Needless to say, that the culture of Cambodia is totally different to those from outside Asia. Even within Asia itself, it varies a lot. Like in any other countries, it originates in a mix of other nations influence, history (read it here), religion, regimes and their rules. Additionally, positive and negative experiences as well as new trends can change habits in a process which takes years, decades, centuries. Cambodia’s culture is extremely complex and consequently not always easy to understand. I’ve heard, seen, experienced, read already a lot and now I want to try to give you a general idea. Furthermore, I will try to explain some backgrounds, most of those will be my personal view. Please understand, that all in all everybody is different, thus there are people matching these descriptions but also some who are in some parts visibly different.
How some characteristics are
They don’t shout at each other. The more important something is, the quieter they speak. For example, when you’re haggling over a price on the market, you’d rather lower your voice. In that way they’ll show much more respect towards you and you’ll have more success. I can easily imagine that this comes from the past: Cambodians had experienced so many different, cruel regimes and wars during which they probably always got shouted at (e.g. orders). And now, this has turned 180° – as if to set an example for seeking the opposite.
Also helpful is being patient and not in a rush. The more you wait and hesitate the more they discount for you. Time has another significance here than in the business world in the west. What you can’t finish today, do tomorrow. Or the day after. Or the week after. I love these two characteristics, they make life so relaxed. However, it also means that they don’t really care about punctuality and that’s a thing which Swiss people are famous for …
Dishonesty and corruption are normal and belong to the daily life. During the Khmer Rouge regime, lying or bribing were kind of a life insurance for them. In those days, they all wanted to survive and sometimes a lie enabled them to stay alive. That means: For the older generation, it was a survival tactic and the younger generation simply got never taught that it wasn’t nice for the other person. Nowadays, they still say a lot which isn’t necessarily true, but as soon as you tell them, that it actually wasn’t nice or even has hurt you, they would feel bad about it.
Similar it is with the corruption which is insanely obvious and wide-spread. However, I’m sure there is a change coming. The government is so corrupt, that young people start realising that this doesn’t make life better for the “normal” population. I really hope for Cambodia, that they will find a way to fight against it. The best is yet to come!
This leads us to another point: feeling bad and ashamed, shyness and allusiveness. Beside them usually being shy and hesitant when it comes to personal life, they also don’t express their ideas as clearly and often as in other cultures. It is common to talk around something and this makes it sometimes really challenging to find out, what exactly they want to say. Actually, this can be pretty pleasant, since they don’t criticise directly. On the other hand, we (= foreigners) do have to be extremely careful what we say. And this is difficult because we have a very direct way of communicating.
My Khmer friend once said: “It’s pretty easy to connect (superficially – note from the author) with us Cambodians, but it is just as easy to disconnect.”
She said that also with regard to the fact that you can hurt or make them being ashamed quickly. Very high on the list of the “dos/don’ts” is, that they shall not lose their face. A wrong word or a too direct sentence can end a friendship. And criticism in front of many people makes it even worse. What has also to do with losing the face is, to show not too many real emotions. You don’t really notice in their faces when they’re angry or don’t understand you. They would just keep smiling and being friendly even when they’re very offended.
How they treat each other
Let’s describe it in one sentence: The older the wiser and the more respect he/she deserves.
Making money is difficult and often mother and father are working six or even seven days a week. The oldest child is often responsible for the household as well as taking care of the younger siblings. Parents are to be respected and grandparents even more. But eventually, the man is still the head of the family.
This respect for older people is not only visible within a family. It actually affects everybody. One notices it the most during the greeting, called “sampeah”. Both people place their palms together while bowing slightly. There are different positions for the hands: The lowest is touching the chin with the finger tips and is meant for friends or younger people. The higher you put your hands the more respect you show.
Moreover, they address others not only by their names but they also add different forms. For younger people one says “Phon/e (brother/sister) name”. And there is different ones for older people: The most common is “Bong Srey/Pros / Bong name” (sister/brother / sister/brother name). In addition to these, they have other words for people who are older or rather younger than your own parents. And those words again show a lot of respect. (I don’t want to complicate this now, that’s why I don’t mention them.)
Don’t think now, they always greet or call somebody that way. It sure always depends on the situation and how the people got brought up.
How they love
It is not easy to say how it is nowadays. As a matter of fact, families used to arrange marriages. My guess is that this still happens, however, there are also couples who are living the “western way of love”, like falling in love, choosing the one and so on. Despite that, it is still a taboo to show affection in public. At the same time, same-sex touching is more accepted than in western countries and that hasn’t to be gay necessarily. All in all, I reckon, they love to touch each other, if it is a quick hug, a slap somewhere or a squeeze of the shoulders or so.
From my point of view, this comes from what I mentioned first. Let’s be honest, everybody needs affection, sometimes a little sign of love or some body contact. And since they’re not really allowed to have that publicly with their chosen ones, they just embrace their best friends, for instance.
Interestingly, feet are considered to be impure and are the lowest while the head is the highest, it’s believed to contain the soul. That’s why it’s rude to touch another one’s head or feet, or point at somebody with the foot. The closer a friendship the less they care about these taboos.
How they dress
Yes, locals do have another style or rather different rules – but no, they aren’t walking around traditionally dressed like people from some countries in Africa. It is easy to dress appropriately: Just cover your shoulders and knees (and of course anything which is in between). As I have observed, they themselves do it in, say, in 85% of the cases. It seems like beautiful dresses are an exception and sometimes they wear a shirt or shorts which don’t cover (entirely). We from ICF dress similar. I reckon, especially for young women it’s good to cover more rather than less.
Mostly, they are walking around with flip flops. As soon as they enter a building they take them off and walk barefooted.
How they see foreigners
Most of the things they say about foreigners, especially tourists, are understandable. It’s said, they are rich, have everything they want and not always very kind or even arrogant. What’s more, Khmers love the white skin, the different colours from hair and eyes, the shape of the nose and find them beautiful at all. Young people think even more positive, all in all, they love foreigners. For them to meet foreigners is a chance to improve their English skills – and they love to take photos with them.
These two stories underline this. Both happened to me last year:
One time I was walking along the river and there was a girl sitting on a bench. As soon as she spotted me, she came and asked if I had a few minutes time for a little talk to improve her language skills…
When I was working for the Countdown (watch it here), I went once into a beauty salon and after I had taken a photo from one girl, more showed up and asked, if I would take one from them as well…
You might have realised, it is found increasingly important to show respect and behave appropriately. However, when you pay attention to these things and carefully choose your words, it is not too difficult to have a great time with them and make friends.
As I said in the beginning, these are only some basics. Surely, there is much more to write about. If you don’t agree with a point or think I missed an important one, do not hesitate to leave a comment. And of course, I don’t mind positive feedback either. Feel also free to share it, I think, these things are pretty important for everybody visiting Cambodia. 🙂