As Cambodia emerges as a tourist destination, it is still blessed with being one of the least developed of all countries in Southeast Asia. This means it has been able to maintain much of the fabled customs, traditions and beliefs of its rich and colourful past. Khmer people are wonderfully welcoming of travellers, but to gain a truly rewarding experience, all visitors should learn some of the fundamental principles of Cambodian etiquette and customs to make their trip all the more enjoyable.
As a nation of Buddhists, the Cambodian society reflects a hierarchical yet collective philosophy, one where people are expected to interact in harmony. Put simply, young individuals have no sway over a group of elders, and communication is the most obvious example of this, where people are addressed based on their role as a family figurehead or junior – no matter if those concerned are related. The young are students; the elders are teachers, regardless of the situation.
Cambodians are unwavering friendly, gentle, complimentary and gracious, a character built on the Buddhist concept of ‘face’. Raised voices, cursing, over-reaction and forcefulness are all considered to be undignified and embarrassing. As a visitor it is an essential lesson to make your time in Cambodia enjoyable.
Do not shout, do not argue or lose your temper and do not treat locals like second-class citizens – treat everyone with respect and a friendly smile, and things will work themselves out far easier. A display of anger is a lack of self-control. Causing anyone, including yourself, to lose ‘face’ by making a scene will reflect badly on them and on you, so stay calm and keep smiling – just like the locals.
As a collective society, individuals take second place to family, the neighbourhood or the company. Etiquette maintains a sense of harmony, and protecting the ‘face’ of others and yourself is important to maintaining a positive outlook. Face can be roughly defined as a combination of dignity, honour and reputation that can be gained or lost.
Remember, Cambodia has only recently emerged from decades of war and isolation. Do not expect the waiter or taxi driver to have the same level of service as in the West. Do expect them to be far more genuine. Do not compare the Khmers with their local, more tourist-familiar neighbours such as Vietnam and Thailand. Two thousand years or rivalries have left many sensitive about their more developed cousins.
Meeting and greeting
The first point of contact often causes confusion with many travellers unsure of how to act. The best bet is to wait for the other person to greet you first, and then return the same greeting. Don’t rush up to anyone with a friendly arm around the shoulders or a hug. Though the handshake has grown in popularity (men only), as a rule, touching women is a complete no-no.
You are more likely to be met with the traditional sampeah, which is similar to the Indian Namaste or Thai Wai. This involves placing both hands together at chest height while bowing forwards. The higher the hand position and lower the bow, the higher the respect. Men should be addressed with the honorific title of Lok, women with Lok Srey, followed by their first name. Note that the family name is the first name in Cambodia, followed by the given name.
Head and Feet
The head is the highest and holiest point of the body and as in many cultures, closest to the gods. In Khmer culture, the head is also home to a person’s soul, making touching the head, or pointing your feet at it, completely taboo. No matter how cute they are, do not pat children on the head.
The feet are the lowest point of the body and are considered impure or dirty, especially given the lack of decent footwear among many Khmers. It is extremely disrespectful to point your feet at anyone or anything with religious significance. Tuck your legs sideways beneath you when sitting; crossed legs are a sign of impoliteness.
With your hands, do not point at anyone with a single finger. Instead, use open palm gestures at all times. If waving someone to come towards you, or flagging down transport, the hand should be extended palm down with the fingers waved inwards – an upside-down version of Western beckoning.
Dining and gifts
When eating with Cambodians, be mindful of the hierarchy of those present. Always wait for the most senior person to be seated and let them start before you do. Don’t start eating right away, as you will be deemed greedy and disrespectful, or talk about business at the dining table. Never place chopsticks vertically in a bowl – this is a reminder of incense which evokes memories of the dead.
Presents are rarely given, even at birthdays, and many Khmers may not even know their actual date of birth. However, if invited to a celebration or to dine with the locals, a small token of your appreciation (food or flowers) will make a good impression. Never give a knife as a present, it a symbol of cutting your friendship. Similarly, anything white should be avoided as this is the colour of death and mourning. If you are given a present, do not open it in front of your host.
Dress modestly, especially when visiting temples or at the beach. In wats and pagodas such as the Royal Palace, long sleeves and pants/skirts should be worn. Exposed flesh is just plain rude, particularly in holy places. When entering pagodas, make sure to remove your shoes and any headwear, and, in the presence of monks, always sit lower. Women are forbidden from touching monks. If playing in the water, dress as the locals do, and don’t walk around shirtless or in skimpy bikinis (especially guys). Khmers swim fully clothed and shower in a sarong, and while bathing this way takes some skill, you will benefit from increased karma.