Cambodian Cultural Tips

There are a few things you should be aware of before arriving into the Kingdom. Culture, etiquette, and customs in Cambodia are very different from that of the west and as such I have put a few tips for you below to save any embarrassment.

‘Saving Face’ - Cambodians are big believers in saving face. There are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, they may tell you little ‘white lies’ as opposed to telling you the truth to avoid any sort of confrontation (especially in front of their family, friends, and work colleagues). They would rather do this than lose ‘face’, an example may be as simple as a tuk tuk driver telling you that yes, of course he understands and knows where you want to go, before proceeding to drive around in circles for half an hour before eventually stopping to ask someone. Another thing to bear in mind is that any yelling, shouting, or confrontation is considered a HUGE insult and is best avoided at all times. Yelling at someone in public is one of the ultimate losses of face!

[My brush with losing face]
I was invited by my Khmer friend to her engagement (to a Polish man) party - a great honour - only to find out on the morning that it had been cancelled by the man the evening before. In order to save face and also to save the face of her family, my friend proceeded to pick me up, take me to her house, and made me pretend to be the man’s sister, as she had told her family that the fiancé's mother had died, he had gone crazy, and I would represent his family at the engagement! Upon his return to Poland she told her family that they had cancelled the engagement. What a debacle - rather than telling her family the truth and risk them all losing face she came up with an elaborate lie and went ahead with the party!

Drinking in Cambodia - Cambodians love to drink beer! Unlike customs in the west where we may have one or two cheers’ during an evening, expect to cheers before every sip! Also expect to be asked to finish your glass or your can in one go (politely declining with a smile is okay)! They will often eat, then drink fast and furiously, and then start the ‘being merry’ part which will often involve dancing, karaoke, laughing, and generally having a good time. Cambodians love a party! For more info on Cambodian food check THIS out.

Haggling - haggling is expected in Cambodia but be sure to do it with a good sense of humour, again ensuring that no one loses face. As a general rule I take about 1/3 off the original price and I try to have a little bit of fun with it. No haggling is expected in department stores or restaurants but certainly in the tourist markets such as Central Markets and the Russian Markets. I don’t haggle over fruit and veg but I do over souvenirs and clothing.

Corruption is rife in Cambodia - it’s a way of life so best get used to it! Things you may pay a bribe for:

Police ‘fines’ - You will see police in pale blue uniforms on street corners and if you are driving a scooter or motorbike they will pull you over. This is guaranteed (our first real taste of discrimination). If you are pulled over just offer a small bribe ($1 per police officer that is there and they will send you on your merry way).

Police reports - If you need a police report - expect to pay a bribe. They will tell you what the ‘fee’ will be. This can sometimes be negotiated.

One thing to bear in mind is that police get paid less than $60 a month so they rely on bribes.

If you are holding business dealings in Cambodia you will again come across corruption and bribery.

Visa services - An example of this is a $25 visa costing $35 at a border crossing - we tried to negotiate this one but they wouldn’t have any of it!

It can get frustrating, but again there is no point creating a scene or refusing as you may cause them to lose face and this will not help anyone. It is just the way it is there. A good place to find the ‘going rate’ for these extra ‘fees’ is through forums on Expat blogs.

If you loved these tips you will love my book Inside Phnom Penh: A Guide to Moving to the Kingdom's Capital. You can get it HERE.

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Ducky xoxox




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