Before the arrival of Buddhism, Hinduism was the main religion in Cambodia. Some Buddhist rituals are still influenced by Hinduism. Today Buddhism is the religion of most Cambodians. It is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who lived from 563 to 483 B.C. He is known as Buddha, which means Enlightened One. People follow the rules of Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path in order to become enlightened. These rules are having the right thoughts, having the right goals, speaking the right words, performing the right deeds, earning a living in the right way, making the right effort, being intellectually alert, and meditating.
Five centuries after Buddha's death, factions developed that split the religion. Theravada Buddhism is the form practised in Cambodia today. Its beliefs are based on the original thoughts of Siddhartha. Theravada Buddhists do not believe that Buddha was a god, but a man. They also believe that people must reach salvation without help from others. People gain merit for their afterlife by giving food to the monks, by celebrating holy days and by visiting the shrines of Buddha.

The wat, or temple, is an important symbol in Cambodian villages. It is a building surrounded by a wall. In it is a sanctuary with statues of Buddha. Wats also include living quarters for monks and a pond. Wats usually have an elementary school attached to them. This is where the village children go to learn.

 Did you know?
Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world. Some people consider it one of the architectural wonders of the world. In the late 19th century the city of Angkor was rediscovered. It had been abandoned in the 15th century and had become overgrown with vegetation.

When most Cambodian men are about 16 years old they enter the wat and live the life of a monk for a few days to many years, depending on the individual. The purpose of this practice is to gain the young men merit. Buddhists believe that the more merit you accumulate in this life, the better your next life will be when you are reborn. While living as monks, young men spend the mornings praying, meditating and studying. In the afternoons they take a bowl and go out to collect food.

During the Khmer Rouge regime all religions were forbidden. The monks had to leave the temples and work in the fields like everyone else. In 1989 Buddhism again became the official Cambodian religion.

A minority of Cambodians are Muslim and Christian. Some Cambodian Muslims and Buddhists also practise animism. Animists believe that natural objects contain spirits. These spirits are asked for help during times of illness or crisis. People seeking good fortune pay homage to spirits by offering gifts of flowers and food at spirit houses.