Educational Adventures in Cambodia and Nepal

Category : About Cambodia

Cambodia Cultural Dos and Don’ts


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 cultural ‘Dos and Don’ts’ which you should try to keep in mind as you travel through Cambodia…




  • 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 mightencourage 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?





  • GO 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.


  • GIVE 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!


  • TOUCH 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.


  • SHOW THE SOULS OF YOUR FEET – The souls 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.


  • HUG OR KISS 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.


  • BE AFRAID TO 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!


Books and Films


A Report From a Stricken Land,

Cambodia: A Report From a Stricken Land, Henry Kamm (Arcade Publishing, 1999)

A sobering perspective on Cambodia’s recent, tragic history, Henry Kamm takes an in-depth look at Cambodia’s brutal past, beginning with the overthrow of King Sihanouk in 1970 and covering the turbulent 30 years thereafter, including the tragedies of the Khmer Rouge.



First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung (Harper Collins, 2000)

Loung Ung’s powerful account of surviving the Khmer Rouge regime as a child is terrifying and emotionally draining, but a highly recommended read. The author’s unflinching eye for detail creates a vivid tapestry of one of history’s darkest revolutions.
River of Time, Jon Swain (St. Martin’s Press, 1995)

Jon Swain’s book is a wonderful memoir of Indochina, expressing beautifully the powerful, inexplicable hold that Asia has for those who love her. Swain was one of the few Western journalists who remained in Phnom Penh as the city fell to the Khmer Rouge. His descriptions of the siege and its immediate aftermath are haunting.
The End of Poverty, Jeffrey D. Sachs (Penguin Press, 2005)

This book, written by one of the world’s hundred most influential people, Jeffrey Sachs, explores the roots of economic prosperity and the escape from extreme poverty for the world’s poorest citizens. Explaining his own work in Bolivia, Russia, India, China, and Africa, he offers an integrated set of solutions to the economic, political, environmental, and social problems that challenge the world’s poorest countries.
The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly (Penguin Press, 2006)

From one of the world’s best-known development economists comes an excoriating attack on the tragic hubris of the West’s efforts to improve the lot of the developing world. Easterly urges us in the West to face our own history of ineptitude and hold our own aid agencies accountable for the results of their actions. This book presents a contrasting view to the above-mentioned piece by Jeffrey Sachs.
Angkor, George Coedes (Oxford University Press, 1986)

The premier study of Cambodia’s ancient temples.
Lonely Planet: Cambodia

The most recent version will have up-to-date travel information and provides an extensive history of Cambodia, along with a solid guide to the temples of Angkor.


The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields is an Academy Award winning film based on a true story. New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg works with local representative Dith Pran to cover some of the tragedy and madness of the civil war in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh, Schanberg escapes to the US but his friend and colleague must remain behind to face the horrors of the regime.


New Year Baby

Born on Cambodian New Year in a Thai refugee camp, Socheata never knew how she got there. After her birth, the family moved to the US where her parents hid the story of surviving the Khmer Rouge genocide. Socheata journeys to Cambodia and discovers the truth about her family.



This film project documents the effects of unexploded ordnance on Cambodian people, both within their homeland and in the US.


The Phnom Penh Post

Online version of Cambodia’s oldest independent newspaper

Cambodian Maps

A good source with a collection of Cambodia maps

Centers for Disease Control

Health Information for Travelers to Cambodia

Child Safe Cambodia

Network for protection of local children in Cambodia

Lessons Learned

PEPY founder’s blog on critical discussions, trends, and thoughts on development, voluntourism and social responsibility


Learn About Cambodia


  • Population:  14,494,2931
  • More than 50% of the population is less than 21 years old1
  • 90+% of rural Cambodians practice open defecation2
  • 74% of deaths in Cambodia are due to water borne illness2
  • 14.3% of children die before the age of five3
  • 26% of students enroll in secondary school3
  • Population below poverty line is 40%4
  • Life expectancy at birth, year 2001, was 57.4 years5
  • 85% of the population lives in rural areas5
  • Around five women die every day due to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth5
  • Nearly 70% of pregnant women do not have prenatal care or a skilled attendant present at delivery5
  • Over 62% of households are using unsafe water sources, with households in rural areas worse off than households in urban areas5
  • Over 47% of children who go to primary school do not reach grade six5
  • 53% of the female population is illiterate5
  • Average annual income in Cambodia is only $2726
1 Central Intelligence Agency (
2 Resource Development International Cambodia 2007
3 UNDP Report (
4 Wikipedia (
5 Nyemo (
6 Partners for Development (

Flying To Cambodia


Perhaps you’ve become interested in a tour and decide to search for flights to Cambodia. You go to your favorite travel search engine, type “To: Siem Reap/Phnom Penh” and watch in shock as the engine brings back results that cost thousands of dollars. Don’t despair! Flight ticket searching is like an art form and there are certain tricks to getting to Cambodia that help bring the price down.


TIP #1: Search in and out of hubs

When it comes to long distance flights to remote destinations it is best to search for tickets to a nearby air traffic hub. Cambodia is fortunate to be located in the centre of the core Asian hubs that include Bangkok, Taiwan, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Hong Kong.


Each one of these destinations enjoys a healthy number of both small and large international airlines from all parts of the globe so it is easy to fly in and out regardless of your location. What’s more is that most of these hubs offers affordable low-cost flight options into Phnom Penh and/or Siem Reap, which brings us to the next tip.


TIP #2: Search for connections with low-cost carriers

Travel search engines do not typically include the low-cost local carriers in their search. You will need to go the airline’s own website to look for deals from your chosen hub destination to Cambodia. The following is the list of low-cost airlines serving such routes:


Bangkok – Phnom Penh: Air Asia

Bangkok – Siem Reap: Bangkok Airways (this is not a budget airline, but it is the only flight option between Bangkok and Siem Reap); the ultimate budget option for this route, however, is overland by 6-8 hour bus, train, and/or taxi ride

Kuala Lumpur – Phnom Penh/Siem Reap: Air Asia

Singapore – Phnom Penh/Siem Reap: Jet Star

Hong Kong – Phnom Penh: Dragon Air

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) – Phnom Penh/Siem Reap: Vietnam Airlines; another budget option is to travel overland from HCMC to Phnom Penh by a 4 hour bus.


Note: The majority of travelers who join us in Cambodia buy round trip tickets via Bangkok and then either get low cost flights from there to the starting/ending points of the tour or travel into Cambodia overland.


TIP #3: Don’t forget about going overland!

There are overland options in/out of Siem Reap via Bangkok and in/out of Phnom Penh via HCMC for budget conscious travelers or looking to save on carbon footprints. In addition, if your tour is one that starts in Siem Reap and ends in Phnom Penh (like our annual PEPY Ride cycling tour across Cambodia) remember that you can easily travel overland between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The bus costs in the range of $5 – $10 between the two cities and takes roughly 6 hours, while a share or private taxi will come to about $55 for the whole car and save you about an hour on the drive. We recommend the bus, but you should note that there are also flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on Bangkok Airways and Angkor Airways, which cost up to $85 each way and only take 35 minutes of air time.


TIP #4: Check with a (specialized) travel agent

If you live in a large urban centre, contact your local travel agent specializing in the region (like Thai or Singaporean agencies) as they might have access to special deals other agents do not know about. Also, check directly with the airline flying the route to see if they have any current or upcoming sales that might not be reflected on consolidators’ websites.


In the US we recommend Anthony Travel for your flight needs. Keep in mind, using a travel agent has a lot of perks. Agents can help you search through flights, book you changeable options, get you extra upgrades, and handle your unplanned flight changes later if you need them.  As such, they charge a small fee for this service, usually $30-ish. We think it is unfair to have a travel agent do all of the work in searching out the best flights for you, checking alternatives, and putting many hours into your inquiry and then have you go and buy the exact same flight online for $25 less.  We kindly ask that if you call either one of these fabulous travel agents to get a quote and what they come back with gets you interested in the flight enough for you to ask them to spend time to do more research, please value that time and book with them!


Tip #5: Don’t forget to ask our tour coordinator!

Check with the tour coordinator when you book your tour to confirm the start/end locations and to find out what timing makes sense when booking flights or overland transport. Remember, when it comes to Cambodian travel options, your trip coordinator can help book bus tickets, arrange cars, and even book domestic flight travel.  Just ask!


You can contact our tour coordinator through the contact us page or at [email protected]

Khmer Tutorial


Though you do not need to speak Khmer to participate in our tours, we think it’s a great initiative to try to learn at least the most basic phrases in the language of the country you are visiting. The Cambodians you meet will truly appreciate your effort in getting to know their culture and once you get started, it is a ton of fun as well!

Here are the essentials you will be sure to have the opportunity to practice:

Hello.                                       Sues’day.
Goodbye.                                 Lia suhn hao-y.
Please.                                     Sohm.
Yes.                                         Jaa.  (for women)
Baat.  (for men)
No.                                          Tei.
I’m sorry/Excuse me.               Sohm toh.
Stop.                                       Chohp.
Thank you.                              Aw-kOOn.
Thank you very much.             Aw-kOON ch’ran.
You’re welcome.                       Awt aay.
How are you?                           Niak sohk sabaay te?
I’m fine                                    K’nyom sohk sabaay.
What’s your name?                  Niak ch’mooah ay?
My name is …                          K’nyom ch’mooah …
How old are you?                     A-yoop bpon-maan ch’num?
I don’t understand.                  K’nyom s’dap muhn baan te.
Where is the ___?                     ___ neu ai-naa?
How much is it ($)?                 Nih t-hlay pohnmaan?
Help!                                       Juay! / choo-ee!
How do you say___ in Khmer?  ___ kh’mai t-haa mait?

The Numbers:

moo-ay               1    dawp-moo-ay               11
bpee                  2    dawp-bpee                   12
bay                    3    dawp-bay                     13
boun                  4    dawp-brahm-moo-ay    16
brahm                5    dawp-brahm-bpee        17    .
brahm-moo-ay    6    m’pay                          20
brahm-bpee       7    m’pay moo-ay               21
brahm-bay         8    saam suhp                    30
brahm-boun       9    moo-ay roy                 100
dawp               10    muy poan                 1000


We understand that it can be hard to wrap your head around the phonetics of any new language, especially one so different from one’s own. That is why our friends at World Nomads created this entertaining Khmer audio tutorial that allows you to hear many of the above phrases. Download it to your computer, iPod, or any other mp3 player and you’ll be speaking Khmer in no time!