Inside Asia Tours: Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

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Wednesday, 9th July 2014

Understanding religious practices in Cambodia

Upon travelling to Cambodia, most people are immediately struck by the large number of temples in the country and the religious life that carries on around them. The official religion of the nation is Buddhism, with the Theravada branch being the one practiced by most believers in Cambodia, while Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are also observed, but in smaller amounts.

Visiting religious sites helps to provide an insight into this important element of Cambodian culture and many of the places of worship are historic and beautifully decorated buildings. In order not to offend anyone when taking a look around, it is important to follow a few simple rules of etiquette.

How to dress

While most monks will be too polite to tell a visitor if they are not dressed appropriately, it is still a good idea to follow the rules, even if other tourists are going into temples in shorts and vest tops. The upper arms should be covered, either with long sleeves or a wrap and legs should not be exposed above the knee. Remove shoes and hats before going into the temple, leaving the former outside.

Be careful where you point your feet

Pointing the bottom of your feet at another person or sacred item is offensive to Cambodians, so be aware of how you sit or move once removing your shoes. This can be difficult to remember, but is worth taking extra care about.

Make a donation

Many temples are free to enter, but are maintained by the donations left by visitors. Carry small sums with you to leave in the collection boxes to show respect and a willingness to reward hospitality.

Do not touch a monk

This is particularly important when it comes to women, as contact between a monk and the opposite sex should never be made. Since giving alms to monks is common practice, leave items either within the monks reach or place them into the special bowl or receiving cloth they carry.

Refrain from taking intrusive photos

Religious sights are likely to be among the places you want to document during your trip, but it is easy to forget their significance when going into tourist mode. The majority of temples will allow photos, but try to turn the flash off where possible and do not push a camera into the face of a monk. Those keen to get pictures of monks should do it from a distance and perhaps engage the services of a telephoto lens.

Keep quiet

Do not raise your voice, get aggressive or talk on the telephone inside a religious building, as this will disturb the peace. There may be people trying to pray and carry out rituals, so they should not be disturbed.

Unintentional offence

Away from temples it is easy not to associate actions with religious practices, especially when hungry and tucking into a bowlful of rice. One of the ways that Cambodians show respect for the dead is to light incense and it is thought that leaving chopsticks vertically in a dish resembles the ritual and is therefore considered inappropriate.

Related news stories:
5 things you didn't know about Cambodia (12th July 2016)
Six books you should read before travelling to Cambodia (5th November 2015)
Understanding the Khmer Loeu (28th July 2014)
Enrich your stay in Cambodia through charitable ventures! (20th November 2014)