How NOT to be culturally offensive in Cambodia

It’s important not to offend the locals when travelling. But as Cambodia is a Buddhist country, Khmer people are unlikely to let you know if you are unintentionally doing something offensive – that's because of that ‘live and let live’ Buddhist philosophy, and also because it's considered rude to point out someone's errors in public. You could blissfully be unaware of any offence you are causing, so it’s best to brush up on what you can and cannot do before visiting Cambodia.

· Don’t use your feet to point at someone, or something. The foot is the lowest (literally and figuratively) part of the body so this is an insult. Be careful when sitting on a tuk-tuk as your feet could be pointing at the driver in the vehicle behind you. Watch where your feet are pointing when you sit with crossed legs.

· It’s considered the ‘done thing’ to present your business card when meeting someone new. Always present and accept them with two hands. Money and gifts should also be presented and accepted with both hands.

· A greeting in Cambodia is the same as a ‘Wai’ in Thailand. Press both hands together as if in prayer, and bow your head slightly. In Cambodia this is called a ‘sampeah’.

· Always remove your shoes when entering someone’s home, as well as a place of worship. At temples, be sure to dress modestly – shoulders covered, no sheer clothing, skirts/pants to the knee, no midriff showing. The same applies when doing any official business, such as visa applications.

· In the west, it’s common practice to touch a child on the head, often affectionately ruffling their hair. Never do this in Cambodia – to an adult or a child. It’s highly offensive.

· As a guest, don’t begin eating until your host has taken a bite.

· Women should never touch a monk or his robes, or hand him something directly.

· Always ask permission before taking a photo of somebody or their home.

· Public displays of affection and overly revealing outfits are frowned upon.

· As with most of Asia, to ‘losing your cool’ in public is completely unacceptable. Never raise your voice or criticise someone in front of others. Cambodians don’t typically show strong emotions in public, and may be uncomfortable if you do so.

· When hailing a taxi or calling someone with your hand, never do so with the palm of your hand facing upwards – always down, and beckon with all for fingers. Pointing with the index finger is considered rude, as in Thailand. Rather use the entire hand to indicate.

Of course, regular good behaviour generally accepted worldwide applies here too. Khmer people are some of the friendliest in the world. Do visit and get to know them and their beautiful country – but respect their culture at the same time. When doing a course at Destination TEFL, we cover Asian culture in great detail during the course.

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