Many visitors to Cambodia are often baffled by Khmer customs and Cambodian etiquette: Why do they always smile? Why are they always bowing? Why are they so loud? Well, they’re Khmer and that’s the way they go about things in Cambodia. Of course, there is a bit more to it than that.
Cambodia Etiquette | Part 1
Cambodian customs have a rich history. It is a culture whose way of life has also influenced the peoples of the region, as those societies have influenced Cambodia. Over the years, the people of Cambodia have developed a set of unique traditions especially influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism. The legacy of this can be seen every day in contemporary Cambodia.
Say Hello in Cambodian | ‘Chumreap Suor’
The traditional Khmer greeting, a “Sampeah”, which involves pressing the palms together before the chest with a slight bow and saying “Chumreap Suor”. The higher the hands are held and the lower the bow, the more respect is given. Of course, when meeting government officials and between men, this custom has usually been replaced by a handshake. However, women typically greet both men and women with “Chumreap Suor”. For foreigners, the handshake is acceptable, but if you really want to impress the locals then respond with a “Chumreap Suor”. However, many Cambodians like to shake hands with Westerners. Avoid shaking hands with monks unless they offer you their hand.
And goodbye … well, goodbye is goodbye but the same as above but say “Choum reap lear”.
Cambodia Etiquette and Keeping Face
A custom that often baffles foreigners is “face”. In Cambodia, there is an expression, “lose face, lose mouth”, which emphasises how important it is to maintain one’s image. Nobody wants to “lose face”, and a person will go to great lengths to avoid making themselves or others look bad.
The downside to this is “yes” can mean “yes, maybe or no”. This can be confusing to people unfamiliar with the “skill of non-confrontation”. However, if a response to a question is non-committal then you quickly learn to read between the lines. Regardless of the answer, make sure not to express anger or frustration and keep smiling.
Cambodia Etiquette Essentials
A big no-no is public displays of affection such as kissing; even holding hands for some Cambodians is not on. Cambodian etiquette allows friends of the same gender to old hands or cross arms — do not read anything into this behaviour. Some of the former kinds of behaviour are scandalous for many conservative Cambodians. So, watch out.
There is a saying that “men are like diamonds, women are like cloth” which means that a Cambodian female’s dignity shouldn’t be questioned. So, tread carefully with Cambodian women and don’t be forward, as you could end up embarrassing yourself big time.
Always remove your shoes before entering a house or certain buildings. If unsure then if there are piles of shoes outside the front door, remove your shoes. This rule also applies to temples, where hats and other items that cover the head are also expected to be removed.
Of course, touching somebody’s head is impolite as it is the purest part of the body, a reflection of Buddhist beliefs. On the other hand, feet are the lowest part of the body so don’t point the soles of your feet at another person, especially monks and statues of Buddha.
No alcohol, bikinis/swimwear or smoking inside pagodas and temples, but that seems obvious.
Because of religious reasons, women must never touch a monk. Monks usually have no problem with chatting or having their photo taken with foreigners, just pay attention to their personal space.
Keep Calm and Carry on
Buddhism is the ruling religion in Cambodia, and people across the country practise its beliefs. By nature, Cambodians are typically gentle and will avoid anger and confrontation at all costs. Shouting, raising your voice and aggressive behaviour will get you nowhere in the Kingdom because it causes loss of face, and may even lessen any chances of solving a problem. Remember, keep calm and smile.
Business Cambodian Style
Cambodians haven’t been left behind as far as business is concerned. Have a good supply of business cards when conducting any type of business or when meeting somebody for the first time. Hand over and receive cards with two hands, pause for a moment or two as you read over the card’s details then place it prominently on the meeting table.
In fact, avoid handing anything with your left hand alone, as the polite way to pass objects is with both hands. Another way to politely pass things is to touch your right elbow with your left arm and hand over the item with your right hand.
The Khmers love to have a personal get-to-know-you party with potential business partners. Be prepared to guzzle whiskey and sing Karaoke … and on that note.
How to Say Cheers in Cambodia
Most countries have the custom of “cheers” before having a drink. In Cambodia, saying cheers is taken to another level. “Chul Mouy” means cheers in Khmer, and it is common for this to be conveyed to everyone sitting at a table before a swig is taken. Be prepared for some fun times with Cambodians you meet, which often happens over a meal.
Cambodia Etiquette: Tips for the Dining Table
When you arrive in Cambodia, it is the sounds that first strike you: it is a noisy place. This also applies to meal times. While Westerners are obsessed with eating quietly with a closed mouth, Cambodian etiquette allows for eating, chatting and drinking with mouths wide open at meals, and the louder the lip-smacking, slurping and chewing, the more the locals are enjoying the meal — makes sense. Blowing your nose during a meal is a big no-no, but picking your nose is okay. Making use of toothpicks found on tables is not unusual, and it is considered polite to cover your mouth with your hand while picking away.
At the end of the day, as with everything in the Kingdom of Wonder, there is a learning curve, but if you are polite, smile and go with the flow then you will be fine.
Cambodia Etiquette Allows for Mistakes
Some of the above are extreme situations and you’ll find that often most Cambodians are not that concerned, especially ones used to foreigners and their odd behaviour. And Cambodians are a tolerant people, so if you trip up then you’ll find that you get a second or even a third chance.
As you can see, Cambodian customs and etiquette have not only a rich history but also a set of rules that can catch the uninitiated by surprise. This behaviour has especially been influence by Buddhism and Hinduism. The legacy of this can be seen every day in contemporary Cambodia. ENJOY
Time to Help Cambodia
You can easily help us help rural Cambodians without adding any cost to your trip or volunteering experience. Booking your flight, accommodation and travel insurance from our website means that we receive a commission to fund our projects. Buying from our travel essentials allows us to help you to help Cambodians. All the images on the website can be purchased fro Warwick’s gallery with the income going directly to maintaining the website and our fish farming charity in Battambang.