Khmer Greeting Ritual For Your First Trip To Cambodia

12 Jan, 2018 | Travel Blog

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Do you know that there are 2 million people flock to Cambodia every year to visit Angkor Wat? When the sun rises, all the ancient temple becomes unrealistic, its massive stones reminiscent of an imaginary and spiritual world under the sunshine. But the incredible site isn’t the only reason worth visiting Cambodia. This Southeast Asian country is full of wonder with bustling beaches, charming cities and rich culture make it top of your list.

One of the reasons is the friendly local. Cambodians are extremely hospitable. When they invite you to their houses, you are expected to be given the best seat, treated the best way, and served the best food on the table. Sometimes, you are greeted with a small bouquet of jasmine flowers. Although that ritual is not very common these days, "Sampeah" is what you will see every day. Sampeah is a Cambodian traditional greeting when the locals join their hands at chests to perform it.

visitting cambodia

Sampeah is a traditional greeting in Cambodia 

While Sampeah is a common respectful way of greeting in Cambodia, it’s quite strange to Westerners who are familiar with handshaking, kissing or hugging. It has many versions depending on the people you want to greet. In an attempt to be polite, many foreigners try to learn the Sampeah but sometimes, we’re overenthusiastic that providing a monk greeting to a cleaner at their hotel. This misbehavior might make the other confusing or cause a loss of face, so it’s important to understand different levels of Sampeah to give the right one.

What do you know about Sampeah?

The traditional greeting in Cambodia is a bow combined with a bringing of the hands together at chest level. Depend on it is to greet elder persons, parents, grandparents, teachers, bosses or monks, the locals perform different kinds of Sampeah. The higher their hands, the lower their bow, the more respect they shown. Because Sampeah is a sign of showing respect, when you receive one, you should return it back.

In the formal situation, Cambodians usually address people with prefix Lok (Mr.) or Lok Srey (Mrs.) followed by their surname and given names. Following Lok or Lok Srey only with a surname is considered impolite so make sure you catch both names.  

visitting cambodia

In the informal situation, Cambodians will refer an older man as Ta (grandfather), Po (uncle) or Bang (brother), Yeay (grandmother), Ming (aunt) or Bang Srey (sister) following by their given name. People at the same age or younger can be called by their given name without the use of a title but the younger is expected to address the older with a title or he will be considered rude or impolite. So don’t surprise if people ask your age, they just want to address you properly. With foreigners, some Cambodians might practice the handshake, but a bow is preferred, especially for women.

Sampeah has 5 different levels

Sampeah either uses when Cambodians want to greet (Choum reap sor) or when they want to say goodbye (Choum reap lear). This is one of the first things Cambodian parents teach their children to increase their good behavior in front of guests. Depend on the age and social status of the people you are talking to, Sampeah has 5 different levels of greeting but first, hands have to join together in front of the chest.

-  First Sampeah level

When the Cambodian greets their friends of the same age, they place their palms together at the chest level and bow slightly

- Second Sampeah level

When the Cambodian greets a person who is older, or is a senior position, for example, your boss, they place palms a little higher, at chin level. The bow is also a little deeper.

- Third Sampeah level

When the Cambodian greets their parents, grandparents or teachers, they place palms at the nose level. The bow, a little deeper again to mark higher respect.

- Forth Sampeah level

When the Cambodian greet the king or monks, they place their palm together at the eyebrows level and bow slightly from the waist.

- Fifth Sampeah level

This is the highest level of Sampeah. It is conducted when the Cambodian praying to God or sacred statues. They place their both palm together at the forehead level and bow deeply.

visitting cambodia

General etiquette when visiting a family in Cambodia

Many Khmer ancient customs and traditions have been practiced since the kingdom of Angkor, making you a little bit confusing when you first visit this country. If you are invited to visit a family, remember these etiquettes to help you behave properly and politely

- Shoes and hats should be removed to show respect before entering a home.

- The Cambodian shows great respect for their elders. So, your seat should be at the same level or below the elder. If the elder is sitting on a mat, you should bend your legs and tuck them to the side with both feet point backward. If sitting on a chair or couch, don’t cross or shake your legs.

- Lower your head to form a bow when you want to pass an elder. The lower the bow, the more respect you show.

- When an elder hands you something, receive it with both hands. Use your right hand when handing things over.

 When you are invited to have lunch or dinner, don’t start the meal before the elder 

- Avoid putting your palm on the head of any person

- You don’t need to do Sampeah with street vendors, children, and beggars. A nod and gentle smile to reply to a greeting are enough.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do

When traveling to a foreign country, how happy it is when we meet a local who speak our language. We communicate more easily and have a better chance to know deeply about the culture and lifestyle of the country. So does the Cambodian. Of course, they won’t expect you to speak their language fluently, but it’s delightful if you can greet them with their language while doing Sampeah.

Learn a few words of greeting in Khmer and use them when you're there. The Cambodians will truly appreciate this gesture.

  • Hello: Chom reap sour (formal)/ Susadei (informal)
  • How are you: Soksaby?
  • Goodbye: Chom reap lear (formal)/ Lee hi (informal)
  • Yes: Bah (male)/ Chaa (female)
  • No: Ot-teh
  • Thank you: Arkun
  • Sorry/ excuse me: Som dtoh
  • Delicious: Chnang
  • The bill, please: Som ket loy
  • How much: Bo man?
  • What is your name: Chhmua ei?

Now, you know how to give a proper greeting in Cambodian manner, it’s time to plan and book a Cambodia Tours to this beautiful country to discover the traditional Khmer Art and Culture

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