The Khmer are a formal if friendly people with customs similar to that of its neighbours, with a few in addition.
From the 14th to 18th centuries, customary Cambodian teachings were codified in Chhbap (‘rules’) which insisted that “a person who does not wake up before sunrise is lazy” and one should always “let the other person do more talking.” Things have changed somewhat since then but a lot of the same age-old principles still apply.
Family first is generally the rule in Cambodia, as the institution, which is put above all others followed by neighbourhood, commune, and society before the individual.
As in other parts of the region, meals are taken and shared together. Multiple dishes with accompanying sauces will be spread on the table and everyone digs in with chopsticks or fork and spoon (knives are seldom seen). While sampling several dishes is the norm, it is customary to finish your plate before heaping on more.
Respect for elders
The heads of family and monks are shown utmost respect as elder and learned people. Social structures in Cambodia and hierarchical, with a certain lingering belief or presumption that low status or standing in life is due to bad karma in a previous one. That said, the value of kindness is upheld and shown in practices such as giving practiced to those in need during Khmer New Year.
Marital unions are happy occasions anywhere, and in Cambodia they are of central importance. Traditionally held at the mother of the bride’s house, often in large marquees off the road, ceremonies can last up to three days and are loud and lavish affairs. If you awake at an early hour to commotion other than (and including) monks chanting, the chances are, there’s a wedding going on.
One of the main points of distinction between the people of Cambodia and those of nearby countries is the wearing of this checked scarf, made of cotton or silk which is variously used for style, protection from the sun, a hammock for infants, and a sarong.
Head and feet
As elsewhere, the head is considered to be spiritually the highest part of the body, which should therefore not be touched by others, whereas the feet are the lowest so should never be pointed at anyone (even during sleep), used to move or manipulate objects or be raised higher than anyone’s head.
Bow in greeting
When greeting a person formally, to show respect or in prayer, the hands are brought together in front of the heart in a sampeah which is identical to the Thai wai and Indian namaste, which is coupled with a bow. In addition, it is not considered polite to make eye contact with someone who is older or superior.
Learn more about meeting & greeting in Cambodia.