Religion & Language


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.

Neak Ta

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.
Cambodian Chams

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.



The official language, know as Cambodian or Khmer, is a non tonal language so tourists will not have to struggle with different meanings conveyed by different inflections, like in Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese. Basic pronunciation can be difficult as there are 33 consonants and 24 vowels and the spoken language is made of 1 or 2 syllables. Grammar is simple and a few extra words convey past or present tense. Written Khmer, based on South Indian Brahmi, is quite complex.

An Ancient Language

Khmer is possibly one of the oldest Southeast Asian languages - Khmer Mon, the oldest form of Khmer, could have been spoken as far back as 1000 BC and there are stone inscriptions in Khmer dating back to 600 AD. It has roots in Sanskrit and Pali, the language of Buddha. Cambodian monks still use Pali in their prayers today.

In conversational Khmer, there are different forms of address, from familiar to polite, depending on age and gender of the person being addressed. There is a court language called “Reachasahp” or Royal language reserved only for addressing the King and high officials.
French Influence in Language

Many French words have crept into the Khmer language, especially medical, technical and some household terms whereas Chinese words are found in cooking and financial language. The older generation is still conversant in French but the young Cambodians are learning English now fast becoming the country’s second language.
Khmer Dialects

The Khmer spoken in Phnom Penh is generally understood across the country but it has tints of French and Vietnamese.. However, there are many dialects. In rural Battambang, the brand of Khmer is more like the speech spoken by the majority of the people. Northern Khmer or Khmer Surin is spoken in northeast areas, Khmer Krom or Southern Khmer in the Mekong delta, and Cardamaon Khmer is spoken by a small group in the Cardamaon Mountains. Other minority languages are Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham.