Author(s): Keo Mony

Reviewer(s): Paularita Seng

Date Last Reviewed: February 7, 2008


Cambodians traditionally greet each other with palms together, in a manner of prayer. They lift up their hands to the chest level and bow slightly. This is called Som Pas. In general, the higher the hands and lower the bow, the more respect is being shown. When meeting, Cambodians will Som Pas and say Choum Reap Sur (Hello). When departing, again they will Som Pas and say Choum Reap Lir(Goodbye). Cambodians use Som Pas for greeting and to display respect. When used for greeting, it would be impolite not to return a Som Pas; it is tantamount to rejecting an offered handshake in Western culture.

In Cambodia today, Western cultural influence is being accepted. Cambodian men often shake hands. Women, however, often adhere to the traditional greeting and are reluctant to shake hands, as Cambodians are not accustomed to touching, especially those of the opposite sex. In the U.S., many Cambodian women still are reluctant to shake hands, especially the older generation or new immigrants.

In formal situation, Cambodians address people with Lok (Mr.) or Lok Srey (Mrs.) followed by his/her given name or both given and family name. Rarely is the family name used by itself as Westerners do. For example, my name is Keo Mony. Keo is my family name and Mony my given name. I will be addressed Mr. Mony. In the U.S., I am often addressed Mr. Keo. Some Cambodians consider using only the family name impolite as that was the name of the individual’s father, grandfather or ancestor.

In an informal situation, Cambodians will refer to an older man as Ta (grandfather), Po (uncle) or Bang (brother) and to an older woman as Yeay (grandmother), Ming (aunt) or Bang Srey (sister). They are also widely used in a situation where one is not sure the age of other parties, in deference to one who may be the senior. In Cambodia, for a younger person to address an older individual without using a title would be considered rude or a form of misbehavior. For instance, a fifteen year-old boy will call his thirty year-old neighbor Sokha Po Sokha or Bang Sokha. People of the same age or younger can be called by their given name without the use of a title.

The tradition has changed so that today, when people greet others in public they might use these titles to reflect differences in the social or professional class, and not only seniority or age. For example, older patients will often use one of these terms to greet their younger caseworker who is a professional at the hospital.

Head and Feet

Cambodians consider the head as highest part of the body and the focal point of intelligence and spiritual substance. The head is sacred. Therefore, it is an extreme insult to touch or to pat an individual’s head.

Feet, on the contrary, are considered the lowest part of the body and unclean.

Entering Wat (Temple) and Interacting with Monks

Cambodians are predominantly Theravada Buddhist. Buddhist monks have played an important role in the Cambodian society. Monks often serve as the educators and counselors. The Wat is the center of community life. In Cambodia, most villages have a Wat. In the U.S., there is also Wat in many Cambodian communities. Some are just apartments converted into a Wat. Here are some do’s/don’ts when entering a Wat or interacting with a monk:

  • Shoes or sandals must be removed before entering a Wat regardless of one’s status in the society; this includes the king.
  • Visitors should be appropriately attired. Men should wear shirts and pants; they should never go shirtless or in shorts. Women should not wear short skirts, low cut or open dresses that reveal the body, very colorful clothing or too much perfume.
  • Inside the Wat, visitors sit with legs bent and both feet tucked to the side, Som Pas and bow to the floor three times.
  • Women cannot touch a monk. If a woman wants to hand something to a monk, the object should be placed within reach of the monk, not handed directly to him. This restriction even applies to a monk’s mother.
  • Monks sit on a platform or raised seat above the laity. However, if there is no platform or raised seat, monks are also allowed to sit on the floor or mat, if they sit upon a pillow or folded blanket which symbolizes a higher seating.
  • Visitors always sit with their legs bent and feet tucked backward when the monks are seated.
  • Never stand when talking to seated monks. It shows grave disrespect.
  • A Buddha statue, well kept or in ruins, is a sacred object, so do not touch it or stand on the altar.
  • A monk can be addressed with “Venerable” followed by his first name or whole name (last and first).
  • Monks eat only breakfast and lunch, which have to be finished before noon. In the evening, monks are allowed to drink water, milk or tea. Any schedule or engagement should take this restriction into account.
  • Food intended for monks should not be tasted before the monks eat it.

Entering a Home

There are a few points of etiquette when entering a Cambodian home:

  • Visitors should remove their shoes before entering. Although it is not compulsory, Cambodians always insist upon removing their shoes even if they are told not to do so by the host. It is to show respect.
  • Hats should be removed. Cambodians wear hats for protection from the sun or rain rather than for style. It is disrespectful to wear hats inside a home.
  • Cambodians always offer drink such as water, tea or juice to their guests; sometimes food is also offered. To honor the host, the offer is accepted, even if the guest takes just a sip or a bite.
  • Some homes use beds or mats for receiving guests. If that is the case, visitors should sit by tucking their feet backward. It is impolite to cross or stretch legs.

Respecting Elders

Cambodians demonstrate great respect toward their elders. This respect for elders is taught very early in life.

Here are some do’s/don’ts when dealing with an elder:

  • The younger person always Som Pas an elder first. For example, a guest would Som Pas his/her elder host when entering the house, but a younger host would Som Pas a visiting elder first.
  • The younger individual should not sit elevated above an elder. Seating for the younger person should be at the same level or below the elder. To sit above the elder would be considered rude or misbehaved. Many homes in Cambodia as well as in the U.S. still use mats as well as chairs or couches. If an older person is sitting on a mat, it is impolite for a younger one to sit on a chair despite that he/she is told to do so. When sitting on a mat, the younger persons should bend their legs and tuck them to the side with both feet point backward. If sitting on a chair or couch, younger people should not cross or shake their legs.
  • When walking in front of or passing an elder, a younger individual should bow to show respect. The lower the bow the more respect is conveyed.
  • When accepting things from or handing things to an elder, the younger person has to do so with both hands. An elder will do so with only one hand.
  • The elder’s head should not be touched or patted. Cambodian parents always tell their children not to touch or pat another person’s head because it is a sin.
  • When standing or posing for a picture, a younger person never puts his/her hand on an elder’s shoulder. It is considered very rude.
  • When talking, take off hats and don’t put hands in pockets.
  • When eating, don’t start before the elder.

In Cambodia even with so many changes, the respect of elders is still emphasized. In the U.S., on the contrary, the respect of elders seems to be declining, especially for the younger generation. Many parents are busy at work and children have less and less contact with other Cambodians. Westerners will be very appreciated and respected if they demonstrate respect toward the Cambodian elders.

Sensitive Care Provider Issues

  • Cambodians tend to smile or laugh in both positive and negative situations, thus, it should not automatically be considered as expressing happiness, agreement, amusement, embarrassment or ridicule. Great caution should be taken in interpreting a smile or laugh in order to avoid misunderstanding.
  • Cambodians are considered shy, especially women. It is advisable that healthcare providers consider this when trying to have a frank and open discussion with their patients. Same sex providers are preferred.
  • Preventive medicine is uncommon to Cambodians. Healthcare remains a luxury to many Cambodians who cannot afford it. A long-held belief “if nothing broke, don’t fix” also plays a part in Cambodians not utilizing preventive care.
  • Cambodians have experiences inconceivable suffering and violence during thirty years of brutal wars. Chronic mental illness has affected many Cambodians. But, culturally, Cambodians are unaccustomed to opening up and discussing their feelings, especially the men, as they think it would make them look weak. They also equate mental illness to craziness. The stigma from being branded as crazy is enormous. Thus, Cambodians are often reluctant to talk about their experiences and their related illnesses.
  • Counseling is an alien notion to Cambodians whether related to marriage or health, especially counseling offered by a trained or licensed counselor. When advice is needed, it is often sought from a monk, traditional healer/herbalist or the abbot.
  • Traditional healers or herbalists (known as “kru-Khmer”) and laymen who arrange religious healing ceremonies (people known as “aa-jaar”) have the respect of the community. They are considered leaders in the community.
  • Many Cambodians still depend heavily on traditional healers and traditional or herbal medicines for treatments of all kinds of illnesses. Modern medicines are available and easy to obtain in Cambodia. In fact, no prescriptions are needed in order to purchase them. However, they are too expensive for many people. Traditional medicines are made out of roots, barks and animal bones. They are believed to cure a wide variety of illnesses, even AIDS. No regulations govern traditional medicines. In the U.S., many Cambodians still use the traditional medicines with which they are familiar. They are available in many grocer stores or sent over from Cambodia.
  • Cambodians tend to fear those in authority. Culturally, the fear is taught very early starting within the family. Children are taught to obey at home as well as school. At home, they are not allowed to challenge the authority of their parents, especially the father. Cambodian society remains very male dominated. At school, teachers are not to be challenged. And later at work, bosses are the authority. Obedience is the norm. In addition, kinds, foreign occupiers, and tyrannical leaders whose authority cannot be questioned have always ruled Cambodia. Punishment has always been swift and harsh for those who dare. The fear has been ingrained in many Cambodians for life.
khmer kids waiting for noodles
Photo by Six intheworld (cc license).