Whether it is one’s culture, style or history, one man’s meat can be another man’s poison. What may seem acceptable elsewhere in the world may raise eyebrows here in Cambodia. So when visiting a Cambodian household or a place of worship, do be careful not to offend.
Although a little common sense can carry one a long way when touring foreign countries, a few unspoken rules should be kept in mind while visiting Cambodia.
Before entering a Khmer house, it is important to remove your shoes and cap. This simple act is indicative of the esteem your hold for your host.
Normally, guests should not sit until they are invited to do so by the homeowner. And when offered a beverage, it is customary to drink at least a bit of it. Even a small sip of water shows respect for those who offered it. An untouched glass of water may easily be interpreted as a sign of despise.
After the initial niceties, be sure to keep your attention focused on the speaker or item of discussion. Wandering eyes may appear meddlesome or untrustworthy. The kitchen is the most important place in the Khmer household. Guests traditionally are not allowed to explore this cooking arena, as it represents the reputation of both the house owner's wife and his daughter. If a guest were to discover a dirty or disorganized kitchen, it would appear that the wife and daughter were lazy. Khmer society often measures the worth of a woman by the kitchen she keeps. As a result, it is best to beat the heat and stay keep out of the kitchen. As social science teacher Madame Kim Inn said, "Khmers don't like guests to go into the kitchen while they visit the house, It is very impolite."
Cambodian people can be polite to a fault, particularly when they offer services they may not be able to afford. It is customary to offer guests food if they are visiting when lunch or dinner is ready to be served. If you unexpectedly visit an acquaintance's home close to meal time, it is unlikely that the family has prepared enough food to fill the mouths of friends and family. Even if your host offers you a bite to eat, be polite and make an excuse to leave before sitting down to sip stone soup!
Different rules apply when you accept an official invitation to eat with Khmer friends, however. Once at the dinner table, refrain from talking too much, as it is disgraceful to spill saliva into the food.
Guests should eat the food which is closest to them. Even if you have a particular affinity for a single cuisine, it is impolite to monopolize upon one delicious dish. With the completion of the meal, it is customarily Khmer to remove excess food from one's teeth with a toothpick. No matter how satisfying the experience or how great the debris may be, however, try not to openly dig your teeth clean. It is best to hold one hand over the excavation sight.
If children are running about the house, praise little ones by gently stroking their head. This special treatment is reserved only for the younger generation.
Do not touch an adult on the head. Touching in general is accompanied by its own set of rules. When giving an item to someone, one should use their right hand only, as the left hand is reserved for toilet use. This rule does not apply when receiving items. When accepting a gift from an older person, it is polite to use both hands to cradle the object.
When you must pass between two people engaged in conversation, it is best to bend slightly at the waist as a matter of respect for the speakers. Regardless of whether or not an elderly person is talking, it is always proper to bend when passing by them. This is an acknowledgement of their age and wisdom.
Interestingly enough, eye contact plays a pivotal role in Western discussions, but in Cambodia it is rarely practiced.
In fact, locking eyes with an older person can be interpreted as impolite or even challenging.
Khmer households are not the only venues where respect must be paid. Pagodas also are grounds for high esteem. Women are prohibited from entering these religious gathering grounds when wearing trousers or shorts and are encouraged to don a long skirt to make the journey. One monk named Ly Bonn agreed that "it is wrong for woman wearing shorts to offer food to the monk." Men and women alike should remove their hats before entering a pagoda. And once one has passed through the entrance, it is imperative to kneel down when making an offering to a monk. At his point, it is recommended that girls stop themselves from looking a monk straight in the face or risk being disrespectful.
Eye contact is not the only body language that may be misinterpreted when translated from Western to Khmer culture. Hand signs too can carry grave consequences when misused.
Although pointing the middle finger at someone in the West is a sign of disgust or dismissal, in Cambodia this gesture indicates the giver wants to have sex with the receiver.
Sometimes it is the little things that go a long way. If at a loss when trying to remember all of the unspoken codes of Cambodian conduct, foreign guests easily can please their hosts with a sincere smile and a large helping of gratitude. A grateful grin is warmly received in any language.