Customs in Cambodia

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Customs in Cambodia

Cambodia has had a pretty bad run of luck for the last half-millennium or so. Ever since the fall of Angkor in 1431, the once mighty Khmer Empire has been plundered by all its neighbours. It was colonized by the French in the 19th century, and during the 1970s suffered heavy carpet bombing by the USA. After a false dawn of independence in 1953, Cambodia promptly plunged back into the horrors of civil war in 1970 to suffer the Khmer Rouge's incredibly brutal reign of terror, and only after UN-sponsored elections in 1993 did the country begin to totter back onto its feet.

Much of the population still subsists on less than the equivalent of US$1 a day, the provision of even basic services remains spotty, and political intrigue remains as complex and opaque as ever; but the security situation has improved immeasurably, and increasing numbers of visitors are rediscovering Cambodia's temples and beaches. Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, now sports luxury hotels, chic nightspots, ATMs, and an airport fielding flights from all over the region, while Sihanoukville is getting good press as an up-and-coming beach destination. However travel beyond the most popular tourist destinations is still an adventure.

Respect

Cambodia is a country at a crossroads. While the more heavily touristed places like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are well adjusted to tourist behaviour, people in places such as Stung Treng or Banlung are less so. Always ask permission before you take somebody's picture, as many in the more remote areas do not like to be photographed, and some in the urban areas will ask for payment.

Dress for women is more conservative in Cambodia. While shorts are now acceptable in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, it is more respectful to wear knee length shorts or trousers when outside of these areas.

Groups of young children can be found everywhere in Cambodia and many travellers feel 'pestered' by them to purchase their friendship bracelets and other wares. However, it's often the case that children enjoy the chance to practice their English on you- and by asking them their names and ages a conversation is likely to develop where the 'hard sell' is forgotten. Children and adults alike enjoy looking at photographs of your family and home country.

The Khmer Rouge issue is a very delicate one, and one which Cambodians generally prefer not to talk about. However, if you approach it with politeness, they'll gladly respond. People, in general, hold no qualms when talking about the Vietnamese; in fact, they have been widely perceived as liberators when they intervened in Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the aforementioned brutal regime. The pro-Vietnamese regime gradually rebuilt all the infrastructure that was severely damaged by the Khmer Rouge's policy of de-urbanising the country leading to economic prosperity in the 1980s, with sporadic uprisings.

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