Being a traveler means being able to adapt to different customs, no matter how unusual they might be for us.
The tradition and customs in Cambodia come from the Khmer culture and Buddhism. These have led to some rules of etiquette that dominate the lives of the locals. The rules revolve around respect (for the elderly, for guests, for sacred places, etc.) and sharing.
The Buddhist concept of merit-making, i.e. leading a good life to gain enlightenment, is also of primary importance, and it guides the behavior of the faithful. Respecting the basic etiquette will greatly enhance your experience. Below is a beginner’s guide to Cambodian etiquette.
Daily life etiquette
To start with, let’s see how you should behave in daily interactions.
It is really impolite to touch anyone on the head, even a child, and you should never raise your feet above anyone’s head.
If you are sitting on the ground, it’s a good thing to avoid pointing your feet at anyone: to do so, tuck your feet beneath you.
The left hand is considered impure: local people do not use it to eat, touch anyone or hand anything to anyone.
Cambodia is a conservative country: people don’t like to show their affection in public.
Avoid bringing up sensitive subjects such as the Khmer Rouge era, especially when eating.
Food is an important part of the locals’ lives, so it is good to know how to behave when eating. Here are some general rules:
When using a fork and spoon to eat, use the fork to push the food onto the spoon. Putting the fork into your mouth is rude.
Every meal is eaten from shared dishes at the center of the table. The fork or spoon that touches the shared food should not also touch your mouth.
Do not stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice bowl. This is a sign of bad luck, since it reminds people of the incense sticks burned in honor of the dead.
It is considered poor etiquette to finish everything you have in your plate.
Usually, the eldest will eat first. The last to eat is the cook. Remember when eating to avoid conversation about war or business.
Buddhism is practiced by almost 90% of the population. It is important to know the general Buddhist etiquette to avoid disrespecting the local religion and its sacred places.
Because of Buddhism, Cambodian etiquette is largely guided by the concepts of karma, collectivism and saving face (the last is common throughout Asia). Karma causes people to behave well in order to have good luck and a good life. Behind collectivism is the idea that the group is more important than the individual. Saving face is a concept similar to the western idea of maintaining a good reputation.
How to save face
Compliment people when deserved.
Respect others in order to be respected in turn.
When someone is giving you a gift, politely refuse at first, but accept it in the end.
Do not insult anyone and do not talk behind his or her back.
It is forbidden to monks to touch or be touched by a woman.
Do not stand when talking to a seated monk. Always sit down before starting your conversation.
Monks cannot eat after noon, so don’t offer them food or eat around them in the afternoon.
When addressing a monk, you should use the word “Venerable” followed by his first name.
When offering food to a monk, do not taste it beforehand.
Remove your shoes before entering a temple.
A Buddha image is considered sacred, so do not touch it or stand on its altar.
If you are sitting inside a Wat, tuck your feet beneath yourself.
Dress in an appropriate way: cover your shoulders and knees.
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