The culture of the Cambodian people can be seen as a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism and reflects a country rich in history and heritage. The official religion of the Kingdom of Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced by more than 90% of the population. Cambodia’s complex culture reflects the country’s long and varied history. There are recognizable influences from its neighboring countries, most significantly India.
The history of Buddhism in Cambodia is seen most clearly in the way that Cambodians interact with each other and their national festivals.
Similar to the Thai wai, the Cambodian sampeah is used both as a symbol of prayer and as a greeting. A sign of respect and politeness or a way to say thank you or to apologize, the sampeah can be seen all across Cambodia.
When greeting someone who is considered a peer, hands are pressed together in prayer in front of the chest. The higher your hands are in relation to your forehead and the lower you bow the more respect you are showing.
With foreigners, Cambodians have adopted the western practice of shaking hands but women may still use the traditional Cambodian greeting.
The simple rule is to respond with the greeting you are given.
Be aware that in Cambodia, it is usually not acceptable to make eye contact with anyone who is older or who is considered of a higher social status that you.
Cambodia is a collective society - individuals take second place to the group whether this is the family, neighborhood or company.
In such societies, etiquette and protocol guidelines are used to maintain a sense of common harmony.
The concept of face also ties in with this collective outlook. Protecting both one's own and other's face is extremely important as it is translated as a combination of honour, dignity and public reputation that is attributed to a person. Be aware not to cause anyone to lose face as a result of unintentional actions. Face is lost when someone is criticized, embarrassed or exposed in public.
Table manners are fairly formal. When invited to the dining table wait to be told where to sit as you would not want to upset any hierarchical arrangements. The oldest person is usually seated first and starts eating before others. Finally, it is impolite to discuss business in such social settings.
Gift Giving Etiquette
Gifts are usually given at Cambodian New Year (Chaul Chnam). Birthdays are not big events like in the West and people of the older generation may not even know their date of birth. If invited to a home, take nicely presented fruit, sweets, pastries or flowers and avoid giving knives. Do not use white wrapping paper, as it is the colour of mourning and when giving gifts use both hands. Finally, gifts are usually not opened when received but later when the guest has left.