Volume 2 No.5

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Sampeah - Khmer Salutations
By: Moul Jetl. Illustration by : Sao Pagnarith. ( May, 2002 Volume 2 No.5 )

Sampeah, the Khmer traditional way of greeting one another, plays an important role in Cambodian society today. Consisting of five common postures--five styles of Sampeah, this tradition is one that has been practiced in high esteem by all Cambodians around the globe.
Every country has it's own culture, traditions and characteristic flavors. For a foreigner in any country, some common sense and respect can help to bridge differences and bring about better mutual understanding. The Western way of greeting by shaking hands has now been adopted by many people throughout the world. As a tradition, when one person meets another, especially on formal occasions, without the shaking of hands just isn't proper. By the same token, any Cambodian would feel impolite and uncomfortable not to do the Sampeah when he or she meets people. It also helps to break the ice when people meet for the first time and actually creates an atmosphere of friendship and peace. Tradition dictates that the Sompeah, which dictates placing both palms of one's hands together in prayer and different styles of bowing, In general, the junior respect senior and the higher the hands and the lower the bow the more respect is shown. Mr. Hang Soth, General Director of the General Department of Cultural Techniques, at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, who is an expert in Khmer culture and traditions, made the following remark: "The salutation is very interesting. It is a sign of respect and politeness. A person who another person pays respect shall extend his charity and mercy toward a person who pays respect to the former. Mutual respects from inner heart are great and can achieve unexpected things."One of our popular adages says 'Chaul Steung Tam Baott, Chaul Srok Tam Prateh', (in Khmer, when we ride a boat along a river we must follow the zigzag course of the stream and when we visit a country we need to follow its local customs and tradition), can explain that the Khmer is flexible and also respect the culture of the others. However, many of us also agree with a principle as defining that Boran menn-men yeut, samai menn-men boroteh, boroteh menn-men sott ter la'ar taing oh ter, which means that ancient but now slow, modern but not fully copying from foreign countries, all imported products are not perfect, thus reflecting that they are not rigid but adapt what they can. "Carvings on galleries of many Prasat (temples) built for example around the Angkor epoch (9th and 13th century) are enable visitors to have some reflection about Sampeah and Cambodian people of the present time still conserve their traditional way of liking to wholeheartedly receiving their guests. "Many guests also like Khmer house's traditional styles but also question why the typical Khmer house possesses short door that oblige guests to bow before entering the sitting room. The reason is that the hosts also want his or her guests return greetings." Soon after the guests enter into their house, the hosts in the olden time must come out to greet guests and serve them well what are necessary ranging from inviting latter to smoke a cigarette, chewing betel with a solution of lime, areca and tobacco, and having drinks and food. The practice still prevails until today but the exception of chewing betel in the modern time." In recent decades this customs has been combined with the western practice of shaking hands by people in towns and State employees who had more opportunity to contact with the international community. Although men tend to shake hands with each other, women usually use Sampeah or the traditional greetings with both men and women. It is considered acceptable (or perhaps excusable) for foreigners to shake hands with Cambodians of both sexes. As social conventions, public display of physical greetings in Cambodia are much more acceptable between friends of same sex than between lovers of opposite sexes. Holding hands and hugging is as common among male members of State delegations but seldom among Khmer female.
"Finally, the Khmer has her own concepts about Sampeah. There are five specific attitudes and five specific styles of Sampeah. "According to Khmer concepts, the five common postures of Sampeah are: 1) Angkuoy baott cheung Sampeah cham pee muk, literally translate as "sitting on the legs which are folded and the feet are one side to salute by placing both hands together palm to palm in front of a person; 2) Angkuoy boatt cheung Sampeah pee cham-hieng, literally translate as "sitting on the legs which are folded and the feet are one side to salute by placing both hands together palm to palm by side of a person;3) Lut chung-kung Sampeah, literally translate as kneeling by placing both hands together palm to palm in front of or by side of a person;4) Angkuoy choang-hoang Sampeah, literally translate as "sitting on one's heels in a hunch-down manner to salute by placing both hands together palm to palm in front of a person.