Honour and respect is a big deal in Cambodia – here’s our guide to decorum in the Kingdom.
You’re in Cambodia, the sun is shining, the people are warm and welcoming, you’ve befriended your tuk tuk driver, smiling kids are keen to play and joke with you; life is great. That’s the beauty of the Kingdom, it’s so easy to feel at home and comfortable in your surroundings in what is arguably the land of genuine smiles, which has been voted the friendliest in the world.
Take a moment to be mindful that you are in a country that takes real pride in its culture and customs. What may seem a harmless act or gesture by you can be hugely offensive to the local people, or even illegal.
Just as Cambodians wish visitors to come away with the best possible impressions of the country, we’re sure you want to represent yourself, your country, and all foreigners coming to Cambodia in the best possible way, so below are a few pointers to ensure responsible travel while in the Kingdom of Wonder.
Whether in the capital or temple town, it’s going to be hot. Revealing clothing, super-short shorts, bikini tops, walking around a city or town with no shirt on – away from the beach (even on the beach), this is not appropriate, and may offend locals, especially the older generation.
Around temples and pagodas
For both women and men, when visiting sacred sites, be sure to cover up to below the knees and across the shoulders. When entering enclosures of certain sites and homes, be sure to remove hats and shoes. If in doubt, do as locals do and leave your footwear neatly to one or other side of the doors.
In banks and official government buildings
Many of these sites require entrants to remove headwear such as helmets and hats, sunglasses and other items that obscure the face. A sign posted outside usually indicates this or door staff will politely remind you.
Keep your cool
The vast majority of times people, especially hospitality staff, will try to accommodate your needs and oblige your requests, and keen to please and not lose face, will smile and nod along. It may only become obvious later that things have been lost in translation. Keep your composure – frustration can give rise to disagreements, which only makes things worse, given that extreme emotional responses, especially with raised voices also contradicts “saving face” protocol. Be patient, beam a broad smile and repeat yourself slowly and clearly until understood.
Many of Cambodia’s monuments, statues, temples and pagodas are old, some have stood for a millennia. Running your fingers over them does nothing for them, so if you want them to remain in the best condition so many more people can enjoy them in all their glory, refrain from leaning or sitting on fragile structures which could do lasting damage- and get your into serious trouble. Look, take photos, but don’t touch. Be careful where you put down your backpack or plant your tripod and anything else you are carrying which could do unintended harm to the beautiful structures.
Sacred sites in Cambodia are as sacred as they come, they are the real deal. Remember when you visit that any locals or practising buddhists may have come for reasons other than sightseeing, likely for religious reasons. Keep noise to an absolute minimum, talk only if necessary, put your phone on silent, don’t disturb others. While you’re there, don not touch any statues of the Buddha, and ask for permission from monks before taking photos. If you do take a photo, drop a small donation in the nearest box.
The Cambodian authorities take restricted areas very seriously, from entry to photography to peeking through a fence, and for good reason. Most restricted areas are designated so for your own safety, particularly in the Angkor Archaeological Park where collapsing temples and unstable ground can be extremely dangerous. Other restricted areas such as military and government properties, and private properties, are not negotiable, and ‘Danger – Landmines’ signs are not to be ignored.
Keep your head
…And never touch anyone on the head, especially on the crown. This is considered to be the apex of the body spiritually speaking, and should therefore not be violated by others, whereas the feet are the lowest so should never be pointed at anyone, used to move or manipulate objects or be raised higher than anyone’s head. Also be sure never to step over anyone who is sitting or lying down, say in a hammock.
Cambodians like a smoke as much as anyone else, and smokers (the vast majority of whom are men), will often take an interest in your brand of cigarettes, particularly rolling tobacco if it isn’t sold in Cambodia. Offering a cigarette or two can be an excellent way to make friends. A law was passed recently banning smoking in bars and restaurants, but enforcement is somewhat lacking so don’t be surprised if you see others lighting up. Before you flick out your lighter, ask staff if it is OK to smoke (most will be happy to bring you an ashtray ‘Chan Ku Baray‘ if so) and act with courtesy and consideration to those around – ask your neighbours if they mind and if there are children present, take your habit outside. Smoking in public is generally fine, except in the case of Angkor Archaeological Park which has been a smoke free site since 2012, and if caught smoking you may well be fined. During the arid dry season a stray butt can also be a fire starter and plenty of houses here are wooden, so be careful and respect the signage.
Food or Money for Children
It’s a heartbreaker for visitors, expats and locals alike. The tiny hands clasped together in hope, the big eyes full of sorrow… they’re kids, how could you possibly say no? But you have to. Giving money or food to children begging on the streets of Cambodia is counteractive to the work being done by NGOs and charities here to get them off the streets and into schools. If it’s any consolation when saying no, a lot of the time there is more behind the hands cupped together and the big eyes than first appears. This is especially true of children selling items like postcards or bracelets, who will respond if asked that they go to school but this is often far from the truth.
Remember “Children are not tourist attractions” as organisation Friends International puts it. If you are approached by street children or anyone else and invited to an orphanage, to watch a Khmer dance performance or for any reason whatsoever, be a childsafe traveller and politely but firmly decline the offer – orphanage tourism imperils the rights and futures of vulnerable persons in Cambodia.
Monks are highly respected and revered in Cambodia as spiritual and learned persons. They aren’t a tourist attraction or photo opportunity, to be treated as a novelty. If you want to take a photo of a monk (or anyone for that matter) ask permission first – even if only through motioning or gesturing with your camera and getting a nod or smile in consent. If you enter into conversation with a monk make sure that you are positioned below them, even if it means sitting on the ground. When seated always tuck your feet beneath you so your feet do not point at them. Women should never make physical contact with a monk or hand them anything directly. Donations to local pagodas, whether money or food will likely be welcomed – find a monk with authority (they often speak good English) and ask where you can make your donation – there will often be a box or designated place for this.
Pay it forward
When paying for goods or indeed handing over anything, use both hands or if you only have one free, form an L shape with your dominant hand extended and your other hand touching the inside elbow of your dominant hand.
Keep ID handy
As elsewhere in the world, when checking in hotels and guesthouses require their guests to show photo ID for their records. A passport is the norm, but a driver’s license from your home country may also be accepted. Having photos on your smartphone and quality photocopies of your documents is good practice for these moments, especially if you plan to rent vehicles, as you may be asked to leave your passport as a deposit. Having a couple of passport-sized photos can also be handy for visas on arrival as otherwise your photo will be taken on the spot and fees of around $2 will be added to the price. Photos for your pass to Angkor Archaeological Park are included in the price.
Keep it private
Public displays of affection (even hand holding for married couples) is considered distasteful, especially among the older generation. Although such displays are normally met with politeness or anxious giggles and averting of the eyes, respect for local customs should prevail in public, especially at significant sites such as temples, pagodas and family homes.
If you are lucky enough to be invited into someone’s home, or are doing a homestay during your time in the Kingdom, be sure to bring something to the table – a gift of nicely presented fruit, sweets, pastries or flowers, wrapped in colourful paper (not white, the colour of mourning) is the norm- and hand this to the host with both hands. Perceived as threatening and thus seldom seen at the table are knives–never give them as a present. Gifts are not opened when received so don’t be alarmed if the recipient puts it to one side! If you are invited to a dining table, await hierarchical seating arrangements from your host. The eldest person is usually seated first and will be the first to begin eating. While dining, slurping, lip smacking and other gastronomic noises are seen as conveying enjoyment of the meal- which should only be eaten with the right hand wherever possible (cracking open crab shells will be forgiven). Refrain from conversation about business or war when at the table. Be aware that an invitation to dinner will likely be perceived as an offer to pay the bill, so only extend the invitation if you have the dues! For compliments on the food – a huge part of Khmer culture – see Language.
Be mindful of Cambodia’s troubled and turbulent history – by not bringing up subjects such as war, domestic politics, or the Khmer Rouge.
Generally subtle and reserved in communications, Cambodians are wonderfully welcome and hospitable people keen to share their experience with you and enquire after your own. This may come out in the form of very forward questions:
“How old are you?”
“Are you married?”
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”
“How much money do you make?”
“How much do you weigh?”
“How much did you pay for that?”
Don’t be taken aback – the questioner is trying to determine your ‘rank’ in order to address you appropriately, as interaction is defined by status and age. The general honorific title “Lok” is used for men and “Lok Srey” for women followed by the first name or both first name and surname. (See Language for more).