Cambodia is a small, Southeast Asian country positioned between Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos with a population of around 16 million. The official language is called Khmer (khm.ah.eh); English is not very utilized but some can communicate directions and prices. Although the capital city is Phnom Penh, tourists usually aim for Siem Reap to see the infamous Angkor Wat and many other temples. There are 24 provinces and one city in the country and different regions have their own special traditions, expertise, and characteristics. Provinces that are famous for their beaches are Kampot, Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, and Kep. On the other hand, Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri are well known for their camping and hiking trips and interactive visits to indigenous groups’ communities.
Cambodians, like people from many other Asian countries, address people differently by their age, gender, and class. We call strangers aunt, uncle, sister or brother as if they’re our relatives. Identifying which title to use is a bit of a challenge. Below are some tips to guide you through:
- If you’re speaking to a complete stranger, call them “bong” which means older brother or sister. Cambodians see elderliness as a sign of respect.
- If you’re speaking to someone you’ve met and they are younger, call them
“oun (oh.oon)” which means younger brother or sister. Although we wouldn’t recommend calling a female “oun” unless you’ve established that it is okay, since calling them “oun” can be seen as a romantic gesture.
- If you’re speaking to an older female (maybe 35 years of age and above), call them “ming,” or “ohm” which means aunt. For further complexion, call an aunt “ohm” if she is older than both or one of your parents. But, if she’s younger than both or one of your parents, call her “ming.”
- If you’re speaking to an older male, call them “pu” or “ohm” which means uncle. As you can see here, “ohm” can be used for males and females who are older than both or one of your parents, while “pu” can only be used for a male younger than both or one of your parents.
- If you’re speaking to someone who is older than someone you would call “pu,” “ming,” or “ohm,” call them “tah” or “yey” which means grandpa and grandma respectively.
- If you are going to call someone by their names and they are older, always put a title in front of their name
- If you don’t know a person, but you know their names, never call them by their last name.
Cambodian culture, in terms of clothing, is very modest. Girls wearing long-sleeved shirts and jeans is a common thing— partly because of the value of a lighter complexion. Due to the very tropical climate we have, it’s either hot or rainy and sometimes windy; tourists are seen wearing loose clothing, tank tops, and shorts which is reasonable. Cambodians may take offense to clothing that shows lots of skin, so be aware of cultural norms and avoid revealing clothing, especially in rural provinces, temples and pagodas. So, we recommend choosing flowy or not too-revealing clothing, and specifically dress modestly when visiting religious sites, such as temples or pagodas.
Another way of showing respect to the elders or other esteemed people, like monks, is taking your hats off. You also do this when entering a pagoda, a Buddhist temple, which is called a “waht” in Khmer. Touching a person’s head is considered a taboo because the head is seen as the highest and most sacred part of a person’s body—partly because we use it to think and “store” knowledge. Taking off shoes is also appropriate in this case.
Source: Jennifer Smith, Smithsonian.com
The universal way of greeting is a firm handshake though it is different in this very country. We “sompiah” in Cambodia, similar to other Southeast Asian countries. “Sompiah” is when you put two hands together and raise it to a certain level depending on the person’s age and/or class. There are many levels to sompiah people depending on their respected social status, though it’s never wrong to do this at the level of your nose and bow a little even if the person is younger than you. There is an exception to monks and other pious people; we raise our sompiah to the forehead level when addressing them.
While doing the sompaih and bowing a little, you should say “chom-reap-suor” which translates to hello. “Chom reap suor” is a formal, good-first-impression way to say hello, but you can use “suor-sdey” to mean the same thing, just with less formality. Suor-sdey is also mostly used with younger people or someone you’ve known for quite a while.
Cambodian food comprises of “somlor” which translates to soups, “cha,” a translation for stir-fries, “ah-ng,” a word for grilled foods, and “jean,” used for fried foods. Although rice noodles are customary, rice is a food staple to Cambodians since we were and are still an agricultural country; farmers need to have big meals and rice is the go-to food. You would also see marinated pork or marinated chicken with rice being consumed as breakfasts due to, once again, the protein fulfillment to have resilience for work in the hot, humid climate. Another common food is “prahok,” a type of fermented fish used in many somlor. Although fish is our most reliable source of protein, chicken, pork, and beef are commonly consumed here as well.
Cambodian money is called the Riel; this name is very much associated with prahok. Prahok is made specifically with a type of fish called “trey Riel,” which translates to “fish Riel.” Back to when trading was the way of the market, people trade rice but mainly trey riel; that’s why the currency is named after the fish. As an article by the University of Pennsylvania’s article reference to 1992, the United Nations Transitional Authorities in Cambodia brought in 1.7 billion dollars into the Cambodian economy. As we can interpret, the money is still circulating in the economy and the USD is in lane right next to the nation’s primary currency although you would most likely to get changes in Khmer Riels.
Cambodia is very rich in culture and history, regrets and success. Obviously, not everything about the country can be fitted into an article because those things deserve to be experienced in real life. This is just an eye-opener or a small insight into Cambodia but we suggest for tourists to be engaged with the locals, historical sites, and observe the country to really feel the country.