Cambodia //

Culture and etiquette

The traditional Cambodian form of greeting is the sompeyar, a gesture of extreme politeness as well as a sign of respect. Typically, the sompeyar is performed with hands placed palms together, fingers pointing up, in front of the body at chest level, and the head is inclined slightly forward as if about to bow. When greeting monks, however, the hands should be placed in front of the face, and when paying respects to Buddha (or the king), the hands are put in front of the forehead. The sompeyar is always used towards those older than yourself, and is taught to children at an early age. These days the handshake has become quite common, and is used between Cambodian men or when Cambodian men greet foreigners; generally women still greet foreigners using the sompeyar.

Cambodians are reserved people and find public displays of affection offensive; people in the provinces are particularly conservative, the chunchiet, Cambodia’s minority hill-tribe people, even more so. Holding hands or linking arms in public, though quite a common sign of friendship between two men or two women, is considered unacceptable if it involves a member of the opposite sex; even married couples won’t touch each other in public. Cambodian women who value their reputation do not go out drinking and dancing, and many will not want to be seen out with a man unless he is her fiancé (and even then she will be chaperoned). Things are, of course, different for Cambodian men, who are seen out and about drinking, eating and partying everywhere. However, times are changing, and a more cosmopolitan attitude is gaining ground in the towns, where you’ll see groups of girls and boys out together, and women out with a group of friends.

Everywhere in Cambodia, travellers will gain more respect if they are well dressed. Cambodians themselves dress modestly, men usually wearing long trousers and a shirt. Women wear blouses rather than T-shirts, and sarongs or skirts to below the knee, though latterly women are starting to wear trousers or jeans and strappy tops. At formal events men will wear jacket and tie, women a traditional sampot – an ankle-length tube of material that you step into and then fold and tuck around the waist. For the tourist, all this means it’s best to avoid skimpy clothes and shorts unless you’re at the beach, and even there you will be stared at as Cambodians wouldn’t dream of exposing any flesh, and even now usually go swimming in all their clothes. At Angkor Wat, where things are fairly relaxed due to the level of tourism, smart shorts are acceptable, although by preference shoulders should be covered.

When visiting pagodas it’s important to wear clothes that keep your shoulders and legs covered. Hats should be removed when passing through the pagoda gate and shoes taken off before you go into any of the buildings (shoes are also removed before entering a Cambodian home). If you sit down on the floor inside the pagoda, do so with your feet to one side, not cross-legged, and don’t point your finger or the soles of your feet towards the image of the Buddha (in fact, you should observe the same rule towards people generally, in any location). Monks are not allowed to touch women, so women should take care when walking near monks, and avoid sitting next to them on public transport.

Displaying anger won’t get you far, as the Khmers find this embarrassing and will laugh, not to be provocative, but to hide their confusion. Being rational and calmly assertive will get you much further than getting annoyed. In fact, Cambodians can laugh at apparently inopportune moments, such as after an accident or if they can’t understand you – again this is to cover their embarrassment.

Cambodians are intrigued at the appearance of foreigners, and it is not considered rude to stare quite intently at visitors. Local people will also giggle at men with earrings – in Cambodia boys are given an earring in the belief it will help an undescended testicle. It’s hard to preserve your personal space in Cambodia, as Cambodians don’t understand why anyone might want to be on their own; as a foreigner, you may find yourself being stared at, or notice that Cambodians deliberately sit near you. You needn’t feel disconcerted by this, as it’s just a friendly way of showing attention, and people will soon move on.

If you want to beckon someone, such as a waiter, don’t wave your finger about, as this is considered rude. Instead hold your hand out with the palm facing down, and pull the fingers in towards the palm a few times, as if gripping something.