An introduction to the manners and etiquette that you will encounter often in Cambodia, so that you can communicate with the people easier and without sticky misunderstandings!
The Formal Hello / Goodbye
This is appropriate when meeting anyone respected, especially if it is a formal meeting, or if you are interrupting something they are doing. The correct greeting is saying “chum reap sue” for hello, accompanied with putting your hands together as though in prayer, smiling and inclining your head.
The height your hands depends on the person you’re talking to: for your equal or someone younger you put your hands in front of your chest, for someone older you press your fingertips to your chin, for your mother and father your fingers to your lips, a monk your fingers on the bridge of your nose, and to the gods the heel of your hand should rest on your forehead. The same applies for goodbye, except you say “chum reap lear” instead. If in doubt of their age, fingers to the chin is respectful.
However perfectly you greet someone however, you should prepare to be laughed at because your pronunciation will be so cute to the person you are talking to.
The Touch Barrier
You must not touch anyone of the opposite sex except in rare circumstances. This includes holding your hand out to help them up, patting them on the back, putting your arm around them in photos, and hugging. It’s a hard habit to get out of since in the UK we are used to touching our friends, but it will give the wrong impression if you do!
Although the touch barrier is so strict among men and women, it is the opposite when it comes to someone of your own gender. Friends will link arms, put their arms around each other, lean on each other whilst talking and put their hands on someone’s shoulder or knee – especially men. This can be a little uncomfortable to people from the UK who aren’t used to so much contact, but after a while you understand it as a sign of friendship.
Most popular in Cambodia wear flip-flops or sandals, and as well as keeping your feet cool it also makes it easier when it comes to shoe etiquette. It is impolite to wear shoes indoors and most people will expect you to take them off before you go inside, even in the outhouse. (Usually toilets will have a pair of flip-flops for everyone to use inside the room due to this rule.) The exceptions are restaurants and most shops, but be careful to check before stepping inside for shoes outside the door in case the rule still applies.
It is rude to use your left hand when giving people things as, due to washing with water after using the toilet, it is considered unclean. Some Khmer will, but you will see a noticeable difference in their response when you give people money with your right hand, and even more when using both hands, which is very polite. You should always give and receive gifts with both hands.
People in Cambodia rarely say thank you, and at first it can be a bit surprising and offensive to people from a culture where “thank you” is given for anything from a cup of tea to receiving change. Nevertheless it is still the most useful word you will learn in any language, including Khmer. “Arkun” is what we are told means thank you, but it actually translates as an informal “cheers” kind of meaning. If you want to say it with meaning, e.g. if someone has shown you kindness, adding “juran” to the end will show your gratitude.
If you are ever invited to eat someone’s food or join a party, you should always accept the invitation as it is very rude to say no, unlike in British culture. Unless you have a pressing engagement, you should stay and eat. This may be because it can take all day to cook a meal and no-one wants their efforts to be in vain! If you aren’t hungry, eating a little is acceptable and you are free to leave when you like after the meal.
Most Cambodian people are accustom to tourists and their tendency to not wear much clothing. However, in Khmer culture it is still very inappropriate for people to wear revealing clothes, especially women. If you want to work with people in the local community and be respected, it is important to cover your shoulders, chest and legs to below the knee. In the cities wearing skimpy clothing is more accepted, but in the rural areas people who do may be criticised and given unwanted attention. When thinking about your dress sense, you should consider whether you want to be seen as a tourist or instead be accepted into the community you are staying in at the expense of a nice tan.
Body language and tone of voice is an important factor in politeness in Cambodia. For example, you must signal people to come with your palm facing downwards because gesturing with your palm up signals aggression. Whistling is rude, as is standing with your hands on your hips. When talking to people, speaking with a quiet, soft voice and smiling is very polite, whereas raising your voice, making quick hand gestures or having an angry expression is considered very inappropriate and even shameful. If you want co-operation, speaking softly is the key!
As well as there being lots of manners in Cambodia that are useful to learn, it is also good to familiarise yourself with the customs that we are used to which do not apply here. One thing is that people in Cambodia often chew with their mouth open, and very loudly, which is very rude in British culture and takes a while to get used to. Men especially spit a lot, and children will sometimes wee in their yard or next to the dinner table, men outside the bathroom even if the toilet is vacant.
On the other hand, strangers will approach you and strike up conversation, which is inappropriate in parts of Britain but very comforting when faced with an alien world of new customs where you are often the center of attention.
If you want to learn about the basics of good Cambodian table manners, you can see my previous blog post on it here.