Although it’s impossible to categorize an entire culture, we’ve compiled a list with some key highlights and distinctions of Cambodian culture that will make your time much more enjoyable.
Showing Respect in Cambodia
- As with most of Asia, to “lose one’s cool” in public is completely unacceptable. Never shout at someone or criticize them in front of others.
- Cambodians don’t typically show strong emotions in public, so don’t be alarmed if they remain stoic in an emotional situation. Cambodians may also be uncomfortable if you choose to show strong emotions in public.
- Some Cambodians will giggle nervously or smile when they feel uncomfortable with the strong emotion being expressed.
- When offered a gift, it’s polite to refuse it at first, but in the end, always accept it very graciously with both hands.
- Give and receive gifts, money, and business cards with both hands. It’s a sign of respect.
- Be sure to give genuine compliments to people when they are merited.
- Because of Cambodia’s tough past, do not bring up sensitive subjects such as war, violence, the Killing Fields, current politics, or the Khmer Rouge.
- When gesturing with your hands to “come here”, it’s considered rude to gesture with your palm up. Always have your palm down, and use all four fingers.
- When using a tooth pick, you should cover your mouth with your spare hand.
In many Southeast Asian countries the head is considered the highest and most spiritual part of a person’s body. The feet are considered the dirtiest and least sacred.
- Don’t pat children or adults on the head.
- Don’t gesture with your feet.
- Don’t raise your feet higher than someone’s head.
- When seated on the ground, women should attempt to hide their feet by tucking them underneath themselves. Men should sit Indian style.
- Remove your shoes and hat when entering a home.
Greeting People in Cambodia
- The traditional Cambodian greeting, known as Som Pa, is made by putting your two hands together (with fingertips near the chin) and a giving a slight bow with your head. The hands are held higher to show more respect to elders.
- Many Cambodians choose to shake hands with visitors, so the best rule-of-thumb is simply to return whatever greeting you were given initially. It is considered very rude not to return a greeting.
- Pointing with your index finger is considered rude. Instead, gesture with your right hand palm-up.
- During conversations many Cambodians don’t make eye contact. Direct eye contact is usually reserved for emotional conversations. Prolonged direct eye contact can be interpreted as physical aggression or attraction.
Proper Dress in Cambodia
- Modest dress is the rule in Cambodia, particularly for women.
- Women should not wear short skirts or show their shoulders.
- Men usually wear collared shirts and long pants.
- Although many tourists wear shorts to deal with the heat, the locals tend to cover as much skin as possible. While it is not a rule, pants or capris for women are safe and acceptable.
- Although tourism has caused these standards to relax somewhat, it’s always best to dress conservatively to show respect.
Interacting with the Opposite Sex
It may come as a surprise to many, especially because sex trafficking is a rampant problem in Cambodia, but Cambodians strongly frown upon public displays of affection.
- Couples, even if they are married, shouldn’t hold hands or kiss in public.
- Be mindful in your contact with the opposite sex, even placing an arm around a local to pose for a picture can be misinterpreted.
- Women should never touch a monk or hand anything to him; even the monk’s mother may not do so.
- Cambodian males will hold hands with and hug other Cambodian males; this is a sign of friendship, nothing more.
- When gesturing for someone to “come here” with your hands, using one finger is considered romantic. Always have your palm down and use all four fingers to show respect.
Respect for Elders
- Aside from monks, elders are given the highest level of respect in Cambodia. Always acknowledge an elder’s status by allowing them to control the conversation, walk first, and take the lead.
- When seated, you should attempt to never sit higher than the eldest person in the room.
- Always wait for the eldest to sit and eat first.
- Ask for permission before taking any photos.
- Try not to take photos with three people in the photo. Some older Cambodians think that it is bad luck, especially to be the person in the middle of the photo.85
You have reached the end of this 30-day devotional. You may feel a little more nervous, overwhelmed, humbled, dependent upon God – and all of these things are okay. It is God working through you who will make a difference in the lives of the Cambodians you are going to serve.
85 Suggestions drawn from Gregory Rodgers,“Etiquette in Cambodia,” About.com (2012), http://goseasia.about.com/od/cambodiaculturepeople/a/etiquette_cambodia.htm (accessed February 4, 2013).