Famous for its temples, welcoming people, and breath-taking sunsets, Cambodia is becoming an increasingly more popular destination for international tourists. Numbers for visitor arrivals have been consistently on the rise for the past decade, with 6 million tourists choosing the Kingdom as the location for their holidays in 2018.
Besides having their visa for Cambodia and other papers sorted before leaving, it’s always important for foreigners to be culturally aware during their time in Cambodia. This is not only a matter of appropriate attire and etiquette but also understanding the country’s lifestyle and values.
In this article, foreign travelers will find useful information regarding:
- Security in the country, including safety advice for visitors
- Cambodian values and how to behave appropriately and respectfully
- The local lifestyle
- Advice regarding making purchases and dealing with beggars.
Is It Safe to Travel to Cambodia?
Cambodia is an overall very safe country for tourists. Violent crimes are uncommon and they are very rarely committed against foreigners. Pickpocketing, bag snatching, and other petty thefts are to be expected like in any other tourist destination. Exercising common sense should be enough to keep most visitors safe:
- Keep your bag in sight at all times, especially in crowded areas
- Don’t wear flashy valuables
- Do not leave food or drinks unattended
Frequent scams affect the bike and motorbike hire business. Staff at rental companies are known for stealing their own vehicles by keeping a copy of the key. It’s advisable to secure your bike or motorbike with your own lock.
What Not to Wear in Cambodia?
Cambodia is a Buddhist country. In fact, as many as 95% of Cambodians consider themselves Buddhists and the majority of adult men have served some time as a monk (for many, this is the best chance to get a free education).
Foreigners are encouraged to show respect for the local religious values. This includes behaving appropriately while visiting sacred spaces like temples, and not disturbing monks for photos.
Buddhism is a religion that values modesty and tourists should be mindful of that when deciding what to wear while in Cambodia. Although you may not be confronted directly about it, walking around Cambodian streets wearing swimwear or very revealing clothes is frowned upon, and showing your shoulders, cleavage, or knees at religious sites is prohibited.
Living the Cambodian Lifestyle
Cambodia can become a very hot and humid country during certain times of the year. That’s why locals usually wake up at dusk every day. It’s a habit worth trying — you’ll be able to enjoy the morning fresh air and go about your day when most of the local population and businesses are active, not to mention watching the beauty of a sunrise over the jungle. Many agree that early mornings are the best time to shop at the market, explore the city streets, and visit the temples.
However, this doesn’t mean that Cambodians lead a rushed life. On the contrary, the pace slows down during the day and naps and rest times are frequent. Usually, locals tend to take these during the hottest hours of the day.
Because of the early alarm, most people also go to sleep pretty early at night. That’s why you can expect for many restaurants to close the kitchen early, at around 9 pm.
How Many Languages Are Spoken in Cambodia?
Cambodia’s only official language is Khmer, spoken by almost 90% of the population. It can surely be difficult for Westerners to learn, but locals will really appreciate a few Khmer words used to greet them. Here are a few examples:
- Sou sdey: ‘Hello’
- Li hi: ‘Goodbye’
- Ah kun: ‘Thank you’
Cambodians don’t shake hands when they greet each other. Instead, they perform the sampeah, the Cambodian traditional greeting. This consists in pressing one’s palms together like a lotus flower in front of the chest.
Cambodia was once a French colony and that’s why French is, together with English, among the foreign languages that are most spoken across the country. Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cham are also spoken.
Should I Bargain in Cambodia?
The cost is usually negotiable in Cambodia, especially for items that don’t have a price tag. Visitors who clearly look like tourists may be asked for an inflated price so bargaining can be the only way to get a fair price. Walking away is usually a winning strategy and the merchant is likely to call you back and make a different offer.
When getting on a tuk-tuk or motorbike, it’s always advisable to agree on the fare before accepting the ride.
The Cambodian economy is on the rise and the middle class is growing. However, poverty is still an issue. Foreigners are likely to be approached by beggars and it’s not rare for children to ask for money. Kids are often seen selling bracelets or books in public places like restaurants and bars. Giving them money or buying from them can easily fuel the cycle and convince them that begging can earn money. If you want to help, there are plenty of local NGOs you can donate to.