Cambodia is a beautiful and fascinating country, with many unique cultural conventions, expectations, and traditions. By understanding the Cambodian ‘code of conduct’ and being aware of how your actions may be interpreted by others, you can engage with this culture on a deeper level, be respectful to the local people you meet, and be a great ambassador for your home country too!
This guideline is designed to explain basic issues around cultural sensitivity, which you should try to keep in mind as you travel through Cambodia…
Things you can do to be respectful:
- ASK BEFORE YOU TAKE A PHOTO – In Cambodia a smile is often a sign of shyness or discomfort, so don’t ever presume it’s okay to take a picture of someone. Ask first – if you receive a nod along with a smile, feel free to snap away! Also remember that many Cambodians will not want their photo taken in a group of three, as it is believed that this will bring bad luck to the person in the middle.
- COVER UP – Cambodians traditionally dress conservatively, so dress appropriately and show cultural sensitivity by covering your knees, shoulders, stomachs, backs, and cleavage. This is important everywhere, but especially at the TEMPLES. The temples are sacred places of worship, and although you will see many tourists dressed inappropriately here, this is considered to be extremely disrespectful.
- TAKE OFF YOUR HAT AND SHOES when you enter a pagoda, office, or someone’s home. If you feel that you want to, you can also make a small donation when visiting a pagoda.
- TAKE A BOW – When you meet someone, it is polite to remove your hat, bow slightly, and put your hands together in a ‘prayer’ position. This is particularly important when you meet monks and elders.
- THINK TWICE BEFORE GIVING TO STREET CHILDREN – It is extremely difficult to say no to a child, but giving money to street children might encourage them to believe that it is more useful to spend their time begging than going to school. This may perpetuate or even increase the problem rather than solve it.
- THINK TWICE BEFORE VISITING AN ORPHANAGE – Orphanages are big business in Cambodia; it’s estimated that up to 75% of children living in orphanages actually have living relatives, and many orphanages are created simply to fill tourists’ demand to see Cambodian ‘orphans’. Would you go to visit an orphanage in your home country? Would somewhere that puts the best interests of the children first allow random visits from strangers? Please check orphanages.no for more information on this nuanced topic.
- ASK QUESTIONS – If there’s something you don’t understand, a convention you’re unsure of, or a subject you’d like to learn more about, just ask!
Things to avoid:
- GOING TOO FAR BARTERING – Bartering is a must in the markets, and can be a lot of fun! However be polite and refrain from driving prices unnecessarily low – settle on a price that’s reasonable for everyone.
- GIVING IN TO FRUSTRATION – Many Cambodians will become embarrassed and uncomfortable if you loose your cool, as this is not socially acceptable in Cambodia. They may even smile out of awkwardness, which can make the situation more confusing. Keep calm!
- TOUCHING ANYONE’S HEAD, including children and especially elders. The head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body, and it is very rude to touch someone else’s.
- SHOWING THE SOLES OF YOUR FEET – The soles of your feet should never be pointed towards anyone, particularly the Buddha. This is because feet are considered to be the dirtiest part of the body.
- HUGGING OR KISSING IN PUBLIC – Cambodia is very conservative when it comes to physical displays of affection. Hugging or kissing in public will make people feel very uncomfortable.