Host Christian Pearson is joined by recently returned missionary Ellyn Ohms for an enlightening discussion on religion in Cambodia. Ellyn shares how Buddhism influences the Khmer culture, and identifies families as a key societal fixture in Southeast Asia. Later, they examine the role of faith in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and conclude with an inspiring dialogue centered around the “City of Smiles.”

Inside the Cambodia Project Episode 10: Religious Topography

with Ellyn Ohms

[00:00:00.410] – Christian Pearson
Hello, I’m Christian, and you’re listening to inside the Cambodia Project, an educational podcast where we discuss cutting edge research on sustainable business in an emerging market. Last episode, I talked with Bruce Money, a cultural expert and executive director of BYU’s Global Business Center. Bruce shared some really neat experiences he’s had doing research abroad, including a fascinating study on influencer culture in Japan. Later, he defined each of hosted’s cultural dimensions and explained their significance. Within the context of our research, it was really helpful to see how understanding and measuring different dimensions of culture, especially across Southeast Asia, can inform our approach to addressing societal behavior in Cambodia. In this episode, we’ll be taking a closer look at the culture of Cambodia. More specifically, we’ll address how the religious topography of Cambodia influences people on both an individual and a community level. Joining us today is an expert in both of those topics, a recently returned missionary who both worked and lived in Cambodia, Ellyn Ohms is a student at Brigham Young University, currently studying theater arts education. She’s from southern Utah and loves the outdoors, especially horseback riding and skiing. She also loves to sing and paint.

[00:01:29.540] – Christian Pearson
Ellyn served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Cambodia, where she experienced life there and learned to love the people as she preached the gospel. Thank you so much for joining us today, Ellyn. It’s awesome to have you on the podcast, especially on such short notice. I can’t wait to pick your brain a little bit about your time in Cambodia.

[00:01:49.020] – Ellyn Ohms
Yeah, thanks for having me.

[00:01:51.570] – Christian Pearson
I love starting every podcast with a quote, just kind of to get the juices flowing right, start thinking about things. Today’s quote comes from Edmund Burke. I don’t know if you know who that is, but he said, religion is the basis of all civil society and the source of all good and of all comfort. So what do you think about this quote?

[00:02:14.410] – Ellyn Ohms
I actually really love this quote. I think it has significant meaning for our society as a whole on the whole earth, because just the way that God has created us and how our lives are run is just so interwoven with the gospel. And I can see that really well here in Utah, especially how religion is very interconnected with our culture and just how we live our lives and also even in Cambodia as well, the different religions that they practice and have just defines their life. And so I think it’s very interwoven and intermixed.

[00:03:00.500] – Christian Pearson
Yeah, that’s so great. Could you give me an example? What’s something you’ve seen in your life that I guess supports the idea of religion as this balm of humanity. Right. This thing that unites us. Have you seen, I don’t know, do you see something in Cambodia that just.

[00:03:15.710] – Ellyn Ohms
Demonstrated that what I can think of is the structure of the family and how that was common to me in America. And then when I went to serve in Cambodia, it felt like I was relearning the whole world and had to figure everything out again. But something that was similar to me and I was able to connect with was the structure of the family and how that was revered as very important over there and also over here as well. And so I would say, like God specifically, creating a family unit in that process really connects with religion and how families are raised and share that unity and love together. I definitely think that’s part of it.

[00:04:06.980] – Christian Pearson
I love that I’ve heard the quote before, that family is the bedrock of society. Maybe religion is the sedimentary rock or something. Yeah, it’s somewhere down there, but that’s really cool. Thanks for humoring me with that quote there. I want to get into your experiences in Cambodia. Could you give us a brief overview, maybe, of your missionary work in Cambodia? How long were you gone and what specific areas did you serve in?

[00:04:36.810] – Ellyn Ohms
Yes. Oh, I’d love to answer this. So I started my mission at the end of 2021, and I began, and they put me out in the kites, the far out kite province area called.

[00:04:56.750] – Christian Pearson

[00:04:57.510] – Ellyn Ohms
And so I had no clue about how life in Cambodia was, and I was put right into Badambong. So it was beautiful. It was a very hard and interesting experience, but I just loved it. Getting to ride my bike and work really hard in the heat and the rain and just meeting all the smiling people was lovely. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes there got to me, and so I was quickly transferred out of Badenbang to a smaller kind of suburb of the city called Dakmau.

[00:05:34.050] – Christian Pearson

[00:05:34.860] – Ellyn Ohms
Which I loved, and I love the people there, too. And it was kind of like an in between type of city, province area with some farmers and then a lot of business owners kind of combined together. And then I went to an area called Stummingjay, which is like the heart and soul of the factories in Cambodia.

[00:05:56.990] – Christian Pearson
Stemmingjay, you said? Yeah. Okay, interesting.

[00:06:00.050] – Ellyn Ohms
And so every morning, I’d see just hordes of people walking to go to the factories and then walking away later in the day to head home. And so that was interesting change for me, seeing the city.

[00:06:14.900] – Christian Pearson

[00:06:17.190] – Ellyn Ohms
And then after that, I went to Kapungcham, which is like the middle of Cambodia, and Kapungcham, it was a lot of farming lands and more spread out. And then I went back to Dakmalgen and then I went to Penampen, like directly in the middle of the city with their independence monument and the king’s palace and everything that was in my. I was, I feel like I got kind of a general little bit of everything.

[00:06:46.360] – Christian Pearson
That’s crazy. Those are some really diverse. I mean, you’ve got country, you’ve got Batambong, it’s a huge city and phenom pen. Then you had dakmao, this little in between city. Yeah, that’s, that’s crazy. Really cool that you were able to experience life in Cambodia in so many different environments, I guess. And how long were you gone?

[00:07:09.310] – Ellyn Ohms
It was a year and a half.

[00:07:10.560] – Christian Pearson
A year and a half? Okay, awesome. That’s a really long time. I’m sure that you met a lot of people and experienced a lot of things today. We really do want to focus on just how religion affects people in Cambodia and people in, you know, while you were there, what did you find was the predominant religion in Cambodia? And how does that shape, I guess, the overall religious landscape of the country? Is there a predominant religion there?

[00:07:42.790] – Ellyn Ohms
Yes, I would say Buddhism is the predominant religion and it definitely shapes the landscape within the people and also the physical landscape because these villages are kind of built around different watts or like pagoda places, kind of their churches or temples. That’s like the focal point of each of these little villages. And they just put all of their money into those.

[00:08:14.430] – Christian Pearson

[00:08:15.010] – Ellyn Ohms
And they’re just really decked out and they really care about their ancestors and kind of like the traditions that go along with their ancestors. So they’ll each have like a little shrine in their houses as well. And so you can see that everywhere, every single house, which I was very confused with at the beginning. I thought they were like something else, like birdhouses or something. And then I was like, whoa, whoa, I need to learn about this. And it was like these really important different places they could give offerings to.

[00:08:53.340] – Christian Pearson
Wow, that’s crazy. Really cool. I’m sure I probably would have thought that they were birdhouses as well. So is there almost like a connection between Buddhism and this? You keep mentioning family. Is that really important in that religion? Yeah, I mean, their ancestors and things.

[00:09:15.250] – Ellyn Ohms
Yes. So pretty much all of their holidays have to do with family members who have passed on and how they’re interconnected with them through Buddhism.

[00:09:26.250] – Christian Pearson

[00:09:26.820] – Ellyn Ohms
And so they will give a lot of their respect and almost kind of like worship forms to those who have passed on. They go to the watt I think two times a month to go and kind of bow or worship to Buddha. And also those who have passed away. And also at these watts, it’s like a cemetery, too. So sometimes their family members are actually buried there and so they can go visit them often. And because of that, they have this respect order in their society, that if someone’s older than you, you show them more respect, which we kind of have that, too, as in America. But it’s to the point of my parents told me that I need to marry this person. I don’t necessarily want to marry them, but they told me to. So I’m going to listen to it. And they’re more likely to still respect that and follow that because their parents have this higher authority.

[00:10:36.020] – Christian Pearson
Interesting. So religion sounds like it affects everything. I mean, even this, I guess, hierarchy, this implicit hierarchy in society with how old you are determines how much authority you have. That’s really interesting. Definitely not. I don’t think that’s unique to Cambodia, but I think that is super foreign for us here in the United States, right, where, I mean, disrespecting your parents is just a part of life, especially when you’re a teenager. Right. Or a college student. But I think that’s a good thing. Right. And that’s really cool to see how that still plays such a big role in their communities. I know you served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ, so you were preaching Christianity and that gospel. Can you describe maybe the coexistence or how did Christianity and Budhism, I guess, interact in different religious communities in those different areas you served in? Was it like a good relationship? Was there a lot of conflict? What did that look like?

[00:11:45.490] – Ellyn Ohms
I love this question. It’s really good to consider the Buddhists. What I could gather was, like, doing good will bring good to you. And so a lot of the Cambodians just love to live their life in a happy, accepting, doing good type of way. And so there wasn’t a whole lot of rejection, I’d say, because they want to be good and they want to be nice to you and welcome anyone into their home and give them a meal. But the interconnection between Buddhism and Christianity, there were a bunch of different christian religions with different missionaries as well, preaching and coming to houses. And the Buddhists have monks dressed in their orange robes, and they would also kind of come to houses and they would give a blessing to the house, and then they would worship the monk back and give a blessing to them. So they’d see Christianity and see christian missionaries and they were super excited to have us come because they’re like, oh, I guess the God of Jesus Christ or whatever is going to come and bless my house, too. And so they would like to accept you, and then as you left, they would almost treat you as a monk and say a little prayer blessing back towards you after you said, like a closing prayer or something, and you’re like, okay, thank you.

[00:13:20.830] – Ellyn Ohms
But as you started to teach them and stuff, and they learned more about that, if they were progressing to become a member of our church specifically, they would learn the differences between that generally. But, yeah, I’d say there’s, like, an interesting tradition, how they treat people there, that’s so cool.

[00:13:39.990] – Christian Pearson
I’m so glad that you were able to experience that. I feel like some places you might go, you’re not going to see. I I also served a mission, but I went to Spain and there was nothing, it was a much more hostile environment, I would say. But I think that’s so beautiful that they recognized that doing good brings good to you and that that’s what the missionaries were trying to do. That’s what you were trying to do in that country. I’m sure there were probably some differences, though, like some hurdles you had to get over. How did you navigate those cultural differences and still respect the local customs and traditions? It sounds like religion is a huge part, Buddhism is a huge part of their culture. How did you navigate that while sharing your religious beliefs at the same time?

[00:14:39.290] – Ellyn Ohms
Yeah, that’s definitely a tricky thing to think about. And it’s different for each of the people that you’re kind of talking to and working with and helping them. I think the main part that we would get to would be teaching more along the plan of salvation and how we can return to live with our heavenly father after this life. They believe in reincarnation, and so we’d have to kind of explain, like, you’re going to be your spirit, that you are right now in a spirit world after you die and be able to return to your heavenly father. But they just assumed that they would just be instantly reborn as something else. And so I think once we were able to kind of navigate that, it lifted them up higher and they were able to see a difference in their lives because when they believe in this reincarnation, they think, like, I’m poor because in my last life I didn’t do good things. And that’s just, like, kind of where they’re at. But navigating through that, we’re able to help them understand. Like, actually you have choices in this life where you can kind of choose who you’re going to be and it’s not based on some sort of whether you did good or bad in a past life.

[00:16:12.140] – Christian Pearson
Yeah, I know. You’re talking about karma. Right. It’s a huge belief in a lot of religions in that part of the world. This idea that you get what’s coming to you. Right. If you do something bad, something bad happens and vice versa. So I’m sure that was interesting to navigate tactfully. Right. It’s a hard balance, and it’s something that we’re interested in just because of our research, looking at how we can respect the culture that exists while striving to change its behaviors. Really interested in striking a balance. Right. And not coming across as these westerners that think they know everything because we don’t. Right. We don’t. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from Cambodians and from their culture. I do want to ask, was there anything that surprised you? Just about the culture in general of Cambodia, any nuances that you found particularly important to understand during your mission? Something that maybe you didn’t get at first, but now you’re like, oh, because maybe, I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet, but I’m just curious to know what will I be surprised by?

[00:17:32.850] – Ellyn Ohms
I was surprised to see their way of life intermixed with their culture and traditions, but also because of the mass genocide that occurred. A lot of their life and a lot of their habits are just survival. And so learning about that was just interesting to see the specific foods they would sell along the side of the road or how much money they were saving up for different things or different housing styles that they lived in and family sizes all depended on their survival. I feel like in America we have a lot of blessings and we’ve been able to more live and enjoy and find different activities that we can be able to do, but they just don’t have a lot of opportunities because they’re constantly trying to survive. And in that mode of survival of, I have enough food for my family today and tomorrow I will go get more. And so they go to this market every single day to get their food and stuff.

[00:18:47.900] – Christian Pearson
Interesting. So it’s almost a daily quest for survival is what it’s sounding like. That would be definitely different to experience. Were there any other, I guess, things that surprised you on your religious mission?

[00:19:10.450] – Ellyn Ohms
Surprised me that they were so happy and welcoming, because I think we attribute a lot of times like happiness is having a lot of things living somewhere that’s like a big house or having a hot tub or something, but they’re just so happy in what they have of their family wise. They have their family with them. They have this little house, they got enough food and they’re just so happy. And I just loved to see their smiling faces all the time. And they’re very welcoming and accepting of a lot of people. Even though you’re different, they’re still going to accept you and kind of smile and be like, we don’t understand you, but you are so cool.

[00:20:02.290] – Christian Pearson
That’s beautiful. I read a book. I’ve read a couple of books, actually about Cambodia, and I don’t remember which one, but one of them refers to Nampen, actually as the city of smiles. And I think that’s really beautiful and something I’m looking forward to experiencing for myself. I want to circle back to something you mentioned, which is the mass genocide that happened with the Kamairuge in Cambodia. And it’s okay if you don’t know, maybe you don’t have an answer to this, but I’m just curious if you saw how Cambodia’s history, including that Khmei Rouge era, influenced the religious landscape and maybe people’s attitudes towards religion. Because a common dialog that we hear in the United States at least know if God exists or if religion is real. If we’re going to assume that that’s real, then why did bad things happen to good people? And I mean, the Kmai Rouge is just the spearhead of that dialog, right? It was a terrible thing that happened to millions of good people. So did you see any backlash or any after effects of the Khmeiruj era influencing people’s approach to religion, to God in Cambodia?

[00:21:36.830] – Ellyn Ohms
I guess kind of what I’ve seen is probably like a lack of being maybe a super stalwart member of the Buddhism religion. Being a Buddhist, it’s mostly just respecting those who died type of thing. And so I think mostly of what the general population understands about the buddhist religion could be I miss my family members that died in this horrible genocide. And through this religion, I can still kind of worship them or have a connection with them. I would say with Christianity, once they learn about Jesus Christ and the atonement of Jesus Christ, it really opens them up and they begin to understand different things about the genocide and about who they are. More than just life is hard and everyone I knew is gone type of thing. They realized more, I would say that’s beautiful.

[00:22:53.540] – Christian Pearson
So almost that it sounds like religion in many ways has contributed to healing and some form of reconciliation in the aftermath of that mass genocide. It’s almost, instead of pushing it away, maybe, would you say that they’re more inclined to be religious because of that?

[00:23:15.470] – Ellyn Ohms
I’m not sure what it was like before the genocide exactly, but I don’t necessarily think they pushed it away because the influence is there. And almost every family has some sort of religion in their life. So I would say that it’s something they probably turned to a little bit more.

[00:23:35.830] – Christian Pearson
Wow. Well, that’s really impressive to me personally. Just the fact that they have so much faith in whatever or whoever they believe in that they can retain that faith after going through so much. I think we stand to learn a lot from their example. I hope we can maybe turn pro into a city of smiles someday. That would be great. This has been so great. Ellyn, I have one last question before we go, which is you spent a year and a half, it sounds like, so 18 months in Cambodia. That’s a lot of time. What were some of the most, if you could just give us one or two of the most important lessons or insights that you gained about religion or about family or even life in general from that religious mission, what would you tell our listeners? What are the biggest takeaways, the biggest lessons?

[00:24:34.070] – Ellyn Ohms
I love Cambodia. I love the people there. That it was so different to me. But being able to learn and expand my knowledge from just like small southern Utah to the opposite side of the world was that God loves all of his children and he cares about all of his children and he wants to see their growth and progress. And so that was a beautiful thing I was able to recognize. And then just understanding my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and why I believe and why it’s important for me personally to recognize my savior did definitely increase because of the different lives that I saw of the people living in Cambodia. And just like way of life and being positive with what I do have and looking for the blessings and being grateful for everything around me is kind of like a major thing that influences my life still and that I learned from Cambodia because of the way that the people live their lives over there and what they had and how they reacted to things.

[00:26:02.000] – Christian Pearson
I love that. Thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing those lessons with us. I think we all stand to learn something when we travel, when we leave what we have always known and go into the unknown. I think there’s so much you can learn from living with people unlike you. And it’s fantastic that you spent your time in Cambodia serving and learning to love those people. For our listeners out there, whether or not you’re going abroad or leaving the place that you’ve always known, whether or not you’re religious or have any beliefs whatsoever, our message today is simple, and it’s that you have the power to make a difference. You don’t have to go somewhere for a year and a half or even for a day. But remember that a city of a thousand smiles starts with one smile. And that smile could be you. So remember that you have power to make a difference, that you can influence the people in your life. And most importantly, remember to lift where you stand.