Culture and etiquette
These days the handshake has become quite common in Cambodia, and is used between Cambodian men or when Cambodian men greet foreigners; generally, however, women still greet foreigners using the traditional Cambodian form of greeting, the sompeyar.
The sompeyar is a gesture of politeness and a sign of respect. Typically, it 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.
Cambodians are reserved people and find public displays of affection offensive; people in the provinces are particularly conservative. 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. Traditionally, Cambodian women would not have gone out drinking or have been seen with a man who was not her fiancé or husband. Times are changing, however, and a more cosmopolitan attitude is gaining ground in the towns, where you’ll see groups of girls and boys out together.
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. Many women wear blouses rather than T-shirts, and sampots (sarongs) or knee-length skirts, but many also wear trousers or jeans, and younger girls in larger cities can increasingly be seen in the kind of short skirts and strappy tops favoured by their Western counterparts. Even so, as a general rule it’s best to avoid skimpy clothes and shorts unless you’re at the beach.
When visiting temples it’s important to wear clothes that keep your shoulders and legs covered. Hats should be removed when passing through the temple 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 a shrine, avoid pointing the soles of your feet towards any Buddha images (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.
Cambodians are often intrigued at the appearance of foreigners, and it is not considered rude to stare quite intently at visitors. Local people may also giggle at men with earrings – in Cambodia boys are given an earring in the belief it will help an undescended testicle. It’s worth bearing in mind that displaying anger won’t get you far, as the Khmers simply find this embarrassing.
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