Fortunately, the dos and don'ts for etiquette in Cambodia are mostly straightforward and just a matter of showing respect. Regardless, all travelers worry about causing accidental offense at some point — especially in a place where they aren't familiar with local customs.
Visiting Cambodia is an experience that will change you. Having endured colonization, brutal wars, and everyday hardships (land mines are a daily threat for some), the Cambodian people still happily welcome visitors to their country.
As tourists in this special place, it is paramount that we represent ourselves well to ensure a warm welcome for others that follow.
The people in Cambodia understand that visitors may not be familiar with all of their customs, but by showing a respectful effort you will gain trust, friendship, and have a better overall experience in this exciting part of Southeast Asia.
Tips for Saving Face
As with most of Asia, the rules of saving face apply. To "lose one's cool" in public is completely unacceptable; avoid shouting at someone or criticizing them in front of others.
No matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable a situation is, never make it worse by losing your temper! People who remain calm and smile through adversity are highly respected. You'll get problems resolved much faster by remaining calm.
Some other ways you can play the "face" game:
- When negotiating prices (it's expected and not considered rude), allow the other party to "save face" by giving just a little on the final price. Alternatively, you can return to buy from them again later.
- Be sure to give genuine compliments and gratitude to people when merited.
- Humility is an important attribute in Cambodia. Politely deflect compliments sent your way or credit someone else (your family or your teacher are good choices).
- When offered a gift, politely refuse at first, but in the end always accept it very graciously with both hands.
Showing Respect in Cambodia
Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia consider the head the highest and most spiritual/sacred part of a person's body. It's the pinnacle of someone's "personal space" — don't touch it! That includes even to ruffle a kids hair.
At the other end, the feet are considered the dirtiest and least sacred. Don't point your feet at people; always remove your shoes before going into temples, homes, and some businesses. A pile of shoes at the door is a key indication that yours should also join the pile before going inside. Flip-flops or sandals that can be slipped off quickly and easily are the best choice for footwear while traveling in Southeast Asia.
Business and eating are typically conducted with the right hand only; the left hand is reserved for dirty duties in the toilet. Avoid handing people things with your left hand. Try to use only your right hand when eating.
Cambodia's Tough Past
Be mindful of Cambodia's war-torn history by not bringing up sensitive subjects such as war, politics, violence, or the Khmer Rouge. Nearly everyone of the right age has lost family and friends to violence.
Avoid wearing T-shirts and clothing that depict war or violence.
Etiquette Don'ts in Cambodia
- Never touch a Cambodian person on the head, even children.
- Try not to raise your feet high or show the bottoms of them. Even putting your feet on the seat opposite of you is a bad idea.
- When seated on the ground, tuck your feet beneath you so that they do not point at someone. Be especially careful about pointing your feet at images of Buddha.
- Unless told otherwise, always remove your shoes before entering a home or business.
- Do not use your left hand to hand someone something.
- Pointing with your index finger is considered rude. Instead, gesture with your right palm with all the fingers straight.
- Don't demean Cambodia. Travelers often do this without realizing. Saying something along the lines of "the bus will be late, this is Cambodia" or cracking jokes about outdated infrastructure doesn't make locals feel good.
Greeting People in Cambodia
The traditional Cambodian greeting, known as som pas, is made by putting your two hands together in a prayer-like gesture in front of the chest with fingertips pointing up. Give a slight bow with your head. This is the equivalent of the wai seen in Thailand.
The hands are held higher to show more respect to elders, officials, and teachers; the fingertips should be touching the chin or nose. For monks, the fingertips should be touching your forehead. You can also give a higher som pas to show extreme gratitude or sincere apology.
Many Cambodians choose to shake hands with visitors, although you probably won't get a firm grip as is expected in the West. The best rule-of-thumb is simply to return whatever greeting that you were given initially. Not returning someone's greeting is considered very rude.
Proper Dress in Cambodia
Modest dress is the rule in Cambodia, particularly for women. Although many tourists wear shorts to deal with the heat, the locals tend to cover as much skin as possible. In Cambodia, shorts are the default attire for male schoolchildren!
Local men in Cambodia typically wear collared, short-sleeved shirts and long pants. Although wearing shorts and a T-shirt is fine for tourists, you should try not to cause locals to feel embarrassed by your attire. Avoid short shorts, miniskirts, tight stretch/yoga pants, or other clothing that is too revealing.
Although tourism has caused local dress to lax somewhat, always dress conservatively when visiting temples (that includes the Angkor sites), homes, or entering a government building. Avoid wearing T-shirts with religious themes (images of Buddha or Hindu deities).
Interacting With the Opposite Sex
Cambodians are conservative in sexuality and generally frown upon public displays of affection. Again, the key is to not cause someone to feel embarrassed. Holding hands is OK but snuggling intimately on the bus may not be.
Be mindful in your contact with the opposite sex; even placing an arm around a local to pose for a picture can be misinterpreted.
Showing 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, begin eating first, and take the lead.
When seated, you should attempt to never sit higher than the eldest person in the room.
Buddhist Monks in Cambodia
Practically anywhere that you go in Cambodia, you are sure to see Buddhist monks dressed in colored robes. The monks are highly respected within society — take an opportunity to have a friendly interaction!
- Women should never touch a monk or hand anything to them; even the monk's mother may not hug her son while he is a monk.
- If a monk is seated, you should sit also before starting a conversation. Try to sit lower.
- Most Theravada monks are not allowed to eat after noon — be mindful by not eating or snacking around them in the afternoon.
Temple Etiquette in Cambodia
- Remove shoes and hats before entering the worship area — no one is exempt.
- Turn off phones and MP3 players. Remove your headphones.
- Avoid loud or disrespectful conversation inside of temples.
- Dress modestly by wearing long pants and covering your shoulders.
- Avoid sitting higher than seated monks or statues of Buddha.
- Do not touch a Buddha statue, and ask for permission before taking photos. If you do take photos, drop a small donation in the box.
- Don't turn your back to statues of Buddha to take a selfie!
Visiting a Home in Cambodia
Getting invited to someone's home for dinner may be a highlight of your trip to Cambodia. Don't decline and miss a great opportunity just because you aren't sure about the dos and don'ts of Cambodian etiquette!
Follow these guidelines to make the experience even more special:
- Remove your shoes even if not told to do so by your host.
- Remove your hat while indoors.
- Bring a small gift such as fruit, flowers, or candy to your host; hand your gift to them with both hands. Don't expect them to open it right away or make a big deal.
- Let your hosts lead. Always wait for the eldest person to sit; the same applies to eating.
- Avoid conversation about business, politics, or war when at the table.