Cambodia is a devoutly Buddhist country where locals’ lives are deeply intertwined with spirituality. This is perhaps one of the most fascinating and distinctive cultural elements to see in Cambodia, as Buddhism is more enduring in Cambodia than many of its neighbouring countries. Consequently, many of its historic temples and wats are still very much in regular use by pious locals, and it’s hard to go more than a few meters down the road without passing by a Buddhist monk in saffron robes. Those that want to get a true sense of Cambodian culture would do well to explore the complexities of Buddhism in local culture. Some great ways to do it is with a meet-and-greet with a Buddhist monk, taking part in traditional Buddhist ceremonies or simply exploring pagodas alongside a knowledgeable local – or all of it in a single journey!
Buddhism is a profound cultural element nearly everywhere in Cambodia, but some places offer better hands-on experiences for visitors to learn about it. Our favourite place to do so is Siem Reap – which maintains a strong spiritual grounding despite rising tourism. Not far outside of the Angkor temple complex, a small but significant monastery welcomes international visitors interested in learning about the monks’ way of life here. With an overnight stay, you can truly experience the cadence of monastic life – including rising at 4AM for morning meditation, a last meal around 11AM and one-on-one discussion with a monk.
For a monastery visit, it’s best to plan these visits outside of major Buddhist holidays. However, if an overnight monastery visit isn’t in your itinerary, planning a visit to Cambodia around major Buddhist holidays offers unique insight into how the locals celebrate. The best and most vibrant Buddhist holidays include Khmer New Year in April, and Visaka Bochea Day in May. Both showcase the fascinating traditions carried out by locals and monks alike at pagodas.
It’s important to respect religious customs during these important holidays – and especially within monasteries. Nearly all pagodas will require you to keep your knees and shoulders covered, and it is best to come prepared with long but lightweight clothing.