Cambodia, especially Siem Reap, has become a very popular tourist destination in the last 10 years. I’ve traveled there many times over those years: the changes have been monumental, and not all good. It is always best to be well informed about a place’s cultural norms before visiting, and it is especially important when visiting a place that is only recently experiencing the best and the worst of western visitors.
My first trip to Cambodia was in 2004. That year there were about a million visitors, which was a 50% increase over the previous year. In 2014 it was 4.5 million.* People speak of their culture shock when they travel some place “exotic”, but imagine the culture shock to the people who live there, having just been through wars and genocide, and now millions of people from western countries have started arriving.
How do you travel in Cambodia respectfully? The following is personal advice and some gleaned from various websites:
- When you meet a Cambodian, the general greeting is a bow, or “som-peah.” Some Cambodians will want to shake hands. The best thing to do is to wait and see what they do, and then follow suit.
- Speak quietly and don’t go straight into business talk. Exchange pleasantries. You may ask about their work or their family, but mostly just listen and take your cues from them.
- Show genuine interest in the process, it is not just a formality.
- If handed a business card, take it with both hands and look at it carefully and remark about it.
Body Language and Touching:
Cambodians are reserved people, and touching is very limited.
- Never touch a person’s head, including small children.
- Especially for woman, don’t touch monks at all.
- Physical affection between the sexes is especially frowned on.
- Keep your use of your left hand limited. It is used for certain hygienic purposes and is better off not touching things.
- Hand someone something with the right hand, supporting your elbow with the left hand.
- Use two hands, as with the business card above, to receive something from some one.
- The bottom of your feet should never be pointed at someone, especially in temples.
- Remove your shoes before going inside, unless you see that the Cambodians are doing otherwise.
- You will be barefoot a lot, so keep your feet clean and fresh smelling!
There are a few things to pay attention to with meals. People are always sensitive about food and want you to like it. Most people quite like Cambodian food, but some find it a bit challenging.
- Politely refuse food that you think you will have a problem with. It is very insulting to taste something and make a bad face. Rely on your interpreter to help avoid this situation.
- Don’t eat until it is clear that the eldest person has started eating and that the status order is respected. You are youngest? You start last.
- Don’t touch food with your left hand.
- If there is a fork, do not put it in your mouth! Use it to push food onto your spoon and eat with the spoon. Make a valiant effort with chop sticks. Don’t put chopsticks in your rice bowl. When you have finished, lay them across your rice bowl or on the chopstick holder beside your plate.
- As with all situations, observe first if you aren’t sure.
- Try to finish what you have put on your plate.
- Take off your shoes at the door.
- Bring a small gift of candy or flowers.
- Follow the lead of your interpreter and your hosts as to where to sit and how to behave.
- Speak to the eldest first and show interest in everyone.
Cambodians take appearance seriously. From the tuk tuk driver to the business executive, all present themselves as well as possible. This means your clothes should be neat and clean, from tee shirts and jeans to more formal dress.
- Adult Cambodians do not wear shorts.
- Women should have their shoulders and knees covered, especially in temples. Modesty is the rule. Cleavage should be avoided.
There are books written on this topic. Face is important everywhere in Asia. Face is a matter of maintaining honor in front of other people. We westerners tend to be teasing and glib at times at other peoples’ expense, this is offensive in Asia.
- Listen carefully and respectfully.
- Contain your emotions.
- Try to be genuinely kind in your assumptions and expectations – Cambodians can read your emotions easily, even if you are constrained.
- Give a little rather than try to get the most from someone in a negotiation.
- When receiving something, do so with both hands. If it is a gift, accept it reluctantly but appreciatively.
Of course you want to take lots of pictures. I personally have thousands of pictures from my travels, and have learned, sometimes the hard way, to be careful and respectful of how I photograph. Here is a short essay I’ve written on the topic:
- Ask permission to take someones photograph, even of small children who are on their own.
- Include yourself in the picture if possible.
- Don’t take pictures of people struggling and suffering. This is a sort of poverty porn that is too often done by tourists.
- Some people don’t want to be photographed because of their beliefs- respect this!
- Simply be respectful. Think about how you would feel about being the subject of your photographs.
All of this sounds like a lot to be remembered. Cambodian people are kind and hospitable, and they are also quite forgiving of our mistakes. I’ve been told that we westerners are sometimes viewed as naive children and our violations of social norms should be tolerated as one would abide a silly child. Good intentions and respect are recognized and appreciated. Relax and enjoy your visit.
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