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 to visit.
Cambodians are extremely hospitable and friendly. 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 this ritual is not very common these days, which might make you remember most about the people here is how the locals join their hands at their chests to perform a ‘Sampeah’ – a Cambodian traditional greeting.
Sampeah is a traditional greeting in Cambodia (Photo: Culturetrip)
While Sampeah is a common respectful way of greeting friends and strangers in Cambodia, it’s quite strange to Westerners who are familiar with handshaking, kissing or hugging. In an attempt to be polite, many foreigners try to learn the Sampeah but sometimes, they’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 make the right greeting.
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. When a Cambodia greets his elder person, parents, grandparents, teachers, bosses or monks, they perform different kinds of Sampeah. The higher the hands, the lower the bow, the more respect is shown. It is not just a normal greeting, it shows the respect to someone, therefore it’s impolite not to return a Sampeah when you receive one.
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.
Young students are performing Sampeah to greet visitors. Sampeah is one of the first things Cambodian parent teach their children (Photo: Recordnet)
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 of the same age or younger can be called by their given name without the use of a title but a younger is expected to address an 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 have taken to the western practice of shaking hands, but the bow remains the traditional greeting, especially for women.
Sampeah has 5 different levels
Sampeah is either use when Cambodians want to greet (Choum reap sor) or when they want to say goodbye (Choum reap lear) somebody. 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 of all, 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 both 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 both 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 both palms at the nose level. The bow, a little deeper again to mark a higher respect.
– Forth Sampeah level
When the Cambodian greet the king or monks, they place their both 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 the God or sacred statues. They place their both palm together at the forehead level and bow deeply.
The traditional greeting in Cambodia is a bow combined with a bringing of the hands together (Photo: siemreapshuttle)
General etiquette when visiting a family in Cambodia
Many Khmer ancient customs and traditions have been practiced since the kingdom of Angkor, make you a little bit confusing when you first visit this country. If you are invited to visit a family, these are general etiquette that helps you have a proper and polite behavior.
– Shoes and hats should be removed to show respect before entering a home.
– The Cambodians show a great respect for their elders. So that, your seat should be 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.
Bride and Groom demonstrating the Sampeah (Photo: Terenceded)
– Lower your head to form a bow when you want to pass an elder. The lower the bow, the more respect you convey.
– 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 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 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 clearly about the culture and lifestyle of the country. So does the Cambodian. Of course, they won’t expect you speak their language fluently, but it’s delightful if you can greet them with Cambodian words while doing Sampeah.
Former U.S. President Obama (right), returns a greeting to Bun Rany, wife of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (center), prior to a gala dinner in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Photo: Settletimes)
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)
Thank you: Arkun
Sorry/ excuse me: Som dtoh
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 trip to this beautiful country to discover the traditional Khmer Art and Culture.