- Robert Louis Stevenson
Cambodian traditions and culture are largely defined by the religion of the people where 95% practice Theravada Buddhism. Most Cambodians will try to avoid aggression and confrontation at all costs. Raised voices and loss of temper are extremely unusual in Cambodian life and are rarely productive.
If you are inexperienced at travelling in Cambodia or Southeast Asia perhaps you should consider an escorted tour. You will experience a more intimate and fun view of the country with a reliable local at your side and there is less chance of any cultural blunder.
The concept of "face", as with most Asian cultures is extremely important and belittling of Cambodians is likely to engender resentment - the use of humor to defuse situations and make light of criticism is very commonly seen. Cambodia is definitely a place where you learn to take a more relaxed approach to life - keep smiling and you will get a lot more done. This buddhist influence can also cause many Khmers to seem fatalistic about their lot in life.
Cambodian culture is generally very welcoming. Inviting guests to their house/village/country is important. Even the poorest Khmers will do their best to share food and water with rich foreigners (and the fact that you have made the effort to travel to Cambodia defines you as rich to the vast majority of Cambodians). Show generosity of spirit towards the people of the country, and you will be rewarded.
The traditional greeting is the Sompiah, a slight bow with hands together in front of your chest, fingers pointed up. Most Khmers recognise that westerners will not understand the nuances of this, and you are best advised to ask a Khmer to show you though if you attempt a Sompiah incorrectly much will be forgiven. The gesture is not often used formally in the cities (beyond hotel lobbies) but visits to private houses, especially in the country, can reward a reasonably well-executed sompiah.
The Khmer people are modest, and tend to dress conservatively avoiding revealing clothes. Wearing short trousers or skirts, in particular, is unusual, and westerners are viewed a bit odd in this regard (particularly in view of insect bites). When entering a pagoda, revealing clothes must not be worn - bare shoulders and knees will be viewed as disrespectful (think wearing a bikini to church). Some sites may refuse admission, or you may be able to borrow longer garments - the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh for instance will rent unsuitably attired visitors a flattering pair of "one size fits nobody" long trousers for $2.
If you make friends in Cambodia you may be invited to a wedding. These are colorful and noisy affairs, lasting 2-3 days (although often curtailed in modern Cambodia to 1-1½ days. Brides have several changes of outfits, usually spectacular traditional Khmer dress. Large weddings will have upwards of a thousand guests with many friends, relatives and acquaintances invited. People will attend for a shorter or longer time and leave a small cash gift. A well-organised wedding can set up a newly-married couple for the future. Barangs (foreigners) at Khmer weddings may find themselves invited to toast the couple on many occasions. Even if you are not invited to a wedding you may well see them spilling onto the road and hear the very loud music from some distance when in towns.
While many visitors to Cambodia see traditional Apsara Dance shows, modern khmers especially the young are likely to be found in karaoke bars, the newer clubs and discos or just hanging around with friends with a stereo, a case of beer and a ball.
Volleyball and soccer are popular and impromptu games are commonplace in Cambodian culture. Siem Reap's "Night Town" have become an evening mecca for hundreds of young khmers meeting with friends to dance, listen to music and play games.
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