Cambodian culture has different rules for physical touch. It’s not appropriate to kiss your family members or loved ones. Instead, you hug them, and this is often followed by you breathing in the scent of the person you are hugging.
In the Khmer language, when you ask someone if they want to eat, you ask “nyum bie?” It literally translates to “Do you want to eat rice?” Like many other Asian cultures, Cambodia’s staple food is white rice. You always start with a steaming bowl of it, to which you add some kind of fresh fish or pork as well as a mixture of green vegetables and some chili peppers in fish sauce. All of these pieces of the meal are kept separate until you actually start to eat.
Cambodians greet people and show respect by drawing their hands together at their heart in prayer. You can also show respect to elders by showing this gesture and slightly bowing your head. The highest display of respect is reserved for priests and those of the highest status. You will often see people bend and touch a priest’s feet in order to receive a blessing. You know it’s offensive to forget a greeting and so it becomes habit, even when you leave Cambodia.
Cambodian people are intensely aware of the age difference between you and themselves. One of the first questions you will be asked when meeting someone for the first time is about your birthdate. From that moment on, you’ll be known either as an elder or younger brother or sister. An older brother is called Bong proh, while an older sister is Bong srei. If someone is younger than you, it is acceptable to call them by their first name or add P’ohn in front of proh (boy) or srei (girl).
Cambodian people find pointing with your index finger to be very impolite. The middle and pinky fingers are thus your replacements. It’s only appropriate to point at people who are younger than you, though, so you find it best to avoid pointing at anyone in general.
Cambodians love to do daily tasks in groups. From going to the market to making the daily meals, you will learn to do things with family and friends by your side. You learn how to work in a crowd and use the different kitchen tools that Cambodia has to offer. This is also a time for you to share and communicate with the people closest to you.
Unlike the western side of the world, you can’t find many processed foods in Cambodia. That’s especially true of communities on the water, like Sihanoukville, which have a primary diet of rice, vegetables, fruits, and seafood. A few weeks in Cambodia will make you forget what it’s like to eat anything out of a bag.
Cambodians have a very small personal bubble. If you are friends with a Cambodian, they will sit close to you as you talk and often reach out and touch you mid-conversation. You feel completely comfortable holding hands with any of your friends, regardless of their age or sex. This act of physical touch simply shows that the two of you are intimate friends and that you are as close as family.
People in Cambodia are very friendly and open. Many people will stop just to talk and get to know you out of curiosity. This friendliness is contagious in the best of ways. You soon come to realize how much you can learn from strangers who you’d never have met if you hadn’t followed this cultural value.
Like in many Asian cultures, a midday break is a vital part of the day in Cambodia. At the hottest part of the day, students come home from school for a break as their parents also have a break from work. You will come to rely on this time to recoup from waking early to finish chores before the heat of the day sets in, as well as to take a much needed shower. Walking through the dusty streets of Phnom Penh in 100% humidity will make showering an important part of your day.
Khmer traditional dance is an ancient custom that accompanies any holiday or large gathering. You can easily admire the dancers for their flexibility and movement, moving along to the live sounds of wind and string instruments. Dancers usually wear a traditional top called a sampot which wraps around their bodies. Many times they’ll wear an ornate headdress as well. Much of the dance is done with the hands and feet which are always moving in mesmerizing fashion for the audience. Usually dancing is done only by those who are trained, but on some occasions the audience will take over.
In Cambodia, you’ll be asked to take your shoes off when entering homes, schools, temples, or anywhere else that holds a place of esteem in the society. It’s a sign of respect.
No matter what the meal consists of, a spoon is ever-present at the Cambodian table. You get used to scooping up any kind of food with a rather large spoon — be it soup, rice, noodles, or vegetables. Because much of the Cambodian food is on the more liquid side of things, slurping is quite acceptable.
The Cambodian mentality is very community based. Holidays are spent with open doors to family and friends in the neighborhood. The Water Festival, celebrated in November, is one of the most joyous Cambodian occasions. You’ll get to know everyone in your community as you spend days drenching each other with water and sharing meals together afterward. If a job needs to be completed, you’ll work together with your neighbors to accomplish it. The Cambodian people come into each other’s houses as if they were all blood related.
Photo: ND Strupler