Travel Photos: Cambodian Religion

Monks and wood sellers outside Angkor Thom
Monks and wood sellers outside Angkor Thom

To Western eyes, coming from countries where church is separated from daily life, clergy is separated from the general populace, and you believe in one creed at a time, there was a lot to get used to in Cambodia.  For one thing, most boys from Buddhist families become monks at some time in their lives, and women may become monks, too.  It may be for a short time before they move back into daily life, or it may last a lifetime. But either way, you will see the brightly colored orange robes and shaved heads everywhere.

I found it disconcerting to see the aesthetic looking monks smoking a cigarette or chatting on a cell phone. Our guide, never short of opinions, was disturbed by a old man in black who sat in a courtyard of the tumble-down Angkor Thom. It is unusual to see monks in black robes, and in searching for an answer as to why someone would wear black, I found many–but none definitive.  At any rate, this smiling old man with the shaved head held out for me a small cheaply-made metal figure of a buddha.  I took it, thinking it was a gift, but he held his hand out asking for payment.  That set off our guide. Monks are supposed to accept what is given, but not ask.  “The monks have forgotten how to be monks,” he fumed. No wonder, since they were routinely slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge during the days of Pol Pot.

One of the ways of earning good karma is by caring for the temple, and after climbing the seemingly endless flights of gray stone stairs to the top level of Angkor Wat, we found this small room with its homemade broom and basket, although we did not see the caretaker.

Cleaning supplies Angkor Wat
Cleaning supplies Angkor Wat

Since all of the temple complexes changed hands at least twice between Hindu and Buddhist regimes, it is possible to see both religions reflected in their art.

Carved stone pillars, Banteay Srei
Carved stone pillars, Banteay Srei
Statue at Banteay Srei
Statue at Banteay Srei

The most beautiful temple of all, Banteay Srei, is sometimes called “The Woman’s Temple.”  Legends say that long ago, when all the Cambodian men were off fighting the Thais, the women built this temple/fortress and became female warriors. As is the case with all the temples around Siem Riep, the truth is lost in time. But it is easy to think of this as a feminine construction. It is petite and graceful compared to the other temples that seem to lord it over their surroundings. And the carvings are ornately executed on a golden stone that practically glows. ( I did not get that gold color by processing–that’s how it looks.)

I should add that we were extremely fortunate because we visited only three months after the last of the Khmer Rouge had been cleared out of this area. Before that year, no tourists had been able to visit Banteay Srei.



Our guide lighting candle to tree spirit outside Ta Phrom
Our guide lighting candle to tree spirit outside Ta Phrom

The most interesting lessons in religion that we had in Cambodian came not from the carvings that tell both Hindu and Buddhist stories in the temples, but from the stories of our guide’s life. Here he stopped at a hollowed out tree and lit a candle. He explained to us that it was a custom to honor the tree spirit. We never were quite sure whether he believed in Animism along with his belief in Buddhism, or whether this was part of a tourist-pleasing act.

But we were inclined to think that he at least half-way believed in otherworldly spirits when he told us that he could not linger at the end of the day, because he had to get home to his two young daughters, who would be home from school.  His wife had died some years before and his older daughter, he said, had trouble sleeping because she was sure that she saw her mothers ghost in the corner of the ceiling. While at the time, I thought this was a young child’s reaction to losing her mother, I learned that the ghosts of ancestors is a much more serious business than I thought, when I read and reviewed In the Shadow of the Banyan.

In the decade since I was in Cambodia, I have learned a great deal more and hopefully am slightly less naive. It is just one more reason that I would love to return to that country and see what I might have missed.

These pictures are all my property, scanned form old prints. Please do not copy without express permission. The post is my contribution to Travel Photo Thursday.  To see more travel photos form around the world, go to Budget Traveler’s Sandbox  (which this week features beautiful Nova Scotia) and click on any of the names at the end of the main post for more photo essays.

Have you re-visited a place at two times in your life and found that it seems a different place because YOU are a different person?


About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

16 thoughts on “Travel Photos: Cambodian Religion

  1. I love your writing on Cambodia and your beautiful photos. It is beautifully written and cambodia obviously let ft its mark. Cambodia is an mesmerizing country. We have recently returned and were moved by what we saw and heard like you we learned a lot from our guides about the county ry and its history, not just facts but personal views. This was particularly poignant when we walked around the S21 n museum and killing fields. Yet at the same time we marveled at the people , their dignity, their courage in the face of adversity, their resourcefulness and their generosity of spirit.
    In the UK we hear little of Cambodia, it seems Cambodia doesn’t have a voice here and I was shocked at my ignorance of their past and its legacy. So I made a video to share with friends what I had experienced with others the good and the bad . I’d like to share it with you .

  2. I really miss my trip in Siem Reap. I especially loved Ta Prohm. So many interesting nooks and crannies. I even managed a nap over there after having lunch! (Dropping by from Nancie’s TPThursday!)

  3. Great information and pics. Thanks for the education I’ve been getting about Cambodia through your posts. The guide’s observations about the monks are very interesting, too.

  4. Thank you for such an enlightening and interesting post. Angkor Wat has always fascinated me and learning more about them from your recent posts has increased my desire to visit – especially the female warrior temple. As for your last question, revisiting places as a single traveler and then as a mother have presented some very interesting perspectives for me.

    1. Thanks to everyone who says that my posts tempt them to travel to Cambodia. That’s the point, folks! However this is the last of Cambodia pix–at least for now. Don’t want to bore you.

  5. Beautiful shots. I’ve found from over the years of living and traveling in Asia that religion is very complicated here. It is never straight forward. There is often Buddhism intertwined with shamanism or aminisim (sp?) and other belief systems that we westerners will probably never understand. I think it’s one of those things that makes Asia so fascinating.

  6. How interesting! I always wonder how much of a show a guide puts on for the tourists or because it’s his/her life. Interesting either way. I’m not quite sure how much separated church and daily life are though even in the Western world. Take Texas for example… When I moved here from Germany, I was completely struck by how much church and religion permeates in every facet of life here. But then… I learned I live in the bible belt, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I do kind of like tree ghosts better 🙂

  7. This is a great post, Vera. I love the photos but also your observations.
    The story of the guide’s daughter is interesting. I can’t say that I’ve seen my mother since she passed but I’ve heard from her. I’ve come to realize that death really doesn’t break the ties that bind us to the ones we love who’ve passed on.

  8. I like the question you pose at the end – I’ll be revisiting all of Central America next year, overland, 21 years after a previous overland trip. It will be interesting to see what his changed more: me or the route. 🙂

  9. I learned a lot from this post – and all of it very interesting. A trip to Cambodia so soon after the Khmer Rouge left would have been particularly interesting; I wonder what you would think of present day Cambodia. I have yet to go but your enthusiasm for the place is contagious.

  10. I don’t know if it has to do with his being Asian that he believes in ghosts. When I was in the Philippines, I was rather amused to observe that believing in ghosts and spirits in all forms is rather widespread and was taken seriously. Hard for a Western mind to grasp.

    1. Michael, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that belief in spirits is ONLY prevalent in Cambodia–or any other of the facets that take some getting used to for Westerners. Your “hard for the western mind to grasp” is right to the point!

  11. These are amazing photos- and I loved how you got just as much out about the tour guides history as the country’s history. I found the same thing when I was on the tour- I really found it intriguing to find out about the tour guide and the ‘real’ life there in the country- not just the touristy things.

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