12 Khmer Language Phrases for First Time visitors
Updated: Aug 11
Although many Cambodians have learned some English - which is increasingly gaining attraction as a second language, even a little Khmer language can transform interactions for visitors to the Kingdom
Whatever the motivation for learning some Khmer Language visitors need to start somewhere, which is easier said than done because of the combination of the unique Khmer alphabet and frequently colloquial nature of the spoken language. The most fun and authentic way of gaining understanding is to engage in conversation with Khmer people who will (mostly) appreciate the effort to understand Khmer language and culture. That said, it helps to have some basic phrases for everyday situations and to get the ball rolling.
1. Thank you
'Aw-kun' (Awkun-jran, and Aw-tey-awkun)
'Aw-kun' directly translates as thank you, which is the most helpful and 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. Similarly, to soften a flat refusal - for example if addressing a persistent street-hawker, aw-kun' is added to the word 'aw-tey' (no) to politely refuse further solicitation: 'aw-tey, aw-kun' (no thank you).
The words thank you are universally understood, but it's preferred to use the Khmer word 'aw-kun' even if the speaker is not confident using any other Khmer language.
Family honorifics: 'bong' and 'oun'
Khmer people use family honorifics to address others, for example: 'bong' (brother), 'oun' (sister), or 'pu' or 'mijn' (uncle or aunty), depending on relative age, social status, and the situation (for example when addressing a teacher or doctor). For first time visitors it is enough to know that if you are addressed as 'borng' (or in English brother or sister) this is usually meant as a mark of respect, the context being that in Khmer culture family honorifics tend to be used instead of names when speaking to or about others.
2. How are you / I am fine
In everyday situations Khmer people as likely to ask how someone 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). Khmer people sometimes play around with language so you may hear a variation in a response such as 'sabaybok', which can be deployed to demonstrate a little colloquial understanding. Sabay(jet) is the word for happy in Khmer language and the phrase 'sabay-sabay' (happy-happy) can be used to express enjoyment in a social situation.
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).
Formal greeting adressed to higher status individuals or guests, accompanied by bringing the hands together and bowing slightly, which is called a 'sampeah'
Sampeah (bringing hands together and bowing slightly) is a form of greeting and showing respect in Cambodia: for exampl, to guests arriving at a hotel or a mid to high-end restaurant. It is polite to return the gesture in kind, but for most foreign visitors it is normally sufficient to nod to reciprocate. There are different forms of Sampeah and the height of hands and depth of bow will vary in different situations depending on relative status: for example, hands are held overhead during three deep bows when formally greeting a Buddhist monk.
Khmer people will occasionally use the word hello, especially when answering a phone call (e.g. 'hello bong') and there is no harm in politely attracting attention with the word hello as you will certainly be understood.
4. No (thank you!) / Cannot
This means no, although in many situations it is politer to say 'aw-tey, aw-kun' (no, thank you).
This means 'cannot', which can be used as a follow-on confirmation to 'aw-tey' (no) in the case of any persistent enquiry.
The word for please in Khmer is 'som', which always comes before the questrion: for example, 'som teg-soh' (some drinking water please) or 'som bon-tup-teg' (washroom please). In Khmer language as in English it never hurts to use the "magic word"
'Baht / Jah'
In Khmer language the word yes is different for men and women: 'baht' for men and 'jah' for women. There are nuances and diverse ways of saying yes in Khmer (for example using 'nang-ei' for reaffirming something that is known), but for new visitors 'baht / jah aw-kun' (yes thank you) offers a clear, polite response confirming agreement or understanding.
7. Where is the washroom, please?
'Bon-tup teg' (som bon-tup-teg now-na')
'Bon-tup teg' translates as washroom (water room) and as a standalone phrase this should on most occasions get you to where you need to go; however, the full sentence is, 'som bon-tup-teg now-na' (where is the washroom, please?) .
'Now-na' (where is [the]) can be added after any destination or location to ask where it is, but if directions in English language are needed then it makes sense ask the question in English and avoid confusion.
8. Drinking water and other drinks
The Khmer word for water is 'teg', and to ask for drinking water the phrase is 'som teg-soht' (please can I have some drinking water [in a bottle]). The pronunciation of this phrase can be tricky to master for non-Cambodians and resorting to 'som water' (water please) will work in most areas frequented by expats and tourists.
A reminder to stay hydrated
Cambodia is a hot country and it is highly advisable think twice before passing up on the opportunity to hydrate, because feeling thirsty probably suggests that a refreshing drink of water is already overdue.
The names of some commonly ordered drinks translate easily from English to Khmer, for example 'beer' / 'draft' (beer / draft beer), 'wine' (wine), and 'gouka' (coke), but others are more difficult to master, for example 'teg-groucj' (orange juice) and it may be easier to use English language and refer to the menu unless travelling truly off the beaten path.
9. How much is this?
When hunting for bargains or at the market the Khmer phrase to use is 'tlai pon-man' (how much does [this] cost), while gesturing towards whatever it is that you are thinking of buying. In markets frequented by foreigners prices will often be quoted in US dollars, and if the prices are not communicated in English verbally the vendor usually has a calculator to hand for displaying the proposed amount.
Negotiating prices with vendors
Using a little Khmer language makes an engaging start a little friendly haggling at a market or tourist store, and a friendly enquiry about price often escalates to a calculator being passed back and forth until a compromise price is agreed. The phrase 'som discount' (please can I have a discount) is universally understood by Khmer vendors, but if there is no discount is doesn't pay to be pushy (remembering to maintain 'face'), and in this situation if the price doesn't make sense it is best to move on and look elsewhere.
10. Please can I have the bill / check
When you have finished a meal or drinks and need to pay tghe phrase to use is 'som gut-loi' (the bill / check please). Using this little piece of Khmer etiquette is likely to earn a smile, although it does not hurt to also mime scribbling on a receipt when asking for the 'gut-loi' in a noisy environment such as a busy bar.
11. Sorry / excuse me, and never mind / it doesn't matter
Translates as excuse me or sorry and can be used as it is in English: for example if you would like to attract someone's attention to ask for directions to the washroom you can say 'som-tow bong, bon-tup-teg now-na' (excuse me, where is the washroom?). Equally if you have a minor incident such as accidentally bumping into someone it is polite to say'som-tow' (sorry).
A useful phrase for defusing a situation or make light of an apology, 'min-ei-tey' (never mind / it doesn't matter) can be spoken with a friendly smile.
12. Goodbye !
This is the informal way of saying goodbye in Khmer language.
Formal way of saying goodbye to higher status individuals or guests, accompanied by a 'sampeah'
Occasionally used Khmer people particularly when speaking to small children.
Summary of useful phrases
The below table summarises to the useful Khmer language phrases discussed in this article:
Khmer (using Latin alphabet)
Thank you / no thank you
Aw-kun / Aw-tey aw-kun
How are you / I am fine
Sok-sabay / Sok-sabay [the same phrase]
Hello (informal / formal)
Sues-dai / Chum-reap-sua
No (thank you!) / cannot
Aw-tey (aw-kun) / Odt-ban-tey
Som [always used before the question]
Baht [man] / jah [woman]
Where is the washroom please?
Som bon-tup-teg now-na?
Please could I have some drinking water?
How much does [this] cost?
Please can I have the bill / check?
Sorry or excuse me / never mind
Som-tow / Min-ei-tey
Good bye (informal / formal)
Lee-hi / Chum-reap-lear