As with all the nations in Southeast Asia, the ancient legacy of animism survives and infuses the belief systems that have since penetrated and permeated the culture. Indeed in many tribal villages in Cambodia, ancient animist practices, which interact with nature spirits in shamanistic ritual, still exist largely unchanged, with each village having their own particular spiritual character.

The first of the ‘Great Religions’ to hold sway over the area now known as Cambodia was Hinduism, emerging from India, initially through the ancient kingdom of Funan from the first century AD, but which came to a full flowering under the remarkable grand vision of the Khmer empire at Angkor. Buddhism too later penetrated into the Funan culture, leaving its influence.

Angkor Wat, and the hundreds of other temples constructed during the golden age of the empire embody a stunningly creative sculptural riot of Hindu themes, an intricately complex belief system, which, owing to the empire's considerable economic and political power, pervaded much of the Southeast Asia of the time.  

The strands of Buddhist traditions inherited from Funan, peacefully coexisted within the Khmer Hindu rule, and even provided the occasional Buddhist King. The arrival of a new wave of Theravada Buddhism from the Mon Kingdom in present day Myanmar gradually began to supplant the prevalence of Hindu beliefs toward the end of the Khmer empire, a process evident in some of Angkor’s later architecture.  

The Funan kingdom also gave rise to the Cham culture of neighbouring Vietnam, which also supported Hindu beliefs, most notably visible in the complex of My Son, in central Vietnam.

By the 11th century however, the Cham culture had begun to convert to Islam, and when the Viet people of the Red River delta progressively began to expand their territory southward from 1720, into all of contemporary Vietnam, many Cham people fled to Cambodia, and the Cham minority communities in eastern Cambodia still retain their Sunni Islamic beliefs to this day, despite considerable persecution during the Khmer Rouge tyranny.

In 1555 AD, the Portuguese Dominican Christian missionary, Gaspar de Cruz, attempted to bring Catholicism to Cambodia, but the intermingled Buddhist and Hindu influences prevailing at the time proved utterly impervious to its influence.

Even in the age of colonial French Indochina, the majority of Catholics living in Cambodia both then and now are of European descent and Christianity was of little interest to the Khmer and other ethnic groups. Protestantism later arrived, largely through the efforts of American evangelisers, but although making a few converts, never seriously influenced the wider culture, though various Christian groups, including the Mormons, continue in their quest to undermine local beliefs.

In the four year period from 1975, the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot destroyed virtually every aspect of Cambodian culture and tradition, inflicting its brutal insanity also upon education, religion and beliefs. Even humanistic values such as family love and loyalty were outlawed to the extent that any behaviour exhibiting any form of filial emotion would typically result in torture and death.

The intervention of the Vietnamese in 1979 finally put an end to the unimaginably dire and terrifying miseries of the Cambodian people and the slow process of restoration from the utter ruin left in its wake, began to gradually achieve normalisation.

In today’s Cambodia, most of the population profess Theravada Buddhism as their core belief, but strands of ancient magic, ancestor and spirit worship visibly suffuse the accoutrements of Buddhist shrines, in traditions which stretch far beyond history.