Religion and the Culture of Cambodia

Asian culture has a great deal to do with religion. There are several religions in the Continent with Buddhism the prevalent religion within Indochina, and specifically Cambodia. It has not always been the case, and some imposing landmarks originated as Hindu, with the influence of India to the west stretching across the region many years ago. The concept of family, and ancestor worship is part of religious life as well, and it is worth looking a little closer at these aspects of Cambodian life, and by definition, culture.

bayon temple angkor thom

Every Cambodia tour package will have some religious content. Major attractions such as Angkor remember the Khmer Empire while pagodas in cities as well as villages are a constant reminder about how important religion is in the life of every Cambodian. These days, 95% of the population are Thearavada Buddhists but there are still pockets of people who are Christian, a legacy of French colonialism, and Cham Muslims. People with any Chinese ancestry may also follow Confucius or be Daoist.

Monks live a simple life in Cambodia; they are disciples of a 6th Century Indian prince and believe in regular incarnation, not necessarily always in human form, until they finally achieve nirvana because of the lives they have lived. People regularly make offerings of food or money, as well as providing free labour to earn merit points in their lives. Even children get involved by tending orchards, serving in the temple or becoming novice monks for a short period of up to a year. Before the Khmer Rouge took control of the country for a brief period, as many as 50% of the people spent some time as a monk. The Khmer Rouge killed many monks during its brief rule, and many fled in terror. Since that time, the numbers spending time as a monk have fallen sharply.

During your Cambodia travel, you will encounter many monks; not just at religious sites. You must show them respect and certainly dress appropriately when you visit religious sites during your Cambodia holiday.

Angkor dates back to the time when the population was Hindu and that religion, though rarely practised, still has influenced many aspects of Cambodian culture even today; marriage, funerals and the use of astrology are good examples.

Cambodians are not fanatical. Their approach to life as well as religion can best be described as relaxed but they all make certain that they remember the important dates in the lunar calendar, and visit pagodas at that time. They are generally keen on ancestor worship as well and most homes will have a suitable shrine for appeasing bad spirits.

The basis of Buddhism is living a good life, and that is reflected in the way local people behave, always politely and respectfully to others, including the increasing number of tourists that are arriving every year. It is something that might be a lesson to others in parts of the world where everyone seems too busy to notice others.