Visiting Cambodia is an experience that will live inside of you forever. Having endured colonization, brutal wars, and everyday hardships, the Cambodian people have somehow still emerged as warm and welcoming to visitors of their country.
As tourists to 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.
Buddhist Etiquette in Cambodia
Theravada Buddhism is practiced by 95% of the population in Cambodia. The followers adhere to the concepts of karma, collectivism, and "saving face" to guide them in daily transactions.
- Collectivism: The idea that the family, neighborhood, or society is more important than the wishes of the individual.
- Karma: Known in the West as "you reap what you sow".
- Saving Face: The concept of retaining your honor and reputation in front of others.
Tips for Saving Face
As with most of Asia, to "loose one's cool" in public is completely unacceptable; never shout at someone or criticize them in front of others.
No matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable a situation is, never make it worse by loosing your temper!
- When negotiating, allow the other party to "save face" by giving just a little on the final price.
- Be sure to give genuine complements to people when merited.
- When offered a gift, politely refuse at first, but in the end always accept it very graciously with both hands.
Showing Respect in Cambodia
As with the rest of Southeast Asia, the head is considered the highest and most spiritual part of a person's body. The feet are considered the dirtiest and least sacred.
Business and eating are typically conducted with the right hand only; the left hand is reserved for "other" duties in the toilet.
Be mindful of Cambodia's tough past by not bringing up sensitive subjects such as war, violence, or the Khmer Rouge.
Proper Etiquette in Cambodia
- Never touch a Cambodian person on the head, even children.
- Never raise your feet higher than someone's head.
- When seated on the ground, tuck your feet beneath you so that they do not point at someone.
- Unless told otherwise, always remove your shoes before entering a home or business.
- Do not use your left hand to touch, eat, or hand someone something.
- Pointing with your index finger is considered rude. Instead, gesture with your right hand palm-up.
Greeting People in Cambodia
The traditional Cambodian greeting - known as Som Pas - 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 and monks.
Many Cambodians choose to shake hands with visitors, so the best rule-of-thumb is simply to return whatever greeting that you were given initially. It is considered very rude not to return a greeting.
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 considered proper attire only for schoolchildren!
Men in Cambodia typically wear collared shirts and long pants. Women should not wear short skirts or show their shoulders.
Although tourism has caused this standard to lax somewhat, always dress conservatively when visiting temples, homes, or entering a public office.
Interacting With the Opposite Sex
Cambodians are conservative in sexuality and strongly frown upon public displays of affection.
Be mindful in your contact with the opposite sex, even placing an arm around a local to pose for a picture can be misinterpreted.
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.
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 with these interesting people!
- Women should never touch a monk or hand anything to them; even the monk's mother may not do so.
- If a monk is seated, you should sit also before starting a conversation.
- Monks are not allowed to eat after noon - be mindful by not eating or snacking around them.
Temple Etiquette in Cambodia
Whether visiting sprawling temples or one of the smaller pagodas in Siem Reap, always show respect by following these guidelines:
- Remove shoes and hats before entering the worship area - no one is exempt.
- Turn off mobile phones and MP3 players.
- Avoid loud or disrespectful conversation inside of temples.
- Dress modestly by wearing long pants and covering your shoulders.
- Avoid sitting higher than seated monks.
- 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.
Read more about visiting Buddhist temples.
Visiting a Local's Home in Cambodia
Getting invited to someone's home for dinner may be a highlight of your trip to Cambodia.
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.
- It is polite to bring a small gift such as fruit, flowers, or candy to your host; hand your gift to them with both hands.
- Always wait for the eldest to sit. The same applies to when to begin eating.
- Avoid conversation about business or war when at the table.
Knowing local etiquette isn't the only way that you can make a difference. Read more about responsible travel in Southeast Asia.