Throughout Cambodia's terror-ridden history, it is faith that has given many Khmers the courage to live on. More than 90 percent of Khmers practice Buddhism, with Mahayana Buddhism highly esteemed by Cambodians of Chinese decent. Within this Buddhist culture, other religious beliefs can be seen manifested in the veneration of folk heroes, legendary characters, ancestors, Confucianism and Taoism. It is a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism that inspire Chinese Cambodians to be spiritual.
Chinese Cambodians often pray to ancestors and household gods for family unity and good luck. Those who pray to these gods believe the dead can improve upon life. Buddhism teaches Karma and enlightenment. Taoism promotes meditation and magic as means to achieving happiness, wealth, good health and even immortality. Confucianism, part social philosophy and part religion, places a lot of stock in religious rituals and the veneration of ancestors, great legendary figures and past heroes.
Taoism and Confucianism have intertwined with Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, whose followers honor the Gautama Buddha and a host of Taoist deities. These believers also honor Bodhisattvas, those who nearly attained nirvana but kept back to save others. Preah Neang Kong Sii Im, the Goddess of Mercy, and Lord Maitrya, the laughing Buddha, also are highly venerated. Some people worship wise Khun Meng, for his unmatched intellect, while others honor Kwongkong in their bid for bravery and honor.
Chinese Mahayana Buddhism devotees often build religious buildings, which also serve as community centers. Locals commonly refer to these places of worship as Chinese temples. These holy houses are easily recognized by their colorful decorations. Dragons and Taoist deities often adorn their rooftops. The Teochew Chinese Association in Phnom Penh is housed in one such Chinese temple near Kandal market. Teochew businessmen often congregate during free time for leisurely chats beneath the blessings of their respected deities. While they chatter, a master trains children at the temple in the traditional art of the lion dance. And young men seek advise from the elderly caretakers. The temple has transformed from a place of worship into a center for communication and rapport. In this Teochew temple are three deities: the Pohsair Taitee, who is the protector deity; the Hiaktien Taitee, who assist the heavens; and Tienho Siaboh, the heavenly empress whom the Teochews revere and honor. Monks do not dwell in these temples, revealing the Taoist threads of these commonly Buddhist followers.
The Milek temple on Russian Boulevard, also a Chinese temple, boasts an intricate facade and newly renovated interior. It is one of the most modern temples in the country. This is the temple of Lord Maitreya, the laughing Buddha believed to be the next in line to rule the universe. Eighty-year-old Kav San Iiroeng, from San Tong province, China, opened the temple in 1992. Eleven years later, the religious sight records a following of more than 126,000 devotees who use the venue to pray, find peace and meditate.
Foreigners often find the temples' peace and calm irresistible. Visitors from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China feel compelled to go into the temples to light a few jossticks and make small contributions, said Heng Putheavy, a tour guide who makes frequent visits to such temples. "This act makes them feel good," Heng Putheavy said. "Some tourists, especially people from Taiwan and Hong Kong, specially request to go to pray at Chinese temples," Heng Putheavy said. "They go to Angkor Wat and they like it very much but they feel very comfortable and happy when they go to a Chinese temple where they can burn joss sticks and pray for blessings."
Although the Chinese Cambodian community is a minority in this great country, they have managed to maintain their own traditions and unique way of life. When not enjoying a sip of tea or an afternoon of reflecting on the past, Chinese Cambodians can be seen seeking solace in their temples. Although the temples are of Chinese descent, all are welcome. Worshipers seek not to divide, but to unite, in a common bid for peace.