Understanding Cambodian Culture and Traditions

It would be unfair to compare other countries in Southeast Asia with the enviable cultural history of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

After all, this is a nation descended from all-powerful god kings who established the largest empire on earth and built an unrivalled legacy that includes the Angkor Wat Temple Complex.

Not only are the temples of Angkor one of the great wonders of the world but it is also the largest religious monument ever constructed. There is literally nothing to rival it anywhere on earth.

Modern day Cambodian culture and traditions are just as unique and fascinating. Steeped in thousands of years of history they have certainly evolved over time yet still remain firmly linked to the glories of the age of the Khmer Empire.

Modern Day Cambodia: Nation, Religion, King

The Cambodian people have a strong respect for their ancient traditions and as such the modern-day culture is in many ways still very traditional.

Even with the rapid economic and technological development of the past few decades Cambodians continue to place great faith in the religious and spiritual beliefs of the past.

These feelings are enshrined in the country’s official state motto which consists of just three words: ‘Nation, Religion, King’.

There is an overwhelming sense of national pride in their rich history that is best seen in the compete dedication and reverence shown by every Cambodian towards Angkor Wat which is considered as the spiritual heart of the nation.

When it comes to religion the country is most definitely Buddhist, however since the time of the Khmer Empire there has been a tradition of respecting other religions as well.

This can be found in many of the temples of Angkor which integrate elements of Hinduism ranging from bas-reliefs depicting the epic religious tales of the Ramayana to statues of deities such as Ganesh.

While 95% of Cambodians are practicing Buddhists, there is quite a range of additional spiritual beliefs that people here also subscribe to. Elements of animism such as ancestor worship and a high level of respect shown to the spirit world are a part of many peoples’ daily lives.

Additionally, those of mixed Chinese heritage go to great lengths to hold ceremonies and festivities for a range of important dates including Cheng Meng and Lunar New Year. Other related beliefs in numerology and Feng Shui have also became quite widely adhered to, even among those with no Chinese lineage.

Respect for Family

Cambodians place immense value on the importance of family, with children expected to show deference and respect for their parents and elders. This even extends to areas including traditionally arranged marriages which are negotiated between the parents and grandparents of each family. The bride and groom often only meet a few times before their engagement is announced. In urban areas this practice is becoming slightly less common but remains the method of choice for pairing a couple in rural areas.

Face and the Art of Non-Confrontation

In Cambodia there is a saying, “Lose Face, Lose Mouth” which underscores the importance of maintaining one’s public image and reputation. Nobody wishes to “lose face” so will go to great lengths to avoid potentially making themselves or another person look bad in any way.

The downside to this is that “Yes” can often mean either “Yes, Maybe or No”. This can make things initially confusing to those unfamiliar with the “Art of Non-Confrontation” but in reality if a response to a question is vague or non-committal then you quickly learn to read between the lines. Regardless of the answer make sure not to express anger or frustration and keep a polite smile on your face at all times.

Etiquette Essentials in Cambodia

  • Public displays of affection liking kissing are scandalous to many conservative Cambodians.
  • A general rule of thumb is that couples shouldn’t hold hands in public however is totally normal for best friends of the same gender to do so.
  • There is a saying that, “Men are like diamonds, women are like cloth” which means that a Cambodian female’s dignity shouldn’t be called into question. So don’t ever dare wolf whistle a Cambodian woman, you’ll embarrass yourself in a big way.
  • Always remove your shoes before entering a house or office building.
  • The “Sampeah” is the traditional Khmer greeting with your two palms placed together almost in prayer. However, many Cambodians like to shake hands with Westerners and it is considered good manners to shake using the right hand while touching your right arm with your left hand.
  • In pretty much any country touching somebody’s head is considered impolite, even more so in Cambodia as it is the purest part of the body.
  • Conversely, the feet are the lowest part of the body so don’t make the mistake of pointing the soles of your feet at another person.

Temple Traditions

  • This may sound really obvious but when visiting the country’s sacred temple you should act and dress respectfully.
  • Taking nude selfie photos at temples is both incredibly rude and nationally scandalous. Cambodians are very hospitable but a few foolish tourists have been asked to apologise and leave the country after being caught disgracing themselves. Keep your clothes on and you’ll have no worries.
  • Alcohol and cigarettes aren’t permitted inside pagodas and temples.
  • Due to religious reasons women must never touch a monk in any situation. Monks are usually very happy to chat and even take a photo with tourists but just be mindful of their personal space.

Business Cambodian Style

  • Having a good supply of business cards is an absolute must for conducting any type of business meetings. Always use two hands to give your card to another person and also to receive their card in return. Thoughtfully look at it, read it and place it prominently on the meeting table based on the hierarchy of the people you’re doing business with.
  • Be aware that drinking Scotch and singing Karaoke are essential skills may well be included on your business itinerary. Cambodians love to have a party to get to know their potential business partners on a personal level.

As with everything in the Kingdom of Wonder there is a learning curve, but as long as you are polite, smile and go with the flow you will be welcomed and treated with respect accordingly.

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