Old habits die hard

By Colin Tom

While walking along the grassy expanse of the Angkor Watt temple, our tour guide gestured toward a spirit house outside of the monks’ pagodas. Inside of the small elevated tin box burned sticks of incense with small offering to the cremated remains of a deceased ancestor.

Although Cambodia is a predominantly Buddhist country, religious practices originating from Hinduism and Animism still exist within contemporary society.

Outside of the Monk’s housing was a cluster of large sandstone graves holding the ashes of wealthy Cambodian and Chinese family members. Strips of colored streamers gently undulated on the surface of each Chinese grave, distinguishing themselves from bare Cambodian graves. Our guide explained that the decoration, as well as the burning of imitation money and valuable goods, was an annual practice unique to Chinese Buddhists. Any valuables, wine, decorations, or imitation money presented on the tomb would aide deceased family members in purchasing their spiritual liberation in the afterlife.

Cambodian Buddhists, while not engaging in this practice specifically, still practice the seemingly superstitious views of Animism. Sacred red paper is posted above home doors to protect family house holds as well as tucked within the helmets of battling soldiers for safety.

Before Cambodia became a Buddhist country, Animism and Hinduism were the pervailing religions. Angkor Watt was initially a Hindu temple before being converted into a Buddhist temple following a revolution.

After explaining the significance of the funerary offerings, our tour guide relayed a story of his own younger brother’s terminal illness. After modern medicine was unable to provide a cure for his sickness, his mother made an offering of banana leaves, candy, and rice to satisfy any deceased family. After the arrangement was laid outside of the family house, they waited for signs of recovery. Although his brother still passed away, our tour guide says his family still practices Animism.

“Everyone has religion in Cambodia,” he said.

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