Cambodian Culture

  1. Glimpses of the Culture















  2. Rules for Behavior

Glimpses of Cambodian Culture

Cambodia Water Festival

10-12 November 2000

Racing boats at the Cambodian Water Festival The past six weeks have seen holidays here in Cambodia almost every week. On Thursday of this week we celebrated Cambodian Independence Day, and on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday the Cambodian Water Festival.

Click here for a history and description of the Water Festival and click here for photos from this year's celebration! Interesting! And click here for some follow-up notes after the festival!

Independence Day 2000

9 November 2000

Independence Monument in Phnom Penh Cambodia was part of French Indochina, along with Laos and Vietnam, and this monument to independence was erected at the end of French colonial rule in South East Asia in the 1950s. (Charlie lives just three blocks from here.)
Soldiers at the ceremony Units from the Cambodian army, navy, and air force take part in the Independence Day celebration on 9 November 2000.
A military honor guard stands at attention near a ceremonial flame A military honor guard stands at attention near a ceremonial flame inside the independence memorial.
School girls with flags at the ceremony Many school children came to the ceremony which started at 7:00 AM (which is midmorning for Cambodians). These girls, in the normal school uniform, prepare to leave after the ceremony.
The Cambodia flag The flag of Cambodia was arrayed prominently around the monument. They were left flying for the visit of President Jiang Ji Men of China who came to Phnom Penh for an official visit on 10 November.
A sidewalk vendor at the ceremony For the poor, there are no holidays. Here a woman selling fruit and baked goods sits near the crowds. On her head she wears a khrama which balances the tray of fruit on her head when she walks.

A Khmer Wedding

Kadaka and ChanthaKadaka, one of the teachers of the Maryknoll people at the Khmer School of Language, was married to Chantha on 28 October, and we were anxious to go because none of us had yet attended a Khmer wedding.  Actually, we were invited to the reception rather than to the wedding because the wedding begins at 6:00 AM or 7:00 AM with various traditional rituals, such as a procession to the bride's house, ceremonies with the parents, etc., and only the families are present for that.  We were invited to the last stage, a large banquet.  I was surprised how the Khmer wedding ceremony is almost identical to those I experienced with the Chinese in Hong Kong.

The KSL teachers Here all the KSL teachers and staff lined up for a group photograph in front of the banquet area which was set up in a field near Kadaka's house.  Large canopies covered the eating area which was also equipped with fans and a too loud music system.  There were tables for about 300 people.
Charlie with the bride and groom The man on the left is the gatekeeper at the Khmer School of Language, and he and I have become good friends. We don't always understand what the other is saying, but we laugh a lot. He came and grabbed me by the wrist and brought me out to the front to have my picture taken with him and the wedding couple. Note the bride is wearing blue and the attendants gold at this point.
Cori and Rachel do their best with chopsticks. About thirty round tables were set up under the large canopy for a Chinese-style dinner of 7 or 8 courses.  Here Cori Petro and Rachel Smith show their prowess with chopsticks as they eat with Joli, another of our teachers, who drove us to the wedding. He said that they eat Khmer food at home but for occasions like a wedding banquet, the fare is normally Chinese.
The wedding couple with Rachel and Cori We barely had a chance to say hello to Kadaka because, unlike a US-style wedding reception, there was no reception line and the newlyweds did not circulate around to al the tables as in a Chinese-style wedding. Here the bride and groom greet the guests as they enter and leave, but they were out changing clothes when we arrived. As we left, Kadaka was wearing a gold dress and her attendants red dresses.

Lecture Series

Talk on Khmer culture

October, 2000

Fr. Francois Ponchaud is a French missionary priest who came to Cambodia in 1965. He is likely the most fluent and most inculturated foreigner in the country today. We had a series of four lectures by him on Khmer history, Khmer culture, Khmer religions, and the history of the Catholic Church in Cambodia. Quite good!

Pchum Ben

Every year in the ninth lunar month, the Khmer people celebrate the Festival of the Dead, or Pchum Ben, a 15-day period to remember and honor and placate the spirits of their deceased ancestors.  (See the accompanying article from The Cambodia Daily for a description of this year's celebration.) 

This is very similar to the Western Christian tradition of All Souls Day on 2 November, and in a somewhat unusual move, the Vatican has approved for the Khmer church the celebration of All Souls Day on Dak Ben, the 15th day of the Festival of the Dead. Below are some pictures of the celebration on 28 September 2000.

Phnom Penh has only one parish located in what used to be the seminary for the country. There is no church proper but rather a large open hall is used and people sit on mats on the floor. Mass for Pchum Ben
Khmer ceremonies seem to be noted always for lots of singing, usually led by a well-trained and enthusiastic choir. The choir
After mass the 500-600 people participating went outside to a small stupa located on the church property in which urns with ashes of deceased Catholics are kept. Prayers for all the dead were offered, and then each person placed incense sticks before the stupa.
After the ceremony, Bishop Emiles Destombes was introduced to to Charlie Davignon, a Maryknoll associate who could converse with the bishop in French while Jim Hurley, SJ, and Jim Noonan, MM, had to settle for English and Khmer. Bishop Emile Destombes with Maryknoll and Jesuit visitors

Amputee in wheelchair This photo shows three aspects of Cambodian culture. The first is the amputee in a wheelchair, a very common sight in the country. Then are the white adhesive bandages on the forehead of the man and on the back of his neck. These pieces of tape hold on mixtures of leaves and insect parts and other traditional medicines. Barely visible is the other characteristic of traditional Khmer medical treatment. On the man's chest there are red stripes caused by a process called "coining" in which the skin is rubbed with the edge of a coin to increase circulation.

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How to Sleep, Walk, Stand, Sit, and Speak

Every culture trains its children to become good members of society in order to insure harmony, peace, and stability. Cambodian parents teach their children how to sleep, walk, stand, sit, and speak. For the parents, the values below capture the essence of a well-mannered Cambodian.

How to Sleep

  • You must wake up before sunrise or you are lazy.
  • Sleeping places in the home are determined according to status. (Cambodian families often live in one or two rooms, and everyone sleeps on the same bed, a large slatted wooden platform about eight- or ten-feet square. The parents sleep at the "head" end and the youngest children sleep at the "foot.")

How to Walk

  • Tell people where you are going and when you are coming back. (This is important to show respect to others and to keep them from being embarrassed if someone asks and they don't know where you are.)
  • If someone of higher status is passing you, bend lower (from the waist) than that person.
  • Don't make sounds with your skirt when you walk.
  • Don't wear shoes or hats when you enter a house or temple.
  • Close doors softly when you go through them.
  • When you meet someone on the street, ask where they are going.

How to Stand

  • Stand with your arms crossed at the waist. (Arms at the side means you are signaling that you are strong. Hands on the hips or arms behind your back or across the chest means you are rich, powerful, threatening, or disrespectful of other people.)

How to Sit

  • Sit with your legs straight down. (Crossing legs shows disrespect.)
  • Never put your feet on a table or show the soles of your feet to others.
  • Men can sit on the floor in the lotus position while eating.
  • Women must sit on the floor with legs aside.

How to Speak

  • You must speak softly and gently.
  • Show feelings only at home.
  • Children have no right to speak unless spoken to.
  • A guest is polite and doesn't talk unless spoken to.
  • Let others talk more than you.
  • There should be limited talking at meals. Speak only if spoken to.
  • If you speak with anger or emotion or express feelings, you will not be respected. You are behaving like an immature and uneducated child.
  • Patience is a virtue. (Parents make a comparison between a gasoline fire which ignites quickly and burns to nothing, and a charcoal fire which is difficult to start but cannot easily be extinguished and becomes more intense.)
  • Do not make aggressive movements or gestures--such as making a fist, pounding the table, or throwing something--while speaking.
  • Moderated feelings are best, i.e., those that are neither very happy or very angry or sad.
  • Giving criticism or discussing an individual's problems must not be done in public. (That person will lose face, want revenge, and will be unable to accept your idea.) If you must give criticism, do so in private and indirectly. Talk around the issue, ask for information about the issue, and then let the individual reach her own conclusion in her own time and way.

How to Eat

  • Men can eat a lot but must not eat fast.
  • Women can eat only a small amount.
  • Take food only when asked or directed to.
  • Use the communal spoon. Not using it indicates you are insincere or not part of the group.
  • People of high rank do not expect to have to get their own food (especially at a buffet). They are often seated in a private or special place and served by others to show status and respect.
  • All guests must be served water or another drink even if they come for only a short visit. Give a drink rather than ask what they want which is impolite. If asked, they are obligated to choose the least expensive drink.
  • If guests come during a meal, they must be invited to eat.

How to Greet

  • Offer a traditional greeting with hands in front of face, palms together, in prayer-like fashion.
  • Men can shake hands with men.
  • Men should not shake hands with Khmer women unless they offer their hand.
  • Men should not hug, kiss, or touch the body of a Khmer woman while greeting her. (She will lose respect and feel embarrassed.)
  • Men should not look women directly in the eye. (They may become confused, feel uncomfortable, nervous, shy, and not respected.)
  • Men should not give "strong" visual attention to other men.

How to Dress

  • Formality is very important for respect in the office and at important occasions, when teaching, or when being welcomed as a guest.
  • Men wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and shoes. No T-shirts and sandals.
  • Women should avoid skirts above the knees and sleeveless or low-cut blouses.
  • Shorts are not appropriate in public or when a guest.
  • The goal in dressing is to blend in with others, not to stand out.
  • Men's hair should be short.

How to Work

  • Maintaining proper relationships in the office takes priority over the work.
  • Proper behavior is more important than work performance.
  • You will get honor if you show respect and politeness to those of higher status or power.
  • Your performance will be evaluated based on allegiance to those in power.
  • You will be rewarded with money or power or job security if you give respect and allegiance to your superiors.
  • It is better to agree than to disagree, especially if the other person has a higher status.
  • It is the responsibility of those in power to make decisions.

[The End]

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