There are almost 5,000 temples in Cambodia. Virtually the whole of the Cambodian population is Theravada Buddhist, officially at least. The reality is somewhat different because the national form of Buddhism has elements of Hinduism, Tantrism, and animism. They generally believe in reincarnation and the ability to wipe out anything done in the past from their ‘’history.’’ Those of Vietnamese and Chinese descent tend to be Mahayana Buddhists, venerating ancestors and folk heroes. An even smaller number are Muslims, those of Malay or Cham descent. Cambodia tour packages include a number of religious sites so it is worth knowing about religion in Cambodia.
A holiday in Cambodia will always have a religious content. The religion came to Cambodia as early as the 5th Century, some believe many centuries before, and a Cambodia travel agency is certain to include many visits to temples celebrating the faith as well as festivals that occur annually in line with the lunar calendar. During the brief period of the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge religion was frowned upon but otherwise Buddhism has been the guide to everyone though rural people are likely to be guided by other things as well.
There are two streams:
• Early forms with Hindu elements emerged during the Funan Kingdom.
• The Angkor Empire took the Buddhist traditions of Mon kingdoms of Dvaravati and Haripunchai.
Cambodia was ruled for a thousand years by a series of Hindu kings and occasionally a Buddhist king like Jayavarman I of the Kingdom of Funan. There was widespread tolerance displayed by Hindu kings and the neighbouring Mon-Theravada kingdoms.
Hinduism was an official religion of the Khmer Empire and Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple in the whole of the world. Everyone who visits Cambodia goes on a visit there within Indochina tour packages.
Islam spread from the west, the religion of the Cham and Malay minorities. The numbers of Muslims living in Cambodia approached quarter of a million but the numbers dropped during the Khmer Rouge regime. There are around 100 mosques within Cambodian borders though a Cambodia family tour is not certain to include any in the itinerary.
Roman Catholicism predated the arrival of the French. Portuguese traders came to the region in the 16th Century though attempts to baptise locals generally ended in failure at that time. It was thought that there was around 60,000 Christians in the early 1970s, largely Vietnamese and their repatriation shortly afterwards saw the number drop markedly. Those that remained were largely European.
The hill tribes of Cambodia live as they have for many generations. The total population is little more than 150,000 and they can be described as animists believing in their own individual spirits, some good and some bad. They associate the spirits with water, stone, rice and soil and refer to the village shaman on a regular basis.
There is a small Jewish community, very small in fact; only around 100.They have a meeting place in Phnom Penh.