Religion in Cambodia

Cambodia - Angkor temple complex
The "lost city" of Angkor first attracted the interest of Europeans in the 1800s after Cambodia was colonized by the French. Today, Angkor Wat continues to draw thousands of visitors anxious to see this remarkable ancient temple in the jungle. In addition to many tourists, Buddhist monks are daily visitors to Angkor Wat, their bright orange robes making a vivid contrast with the grey stone of the temple. Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Since the collapse of the Khmer Empire in the 14th Century, the main religion of Cambodia has been Theravada Buddhism, practiced by over 96% of the population. Another 1.9% of the population is Muslim, made up almost exclusively of Cham and Malay ethnic minorities. Christianity arrived in Cambodia with the European colonizers, though the faith never spread successfully. Only about 0.4% of the population is Christian. The people of the hill tribes in the northeastern part of Cambodia, known collectively as Khmer Loeu, practice animism and communicate with the spiritual world via a shaman. 

Key Takeaways

  • Nearly the entire population of Cambodia practices Theravada Buddhism, though there are small communities of Muslims, Christians, and animists in different parts of the country.
  • The history of Cambodia is inseparable from Hinduism, which came to the country from India the early 1st Century.
  • Angkor Wat, located in northwestern Cambodia, is still the largest religious monument in the world. The bas-reliefs and carvings along the temple walls depict reincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu.
  • Between 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, massacred Cambodian religious populations. By the end of the genocide, the death toll was an estimated two million. 

Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Angkor Empire

Though Buddhism is the main religion of Cambodia, the country’s history is rooted in Hinduism. Beginning as early the 2nd Century A.D., Hinduism flooded in from India and rapidly became Cambodia’s main religion. The foundation of what would become present-day Cambodia is inseparable from the influx of Hinduism. According to the Cambodian creation legend, a Brahman, or Hindu priest and political advisor, traveled to the Mekong Delta in the Kingdom of Funan, where he saw the beautiful princess Nagi Somā. The two married and became the first ancestors of the divine royal family of the Khmer Empire.

Trade between China and India fueled the region’s development of agriculture and irrigation. By the 8th Century, King Jayavarman II had unified the region and established the capital city of Hariharalaya, named for the of the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva. King Yasovarman moved the capital to Angkor at the end of the 9th Century, and between the 9th and 14th Centuries , Khmer political and religious leaders commissioned and built the Angkor temple complex to honor Hindu gods and tell the stories of the ancient universe.

Hindu bas-relief at the Angkor Temple Complex
Dancing apsara bas-relief on the walls of Angkor Wat.  McKenzie Perkins 

Angkor Temple Complex 

While most ancient and modern cities and seats of power were built around pre-established waterways, the Khmer people constructed the Angkor complex, a collection of secular and religious buildings, along 200 square miles of the fairly infertile lands of the Mekong Delta, where torrential rains poured down for half of the year and a hot, dry heat pulled the moisture from the ground during the other half of the year.

In order to combat the tests of nature, the Khmer people developed unprecedented hydraulic systems and artificial irrigation that allowed them to draw water from nearby mountains into massive moats, canals, and reservoirs for domestic and agricultural use. Angkor Wat, the complex’s most famous monument, is surrounded by one of these man-made moats, though the waterway is as religious as it is agricultural. Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the monument itself is a pyramid structure surrounded on four sides by water. The monument is representative of Mount Meru, the golden mountain at the center of the universe for Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains, while the moat represents the seas of the universe. The elaborate bas–reliefs and carvings across the entire Angkor complex illustrate different incarnations of Vishnu.

By the 12th Century, the population of Angkor had surpassed one million, and Mahayana Buddhism had become the official religion of Angkor. The first contact between Mahayana Buddhist monks dates back to the 3rd Century. By the time Jayavarman VII, a devout Mahayana practice, was crowned king, Mahayana Buddhism was as much a part of Angkor as Hinduism. Buddhist temples were constructed alongside ancient Hindu temples within the Angkor complex, most notably the temple of Bayon, where 216 serene faces of King Jayavarman VII are carved into the stones.

Face of King Jayavarman VII
One of the 216 serene faces of King Jayavarman VII at the Mahayana Temple of Bayon.  McKenzie Perkins 

Ironically, the fall of the Khmer Empire and the abandonment of Angkor is, at least in part, due to the waterways on which empire was founded. A series of monsoons and the invasion of Siam (Thailand) led to infrastructural deterioration of the waterways. Left unattended, the stagnant water served as a breeding ground for mosquitos and malaria. By the 14th Century, Theravada Buddhism was the most practiced religion of the Khmer people. A more democratic and less strict form of the religion, Theravada Buddhism directed believers toward individual enlightenment and self-reflection. In need of no ostentatious religious monuments, the remaining Angkor people fled the kingdom after a final Siamese invasion. The temples disintegrated, and by the time the French arrived in Cambodia in the mid-1800s, the territory of the former Khmer Empire was under the control of the King of Thailand.

Islam

Islam is one of the main religions of Cambodia. The Muslim population of Cambodia is made up almost entirely of Cham-Malay ethnic minorities. Cham villages are mostly concentrated in the Kampong Cham region in the central part of country. Cham people originate from the Kingdom of Champa, located in present-day Vietnam. After the collapse of the Kingdom of Champa at the end of the 13th Century, the Cham people fled to Cambodia, seeking refuge from the Vietnamese. As a targeted group by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, Cambodian Muslims were massacred by the thousands, devastating the population.

Colonization and Christianization

Christianity reached Cambodia the same way it reached most other colonized countries, by way of European trade ships in search of spices. The first record of Christianity in Cambodia is in 1500, when the Catholic Church sent missionaries to the region. The first Protestant missionaries arrived nearly four centuries later, though neither religious affiliation had significant success converting the Buddhist Cambodians. Catholic and Protestant missionaries continued to venture into Cambodia until the mid-1900s, when as many as 50,000 Christians were deported. Christians faced harsh persecution and slaughter as a targeted group of the Khmer Rouge regime. By the end of the regime in 1979, as few as 200 Christians had survived.

Indigenous Beliefs in Cambodia

A small percentage of the population of Cambodia lives in rural, tribal communities in the northeastern part of the country. Made up of 14 or 15 different tribes including Jarai, Prou, Lun, Kravet, and Kreung, these groups of people are collectively known as the Khmer Loeu, or the highlanders. Though each of the tribes is distinct in language and cultural practices, the Khmer Loeu practice animism, or a belief in the spirituality of all things. Shamans are the tribal mediators between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Contemporary Religion in Cambodia

Angkor Wat at sunset
Angkor Wat. Manuel Romaris // Getty Images 

Today, Cambodia is religiously tolerant, though an overwhelming majority of the population of Cambodia practices Theravada Buddhism. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and it brings in more than a million visitors each year.

Angkor Wat in the 21st Century

Though never forgotten by the Cambodian people, Angkor fell into disrepair and was all but consumed by the thick vegetation of northern Cambodia. It was unknown entirely to the western world until the French, while expanding their colonial power in southeast Asia, discovered and wrote extensively about the ancient temple complex. These writings and sketches fueled an insatiable curiosity in the French, who, by the early 20th Century, had established restoration societies in Cambodia to attempt to free the temples from the overgrowth and vegetation. Restoration was halted during the World War I, World War II, and the Khmer Rouge regime, though since the 1990s, there have been continuous conservation efforts. In 1992, Angkor Wat was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the Cambodian Genocide 

Between 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s left-most political party, under the leadership of Pol Pot, carried out a genocide of nearly 25% of the population in an attempt to establish an agrarian, Communist state and reclaim the power of the ancient Khmer Empire.

The Khmer Rouge’s leader, Pol Pot was a staunch atheist, and he implementing state atheism and targeted members of all faiths, including Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians. The end of the regime saw the reestablishment of the freedom of religion, but an estimated 1.7 million people were massacred before the violence came to an end.

Sources

  • Escott, Jennifer. “Minority Education in Cambodia: The Case of the Khmer Loeu.” Intercultural Education, vol. 11, no. 3, 2000, pp. 239–251.
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  • Osborne, Milton E. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. 11th ed., Allen & Unwin, 2013.
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  • “The World Factbook: Cambodia.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018.
  • Walker , Verónica. “Seeking the Hidden Temples of Cambodia.” National Geographic, 21st Century Fox , 28 Mar. 2017.