Cambodians are an extremely hospitable and friendly people, though perhaps a little reticent to invite strangers into their home at first. Among friends and relatives, however, frequent and unannounced visits are common. If invited to someone’s house, expatriates can expect to be given the best seat in the house, as well as the best serving of food.
Meeting & Greeting
Greetings between Cambodians are dependent on the relationship/hierarchy/age between the people. The traditional greeting is a bow combined with a bringing of the hands together at chest level. It is known as the ‘Sampeah’, where you join your hands at the level of your chest, chin, nose, eyebrows or over the head. Each position is directed to a different kind of person. If one intends to show greater respect the bow is lower and the hands brought higher. The Sampeah is different between friends, from saluting bosses or elder persons, different again for greeting parents, grandparents, and teachers, still different for saluting monks, and with the hands highest when ‘praying to the God or sacred statues’. Sampeah is not just a form of greeting. It is not just to show recognition but respect to someone. It is extremely impolite not to return a Sampeah.
It is important to ask for the age in order to know how to manage the relations: to call you ‘older’ or ‘younger’ brother or sister, aunt, uncle, nephew or niece, son or daughter, grandchild or grandpa or ma. Cambodians respect everybody as a big family, for this reason they do not use the personal name of others too often. Instead of using names, they use titles to express their rank or their age. For example, someone who is a few years older is called ‘bong’. But, if they are older than that, they are addressed as ‘ei’ (aunty) or ‘pou’ (uncle). For people younger than you it is ‘oun’, and for really old people, it is ‘yay’ or ‘om’.
Respect and deference must always be shown to the most senior person. When meeting a group you will be introduced to the highest ranking person, similarly you should have the most senior of your group greet them. If groups are involved you should introduce people according to rank so that your Cambodian counterparts understand the dynamics of the group.
With foreigners some Cambodians have taken to the western practice of shaking hands, but the bow remains the traditional greeting, especially for women.
People are usually addressed with the honorific title ‘lok’ for men and ‘lok srey’ for women followed by both first and last name. Following ‘lok’ only with a surname is impolite so be sure you catch both names. The simple rule is to respond with the greeting you are given.
It is not polite to touch a person of the other gender. Cambodians of different gender do not kiss or hug in public. Public displays of affection are not culturally appropriate in Cambodia and will probably be considered offensive.
However, same sex friends are frequently hugging each other, walking down the street hand in hand or arm in arm. These are considered non-sexual displays of friendship and are quite acceptable.
In western culture, we tend to judge someone that will not meet our eyes as shifty. In Cambodia culture, indirect eye contact is a form of respect and direct eye contact is usually only made with social equals.
- A big no-no in Cambodia and in most of Southeast Asia is to touch anyone on top of the head, except maybe for very young children.
- It is not considered polite to point your feet at anyone and especially not at a Buddha statue or a monk.
- If entering a temple, ensure that you sit cross-legged to avoid offence.
- In temples men should wear long pants, so no hairy legs poking out, and women should avoid any clothing that exposes the shoulders.
- Avoid handing anything to anybody with your left hand.
- To pass things politely, touch your left hand to your right elbow and pass the object with your right hand.
- It is polite to remove your shoes before entering someone’s house and obligatory in a temple.
So, want to know how Cambodians greet? Watch the video in which Samphors Iny explains and shows Khmer Greetings.