Being familiar with Cambodian courtesy is an easy way to avoid misunderstandings.
Some forms of Cambodian behavior that may seem somewhat rude to Westerners are in fact expressions of courtesy. For example, Cambodians will often ask you your age long before they get around to learning your name. They do this to determine whether you are older than they are, so they can greet and address you properly. Cambodians greet everyone with a title that conveys information about their relative age and social status. For example, a slightly older person will be called “bong,” which means older brother or sister.
Traditionally, Cambodians regard avoiding eye contact as a sign of respect, and they will only make eye contact with their social equals. Therefore, if someone avoids your eyes while greeting you, they aren’t being rude, just respectful!
Expats should also know that it is not considered polite to touch a person of the opposite sex, and even friendly hugs among opposite-sex friends are avoided. (Same-sex friends, on the other hand, often walk hand in hand or otherwise display non-sexual affection.)
While many Cambodian men now shake hands when they meet, especially with Western men, most Cambodian women sampeah. Cambodian women will shy away from shaking hands, particularly with men, so it’s important to return the sampeah properly. Not to do so is the same as not shaking a hand that’s been extended to you for that purpose.
Learn more about the sampeah in our Saying hello and goodbye section.
This is an excerpt from Move to Cambodia: A guide to living and working in the Kingdom of Wonder. To learn more about 100+ topics that pertain to Cambodia expats, please consider buying the book.