After a while, you will no doubt have some insight into what makes the locals tick. Taboos may rear their heads only when some well-intentioned barang fails to uphold cultural codes of conduct. Here’s our informed guide of dos and don’ts in the Kingdom.
A traditional greeting here involves a slight bow with a “sampeah”, bringing the hands together at chest level (bowing lower with hands higher signifies greater respect). Men may shake hands with expats, with women usually deferring to the sampeah. If in doubt, respond with the greeting you are given.
Cambodians are generally subtle and reserved in communications, but expats can be taken aback by direct, personal questions, often asked when meeting someone for the first time. The questioner is trying to determine your ‘rank’ in order to address you appropriately, as interaction is defined by status and age. The general honorific title “Loak” is used for men and “Loak Srey” for women, followed by the given name or both the given name and family name.
When you enter a home or place of business or worship, remove your shoes, placing them where others do. Refrain from showing your soles to people or using your feet to move or point to things, which are considered offensive, and definitely never step over people sitting or lying down. Spiritually, the feet are considered the lowest part of the body and the head the highest – touching anyone but a child on the head is a grave insult.
As anyone who’s flagged down a tuk-tuk, given slow and clear directions met with a sure nod, only to discover minutes later that the driver has no clue how to get to your destination knows, “saving face” is of utmost importance in Cambodia. Frustration can give rise to disagreements, which only makes things worse, given that extreme emotional responses, especially with raised voices also contradicts “saving face” protocol. If in doubt, try to keep your cool, beam a broad smile and repeat yourself slowly and clearly until understood.
Getting to know people
If invited to someone’s home, take a gift of nicely presented fruit, sweets, pastries or flowers, wrapped in colourful paper (not white, the colour of mourning) and hand this to the host with both hands, as you would when paying for goods and services. Perceived as threatening and thus seldom seen at the table are knives – never give them as a present. Gifts are generally not opened when received, so don’t be alarmed if the recipient puts it to one side!
If you are invited to a dining table, await hierarchical seating arrangements from your host. The eldest person is usually seated first and will be the first to begin eating. Forget everything your parents may have told you: while dining, slurping, lip smacking and other gastronomic noises are seen as conveying enjoyment of the meal. Be aware that offering an invitation to dinner is usually perceived as an offer to pay the bill, so only extend the invitation if you have the dues!
Khmer is a very difficult language to learn, but it’s relatively easy to lean a few common phrases. Cambodians love it when we even try to speak their language, and if you make a mistake, they will correct you with the proper pronunciation. It’s a great icebreaker when meeting locals, so don’t be afraid to try!
If you have never been to Asia before, totals can definitely be a culture shock. While most venues in cities have western style toilets, if you are out in more rural areas, then you may encounter the infamous squat toilet. It may appear daunting at first, but as long as you are sober, it’s a relatively easy thing to adapt to. Then there are bum guns, another new thing if you have no experience in the region. But the gun is far more hygienic than toilet roll and most expats living here now swear by them. One note of caution; always check the pressure before use as surprise enemas are not much fun!
One thing that can shock a lot of first time visitors to Cambodia (and indeed even long term expats) is the amount of littler discarded at the sides of roads, in streams, on the beach, and, well, everywhere. Plastic is an especially bad problem, though there is a gradual move towards using eco-friendlier products, and also increasing education and awareness amongst young Cambodians. Try not to add to what is already an immense problem here: try and use eco-friendly products where possible (such as refillable water bottles), never dump your rubbish on the road or elsewhere, and if you are feeling particularly green, why not pick up even 3 pieces of litter when you are at the beach or other tourist sites?
Things to Avoid
While the lese majeste laws may not be as harsh as in neighbouring Thailand, they do exist, and a 70-year-old man was recently jailed for insulting the king on Facebook. No matter your views, avoid saying anything derogatory about the King. Not only is it illegal, but it is very insulting to any Cambodians who may overhear you.
Please remember that we are guests or visitors to the Kingdom. Whatever your opinion of the political system here, discussing those opinions in public could lead to awkward situations or worse. If in doubt, keep quiet!
Now this may seem like a strange inclusion but bear with us. Unless you are at the beach, or by the pool in your hotel, the advice we would give is ‘keep it on’. This is especially true when visiting historical sites such as Angkor, or entering any bar or restaurant which doesn’t have sand as a floor. Cambodians find such shows of flesh rather offensive, which is ironic when you see how many Cambodian males wear their shirts like Britney Spears circa 2000, but it’s not going to cause you hardship to keep your shirt on in public.
At time of writing (December, 2018) all information was correct, but may have changed since. If there’s something you read here which you feel is incorrect or requires updating, please let us know.