There are so many guides on how to be polite in Cambodia that it is easy to get confused and overwhelmed with information. After arriving, however, you realise that these rules are more relaxed than you initially realised, especially in the larger towns and cities, and that the locals are very understanding and forgiving of your ignorance to their traditional customs.
Despite this, knowing how to be polite in another country is important if you want to be able to integrate with their culture. This does not mean sacrificing your own values in order to be polite: you do not have to join in with social drinking if it against your religion, for instance, or eat something you don’t like. It is just about being sensitive towards their customs in order to not offend anyone unnecessarily.
Since eating is very important culturally (i.e. we do it a lot) and can have a plethora of social conventions, I’ve written down some table manners I’ve learnt here for when eating at someone’s home or in a restaurant.
• Usually, a meal is made up of lots of dishes in the middle of the table which everyone helps themself to. At restaurants, if you order separately you will get a single plate of what you ordered like you would in the UK.
• When the food is ready, the plates and cutlery (which are left in a cup of hot water on every table) are wiped with tissues and rice is served on every plate.
• Travel guides I have read say that when the eldest person starts, so can everybody else, but what I have gathered is that when everybody has rice on their plates, you can eat.
• If you are having rice with your meal, you push the food onto your spoon in your right hand with your fork in your left. If you are eating noodles, you either use noodles or a fork only.
• Always take the food to your mouth with your right hand, even when using cutlery, because the left hand is seen as unclean. Similarly, when giving out food or money to anyone else you use both hands or just your right.
• When sitting on the floor, the elders cross their legs and the younger generations tuck their legs to the side, feet pointing behind them. When the elders aren’t there though, and you are around peers, the standards relax and you can cross your legs.
• Don’t cross your hands when at the table.
• Don’t put your elbows on the table.
• When eating, you keep filling your bowl and eating from it until you are full. Try to judge your appetite right and not leave anything in your bowl, since wasting food is not viewed highly here and often any untouched leftovers from the middle of the table will be saved for the next meal, or given to the animals.
• After eating, offer to tidy and clean the dishes even if the host family start to do it first.
I have found that people in Cambodia are very anxious to look after their guests. Knowing that our diets are very different in the UK, people who have cooked for me and the other UK volunteers here always worry that we will not enjoy their food.
Although it is not a custom here to say thank you after a meal, it is still appreciated and it is good practise to tell your cook what you enjoyed about the meal, because they will often give you the same food again once they know that you like it!
If you know any more table manners to add to the list, feel free to comment below and I’ll add them on. Thanks for reading!