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The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists. Minority groups are free to practice their own religions. There are around 60,000 Roman Catholics in Cambodia and a smaller number of Protestants. The Cham are Muslim. Most Cambodian Chinese are Confucianists or Taoists. Along with their faiths, most Cambodians also believe in a supernatural world of spirits.



Buddhists see the universe and all life as part of a cycle of eternal change. They follow the teachings of Buddha, an Indian prince born in the sixth century B.C Buddhists believe that a person is continually reborn, in human or nonhuman form, depending on his or her actions in a previous life. They are released from this cycle only when they reach nirvana, which may be attained by achieving good karma through earning merit and following the Buddhist path of correct living.

Earning merit is an important part of Buddhist life. Buddhists in Cambodia earn merit by giving money, goods, and labor to the temples, or by providing one of the two daily meals of the monks. Children often look after the fruit trees and vegetable gardens inside their local wat, or temple. Boys can earn merit by becoming temple servants or novice monks for a short time. Most young men remain monks for less than a year.


Theravada Buddhism is the official prevailing religion in Cambodia, and approximately ninety percent of the population is Buddhists. The country also has minority religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Christianity which Muslims, Hindus and Christians believe in.

Since Buddha’s statues and images represent the Buddha, visitors are asked to behave respectfully to all statues and images so as not to cause offence to local people. It is illegal to take any Buddha’s statues out of Cambodia without the express permission of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.




The Khmer have been Buddhist since the time of Angkor. Buddhist monks have oftern been involved in politics. In 1942, two monks were arrested for preaching anti-French sermons. the arrests sparked the first demonstrations of Cambodian nationalism. The Buddhist Institute and its newspaper also played an important role in Cambodian nationalism. 

In 1975, there were 3,000 monasteries and 64,000 monks. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge banned all religions in Cambodia. Most monks were executed during the Khmer Rouge years, and many temples were destroyed or used for other pruposes, such as storing grain.

The temple was the seat of learning in Khmer culture and was the only place that the written Buddhist teachings were taught. monks were often the only literate people in a village. Until 1970s, monks taught Cambodians to read and write. 

Unlike those who become novice monks for a short period, learned monks have a long history in Khmer culture. They are often skilled not only in the Buddhist scriptures but also in such arts as astrology and healing. By htier way of living, monks demonstrate the ideal Buddhist way of life. Monks are usually present at all important ceremonies. 




The Cham converted to Islam around the fifteenth century due to Malay influence. Islam is a complete way of life that encompasses religion and culture. The Muslim God is Allah. The Cham are Sunni Muslims, one of the two main branches of Islam, and they can be divided into two groups. The traditionalists consider Allah to be all-powerful, but they recognize other no-Islamic gods and believe that magic and sorcery can be used to avoid or heal sickness and misfortune. The orthodox Cham follow a stricter Islamic way of life. They speak the Malay language, adopt Malay customs, and go on pilgrimages to Mecca, Islam’s holy city in Saudi Arabia.

Magic, Spirits, and Faith Healers

Cambodians of all faiths tend to believe in an invisible world of ghosts, spirits, and magic. Cambodian Buddhist and Muslim beliefs are closely interwoven with these older practices. When Cambodians are ill or facing crises, they seek the help of the spirit world. The spirits are appeased by items, such as fruit and food, placed in shrines, but often Cambodians enlist the help of a medium or faith healer. It might appear that the Cambodian villagers’ belief in this rich world of spirits is the real religion of the Khmer, but Buddhism, Islam, and other religions play important roles in the lives of the Khmer as well.


The Spirit World

Cambodians believe in several types of spirits, which show themselves through strange noises or happenings. There are ghosts, nasty demons, evil spirits (usually female), animal guardians, and neak ta (ne-ak tah), or ancestral spirits. Ancestral spirits live in the forests, hills, or trees, each village has its resident spirit, and villagers often leave offerings of fruit and food in front of a roughly hewn stone taken from the spirit’s dwelling place.

Good spirits must be shown respect, or they may cause mischief. If a child does not provide food for the spirit of his or her dead mother, for example, the spirit may cause misfortune to the child.

Of Achars and Krus

Various kinds of people help mediate between the real world and the spirit world: a kru, or spirit healer; and achar, or ritualist; a thump (tee-moop), or witch; and a rup areak (rup ah-re-ak), or medium, usually make. A kru is often a former Buddhist monk with considerable prestige and power. He or she is a kind of alternative medical practitioner, curing illnesses with charms, amulets, and magic potions.
The achar is a master of ceremonies who attends births, weddings, and funerals. The rup areak is a medium possessed by supernatural beings with whom he communicates. Mediums are often important in the psychological and spiritual healing of Cambodians whose family members have died unnatural deaths. Through these rituals, they can “talk” to their family members.

Fortune tellers and astrologers are also very important. Many Cambodians consult them before making major decisions, such as marrying or building a new house. Many Cambodians believe in the power of magic amulets and charms. Khmer soldiers often wear amulets to ward off bulliets when they are in battle.


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