Buddhism is the official state religion. It came to Cambodia at the same time as Hinduism but was eclipsed by the latter until King Jayavarman VII, the greatest of the Angkor rulers, who changed the state religion to Mahayana Buddhism. Most Cambodians today practice Theravada Buddhism, which was introduced by the Sri Lankans in the 13th century and its popularity in court and among the peasantry slowly eroded the Hindu belief of the god-king.
New Generation of Buddhists Monks
A majority of the Buddhist monks were murdered during the Khmer Rouge years. Nearly all the 3000 wats (temples) were destroyed or badly damaged. Today, there is a new generation of monks in Cambodia and it is common for all Buddhist men to become monks for even as briefly as a week. Temples are being repaired and there are always money-raising drives for temple rehab, especially in the countryside.
The practice of Buddhism draws heavily on Cambodia’s past. It incorporates many elements from Hinduism for rituals on birth and death, and is also heavily influenced by animistic traditions or Neak Ta. Neak Ta followers believe in sacred soil and sacred spirits. To them, Neak Ta is an energy force which links the people to the fertility of their land and their ancestors before them. Neak Ta shrines can be found in the villages or the grounds of a pagoda. It remains the dominant belief of the hill tribes.
The Muslims in Cambodia are descendants of the Chams from what is now Central Vietnam. They call to prayer with the beating of a drum. The Cambodian Muslims were also heavily targeted for persecution by the Khmer Rouge. Today, they are mostly in the Kampong Cham province in South Cambodia which has 90 of the 250 mosques in the country. Christianity has not taken as much hold in Cambodia as it has in Vietnam.