Since the spread of Pali language-based Theravada Buddhism in mainland Southeast Asia in the 11th century, Buddhist wats played a central role in Cambodian education.
Monks studied and promulgated religious texts; they also preserved and transmitted Cambodian culture and the Khmer vernacular language.
The wats housed libraries and served as primary schools for all boys, regardless of social class. Until the rise of secular schools in the 1950s, the wats were the backbone of the Cambodian educational system, creating a functionally literate population that, until the 1850s, exceeded the literacy rates of Europe.
Most monks were decentralized and not confined to their wats. Some became hermits, living isolated in forests to meditate, others became itinerant monks on a spiritual quest for truth. Monk education, however, was traditionally centered on the rote memorization of Pali religious texts, with those who could memorize the most out of the 110-volume Tripitaka considered the most educated.
A wave of Buddhist educational reforms came between 1864-1954, the 90 years of the French protectorate. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Cambodian monks successfully resisted French efforts to supplant their Buddhist-based popular educational system. However, dissemination of European rationalism directed the monks’ religious study to a more analytical direction.
Early this century, monk education that aimed at studying Buddhist theory, Pali, and Sanskrit in order to understand religious texts began to emerge. But of the 65,000 Buddhist monks and novices alive in 1969, only 5 percent survived Pol Pot’s regime. Of the 3,369 wats in 1969, nearly 2,000 were destroyed. The rest served as warehouses, centers for political indoctrination and execution chambers.
The wat libraries destroyed during the Pol Pot era have never been fully restored.