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Religion in Cambodia

Religion is a very important part of everyday life in Cambodia and is present throughout the country as seen in the vast amount of temples where ceremonies and rituals occur daily. Although many religions exist in the country, including Islam, Christianity, and tribal animism, over 97% of the population practices Theravada Buddhism.

Because religion is so important in Cambodia, travelers should understand the ins and outs of the religious practices. This article will explain the roots of religion in Cambodia, the religious practices of the people, and the main religious attractions in the country.

Quick Facts

  • Cambodian Buddhism is a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Animism.
  • Hinduism was one of the first religions of the Khmer people.
  • After Hinduism, Buddhism developed and spread to Cambodia.
  • Buddhism is different from Hinduism for the two main reasons: Buddhism does not believe in gods, and it does not use the caste system.
  • Animism is still practiced in Cambodia in the countryside and involves the belief that everything has a spirit.
  • When visiting, travelers will see many shrines and examples of Buddhism being practiced, including monks collecting alms, and people conducting religious ceremonies.
  • The top religious attractions in Cambodia include the Angkor Temple Complex, the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, and Prasat Preah Vihear.

Roots of Cambodian religion

Today, the official religion of Cambodia is Buddhism, but most Cambodians practice a special kind of Buddishm. Cambodian Buddhism has evolved, using the cultural influences from the three historically important religions of the country: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Animism.

The history and connections between these three religions will be explained below.

Hinduism

Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world and started in India but spread to many places in South East Asia, including Cambodia. Before Buddhism was widely practiced in Cambodia, Hinduism was the main religion of the Khmer people.

Hindus believe there are four main goals in life: duty, prosperity, passion, and freedom. Hinduism also places importance on the idea of karma. Hindus consider karma (actions and consequences) to be an important factor in the cycle of reincarnation. Those who did good deeds in their past lives would be born into a better position in their next life.

Another important factor in Hinduism is mythology. Although in Hinduism there is one supreme deity, this deity can manifest itself in many different ways and as many different gods. These gods often interact with each other and with humans. Each god has a different specialty and is prayed to for different reasons.

For the first thousand years of Khmer history, the country was ruled by a series of Hindu kings. These kings built the famous Angkor Temple Complex which is actually the largest Hindu Temple in the world.

Today, Hinduism isn't commonly practiced in Cambodia anymore but it still influences many aspects of people's lives such as weddings, funerals, and using astrology to pick auspicious dates for important events.

Buddhism

Buddhism is very similar to Hinduism and was developed from Hinduism as an answer to some of the injustices believed to be present in the religion. The main focus of Buddhism is to achieve enlightenment in order to free oneself from the endless cycle of reincarnation and suffering.

Because Buddhism comes from Hinduism, the two religions have many similarities. Firstly, both religions believe strongly in reincarnation and that this endless cycle of rebirths and deaths needs to be broken to find peace. Both religions also believe that meditation is very important and that spirituality is found inward instead of outward. Lastly, both believe that eventually, everything on earth will achieve freedom through enlightenment.

Despite similar roots, both religions have stark differences. One of the main differences is that Buddhism doesn't have the caste system which is a social hierarchy that used to be very important in Hinduism. Also, Buddhism has no gods, whereas Hinduism has endless variations of gods and goddesses.

Buddhism has existed in Cambodia since around the 5th century and has been the main religion of the country spanning many kingdoms and empires.

Animism

Animism is the belief that everything in the universe, including natural objects and events, possesses a soul. Those who believe in animism often believe that the world is full of spirits such as the spirits of rice, earth, water, fire, stones, mountains, and so on. Animists believe that these spirits are responsible for everything that happens in the world.

Many villages that practice animism have shamans or sorcerers whose job is to interpret the desires of the spirits and appease them. In this religion, illness is believed to be caused by evil spirits and all illnesses are treated by the village shaman. 

Animism has been practiced in Cambodia for thousands of years and is one of the older religions in the country.

Although the majority of the country's population is Buddhist today, animism continues to influence Cambodia and its religion. Most Cambodian Buddhists still believe in spirits and most houses have a shrine, that they often build themselves.

Practicing buddhism in Cambodia

When visiting Cambodia, travelers will have many different options to experience the local culture through religion. By walking through the streets of the cities and towns or visiting local religious sites, travelers will get a glance into a unique and ancient religion.

There are many ways that Cambodians practice their religion. For many, this involves going to a temple but for others, a visit to the temple can be replaced by a daily walk in the garden to their shrine.

In Buddhism, earning merit by doing good deeds is very important. Many Buddhists earn merit by giving money, labor, or goods to temples and by providing meals to monks. Visitors often get the chance to see monks walking through the city, collecting alms from those who wish to gain merit by helping.

It is common in Cambodia for many men to become monks for a short part of their lives, often for a few months or a year. They do this in order to bring merit to their families and to become closer to their religion. Boys often become monks, starting at the age of 13.

One way that older women give to their religion is by choosing to live at the pagodas as helpers. They often do this so that they are not a burden to their families and can become closer to their religion. These women are called mae chi and they often clean and prepare altars for ceremonies.

Religious attractions

Religion has been important to the people of Cambodia throughout their history and because of this, there are many incredible and famous religious sites in the country. Some of our favorites include the Angkor Temples, the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, and Prasat Preah Vihear.

Angkor Temples

The largest Hindu temple complex in the world, the Angkor Temples, were built by a series of ancient Khmer kings. Each king wanted to build a temple more grand than the last. Today the complex spreads over a large area and includes many famous temple sites such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Srei.

This complex is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Cambodia and is an incredible area to explore. Most visitors need at least 2-4 days in Siem Reap to see all the famous temples.

Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

The Royal Palace is a beautiful Cambodian style building that is accented with gleaming gold. It is where the current Cambodian King lives and is therefore often closed to visitors but still a beautiful site.

The Silver Pagoda, which is located on the palace grounds, is open to visitors and is not only a beautiful piece of architecture but is an important religious relic. It holds a collection of priceless Buddhist statues, including the famous "Emerald Buddha" statue.

Prasat Preah Vihear

This temple is one of the oldest in Cambodia; it was built over 100 years before the Angkor Temples. It is also one of the most beautifully located temples, as it is perched on the top of a plateau in the Dangrek Mountains. Because of this, visitors to this temple will be treated to beautiful views of the surrounding area as well as the temple itself.

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