The Khmer people have imbued this Southeast Asian country with its own rich culture and history that stretch back for many centuries into the past.
One of the best features of Cambodian culture is the warmth of the Cambodian people.
Today the majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhist and their religion has a marked effect on their culture, customs, traditions and etiquette.
Understanding this side of Cambodia is important to get all you can from your visit and avoid any embarrassment.
Customs in Cambodia
Part of their culture and religion is based on rank. Interpersonal communication is adjusted depending on the rank you occupy in relation to another person. When visiting Cambodia, you may find that Cambodians may ask you quite personal questions: this is not to be a sticky-beak, but to establish your rank and the appropriate way to communicate with you.
Unlike western culture, where individual rights and freedoms are held dear, in Cambodia culture the group’s needs come before the individual’s needs.
Like many other Asian nations, the concept of “face” is also important to Cambodians and visitors should be aware of this and their actions to avoid anyone losing face in any situation. In Cambodian custom, face is generally lost when people are criticized or embarrassed publicly and face can be given by giving compliments.
Greeting Each Other
In Cambodia culture the traditional greeting is a little bow with the hands clasped together like in prayer: your bow will be deeper for a more highly respected person.
Some Cambodians have taken to the western practice of shaking hands, but the bow remains the more usual greeting. People are usually addressed with the honorific title “lok” for men and “lok srey” for women followed by the first name, or both first and last name.
Some western travelers may be somewhat shocked to see same sex friends hugging each other, walking down the street hand in hand or arm in arm. These are considered non-sexual displays of friendship and are quite acceptable.
Public displays of affection between romantic couples however, are not culturally appropriate in Cambodia and will probably be considered offensive.
In western culture, we tend to judge someone that will not meet our eyes as shifty. In Cambodia culture, indirect eye contact is a form of respect and direct eye contact is usually only made with social equals.
A big no-no in Cambodia and in most of Southeast Asia is to touch anyone on top of the head.
Down at the other end, it is not considered polite to point your feet at anyone and especially not at a Buddha statue or Monk.
If entering a temple, ensure that you sit cross-legged to avoid offence.
In temples men should wear long pants, so no hairy legs poking gout thanks gents, and women should avoid any clothing that exposes the shoulders.
Avoid handing anything to anybody with your left hand.
To pass things politely, touch your left hand to your right elbow and pass the object with your right hand.
It is polite to remove your shoes before entering someone’s house and obligatory in a temple.
So In Short...
Cambodian people are very friendly and warm people. They understand that you come from a different culture and will be patient of small cultural faux pas, so no worries there!
However, they will also appreciate an effort to understand some aspects of Cambodia culture. This would make a big difference in your interaction with the locals, in a positive way.