist monks were forcibly removed from the wats (Buddhist temples) and made to do manual work (as were many other parts of the population). Religion was forbidden and temples were damaged or destroyed. It’s estimated that as many as 50,000 monks died or were killed during this time.
Today Buddhism remains an influential force in Cambodia religion and in everyday life, but it is still rebuilding from the loss of so many leaders and teachers during the Khmer Rouge period. However, in 2006 there were an estimated 60,000 Buddhist novices in Cambodia, and work to repair temples and reestablish Buddhism continues.
Cambodian religion and the life of a monk
Southeast Asia is famous for its Buddhist monks, and many tourists return home with striking photos of orange-robed and shaven-headed young men going about their daily business in cities and towns across the region. These monks are known as bonzes, and (theoretically at least) all Cambodian men over the age of 16 serve some time as a bonze. This is seen as a rite of passage into adulthood.
Buddhist monks in Cambodian religion live in wats, which contain residences and a hall for eating and for classes. They live a regulated lifestyle in the wats: there are no fewer than 227 rules to observe! Eating after midday, sleeping on a too-comfortable bed, participating in entertainments such as dancing or watching movies and handling money are all forbidden. Monks are also not supposed to participate in politics, though this has changed over time; since the 1980s some Buddhist monks in Cambodia have taken active role in politics.
Monks perform ceremonies at occasions such as births, deaths and weddings, and more broadly they play a role in ministering to the people’s social and emotional needs, just like in other religions. In the mornings, monks leave the temple and walk the streets for alms-giving. People stop the monks and give them gifts of food, and the monks give them a blessing in return.
So in short…
Understanding Cambodian religion is crucial to understanding and appreciating Cambodia. After all, Angkor Wat temple is a religious building. Buddhism has had a long history in Cambodia, and while it suffered greatly during the Khmer Rouge regime, like other aspects of Cambodian life it has taken big strides in recent times towards repair and renewal.
Where would you like to go next?
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