9 Khmer Cultural Dos and Don’ts
Updated: Aug 11
The Khmer people are as a rule friendly, approachable, and tolerant. That said, certain behaviors can enhance interactions and avoid unintentional misunderstandings.
1. Learn a little Khmer language
Learning Khmer can be daunting due to the unique alphabet and colloquial nature of the spoken language. However, there are a few useful words and phrases that anyone can learn with a little practice. A few examples are provided below, and for further reading here are 12 useful phrases for first time visitors to Cambodia.
Thank you /
Thanks a lot
'Aw-kun' directly translates as thank you, which is probably the most helpful easiest Khmer word to learn and apply. To add emphasis the expression can be expanded to 'Awkun-jran' (thanks a lot), which is likely to widen the smile received in return.
How are you /
I am fine
In everyday situations Khmer people as likely to ask how someone is as to say hello. Handily the question and response are the same ('sok-sabay borng' (how are you?) / 'baht / jah, soksabay, aw-kun' (yes, I'm fine thank you).
This is the general and informal way of saying hello or welcome. This is usually sufficient for visitors, and can be followed by 'sok-sabay' (how are you / I'm well).
This is the informal way of saying goodbye in Khmer language.
Sorry / excuse me
Translates as excuse me or sorry and can be used as it is in English: for example to attract someone's attention politely or if accidentally bumping into someone.
2. Know when to take your shoes off and keep your (sensible) clothes on
In Cambodia, like most Southeast Asian cultures, it is expected that shoes (and hats and sunglasses) will be removed before entering certain places.
In temples, pagodas and other religious or cultural locations
Shoes, hats, and sunglasses off is mandatory before entering any temple or place of religious significance in Cambodia. There is usually a shelf or step semi-populated with several pairs of shoes at the entrance into the relevant space.
Equally shorts and skirts above the knee, singlets, or other garments without at least short sleeves - or garments that are revealing due to semi-transparent fabric, are not appropriate apparel in pagodas and places of religious significance. These sensitivities stand for both men and women.
In homes and other facilities
It is universally expected that shoes will be removed before entering a Khmer home, for example if invited for a meal. Some other institutions may also require removal of shoes: for example, dentist and doctor's surgeries, in which case a pair of plastic shoes is usually made temporarily available.
3. Consider mannerisms and body language
Augmenting communications with open, calm, and friendly body language will - as a rule -enhance interactions with Khmer people and help avoid misunderstandings and enable assistance if a problem does manifest. There are several specific areas that can be considered, most of which fit neatly into the 'do not list'; however, being mindful of body language and applying discipline and restraint as a rule is the way forward in most situations, especially if dealing with the police or another authority such as immigration or a government office.
4. Demonstrate respect for the elderly and the pagoda
In Khmer culture social hierarchy is extremely important, and although there is a great deal tolerance for visitors who do not understand the complexities and nuances there are few ground rules that can help smooth the waters.
Age and respect in Cambodia
In Cambodian culture relative age determines the way people are addressed and even the language that can and should be used between people. For this reason, it is common for Khmer people to establish one another's relative ages when meeting for the first time. Visitors can demonstrate an understanding by acknowledging older people (relative to the visitor) with a nod of the head and showing deference to elderly people in social situations.
Addressing monks and behavior around a pagoda
Similarly, there is a universal expectation of deference to monks, including letting them ahead of you in a queue, not standing above them a nod of the head can help for taller individuals) and letting them pass in the street. It is expected that women will not touch or directly pass something to a male monk (this is good advice for male visitors too!).
In addition to adopting a conversative dress code and behaving deferentially normally, it is usually expected that visitors walk around pagodas and images of the buddha walking in a clockwise direction (circumambulation).
5. Smile and engage in a friendly way
As a rule, Khmer people are respectful of gentle and kind behaviour, whereas ill-disciplined, animated confrontations may be countered with a 'cold face' (passively), adding to frustration for visitors unfamiliar with Khmer culture and leading to further escalation.
Maintain ‘face’: keep smiling
Visitors who can keep their perspective and managing situations calmly will end up better off and enjoy more fulfilling interactions in Cambodia than those who may be considered uncooperative or confrontational.
Loss of face
Interacting and behaving in a way likely to cause embarrassment or a loss of status - especially publicly - may be considered as a loss of face, both for the protagonist and the recipient, and this situation is frowned upon and to be avoided.
Acknowledging people, speaking in a friendly way, and making light of or politely ignoring any minor issues can be considered as examples of giving or at least maintaining face, which is important etiquette likely to result in more positive interactions.
6. Behave angrily, or loudly when addressing Khmer people
Maintaining face is important etiquette in Cambodia and behaving aggressively including talking loudly and using bad language is a loss of face, often for both the protagonist and the recipient. It is never a smart move to behave aggressively in a situation involving the police or other authority, because antisocial behaviour can be interpreted as personal instability and therefore culpability.
Speaking with Khmer people about Cambodian institutions and culture
On occasions when visitors will be drawn into conversations relating to Cambodia's troubled history including the Khmer rouge period, or dialogue regarding institutions or questions of a political nature. Engaging in conversation around these topics can be engaging and informative; however, as a rule visitors should be reserved and discreet in providing confrontational opinions, which may not be consistent with cultural expectations.
7. Photograph people without consent, litter, speak down to people ...
Stating the obvious: behaviour that is not appreciated 'at home' will not be appreciated in Cambodia. Common sense examples include avoiding littering, taking photographs of everyday people without consent, and speaking to people in a condescending manner. Visitors will find the Cambodian people to be friendly, kind, and helpful, but those engaging in anti-social behavior may suddenly find that they have a problem without a ready solution, because people look after themselves and each other in Cambodia, especially after the sun goes down.
8. Eat or drink before your host
If dining in Khmer home it is considered rude to start to eat before the host, so it is good manners to be aware of this and play it safe by only eating or drinking if the host begins or asks guests to do so.
If drinking alcohol (usually local beer) with Khmer people, and it may be expected for each member of the group to toast a glass before drinking, which differs from some other cultures where individuals drink at their own pace (jul-moy' is Khmer language for cheers!). However, there should be no pressure to drink more than is desirable and to politely decline or drink more slowly (with token toasts) is fine, and many Khmer will do this.
If with people that are not familiar, be mindful of the environment, what is being drunk by who, and if in doubt it is always acceptable (and sensible) to politely decline to participate.
Be aware of customs around situational gifts, for example bringing fruit if you are invited to dinner at a Khmer household, and the tradition of cash gifts at Khmer weddings (and increasingly other less formal celebrations: for example, housewarming parties and birthday parties held at a private address).
9. Touch or gesture towards Khmer people insensitively
Khmer people regularly attract one another's attention by calling out loudly in Khmer language, and for visitors these interactions can appear direct and informal. However, there is an underlying hierarchy that forms a basis for these interactions, and it is easier for visitors to initially maintain a friendly but reserved approach to interactions. There are, however, certain gestures and actions which are considered rude, which even first-time visitors can be mindful of.
It is rude to point at people with your feet
For Khmer people, gesturing with feet - which are unclean in Khmer culture - is rude and an indication of deliberate insult, and is to be avoided. Pointing with an outstretched finger is also considered to be crude, so gestures with an open hand in a situation where a language barrier may be present if preferable.
It is impolite to touch a Khmer person's head
It is extremely rude to touch a Khmer on the head - which is the intellectual and spiritual centre of a person - in almost any situation, and this is to be avoided.
Take and give with your right hand
Traditionally food is eaten with the right hand and ablutions with the left, so naturally it is polite to give and receive in the right hand - for example, giving money and receiving change at the supermarket, and it is disrespectful to use the left hand. In some situations, it is a mark of appreciation to give and receive with both hands: for example, gifts and business cards.
Avoid gratuitous public displays of affection
Khmer culture is reserved, and public displays of affection may cause embarrassment. Holding hands is unlikely to raise an eyebrow; however, immodest close contact including prolonged kissing in public spaces may be perceived with some embarrassment.
Sexual orientation and gender identity in Cambodia
Khmer people are as a rule accepting and tolerant - for example foreigners are unlikely to be singled-out or harassed for their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, conformity to cultural norms around situational behaviour is appreciated irrespectively.