Cambodia lies along the Gulf of Thailand in Southeast Asia. The country’s landscape includes low-lying plains, mountains, and seashores. Most visitors tend to head to Angkor Wat first to see the massive stone temples there. Other sites worth visiting include the Royal Palace and the Central Market in Phnom Penh. Like most Asian countries, the rules of etiquette in Cambodia are very different than they are in Western countries. Here are 10 things you should never do while visiting Cambodia. Most are quite simple, like dressing moderately, showing respect to elders and never touching anyone, even kids, on the head. Also, while visiting any temple do not point your feet, or show your back, to a statue of Buddha. To be guided on your next visit, scroll down for more of what not to do in Cambodia.
If you’re looking for the best places to stay in Cambodia, there are plenty of amazing Airbnb vacation rentals for your accommodation needs.
1. Don't exchange US dollars for local currency
When you visit most countries, exchanging your US dollars for the local currency is one of the first things to do. But in Cambodia that is not necessary. While the country’s currency is the riel, shopkeepers and restaurant owners prefer to get paid in US dollars. You will actually get more value for your dollar than you would by using riel. Smaller bills, like 1’s and 5’s, are easier to use and try to keep your purchases to an even amount since US coins are not accepted.
2. Never get angry
Cambodia is like most Asian countries where “saving face” is extremely important. You should never show anger in a public place. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, do try to remain calm. You will find help more quickly with a calm demeanor than an angry one. It is completely unacceptable to yell at someone, especially an elder. You should also refrain from criticizing any of the locals as this is frowned upon.
3. Avoid wearing jewellery
In Cambodia, you should dress moderately and avoid wearing flashy jewelry. Not only is it considered to be vulgar, but it will also likely get you into trouble. Like any country, the streets and markets are targets for criminals and pickpockets. Wearing jewelry is one sure sign that you are a tourist and therefore have something of value worth stealing. Jewelry will also have every street vendor in the area harassing you to buy their wares. Avoid unnecessary confrontations by leaving your jewelry at home.
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4. Don't use your left hand
It is part of proper etiquette to know which hand to use in certain situations. In Cambodia, the left hand is used for activities involving the toilet, so you should never use your left hand for anything else. It is considered rude to use your left hand for eating, touching anyone or anything, or to use it to hand something to someone. Your right hand should be used in all of these situations.
5. Don't speak to strangers
Avoiding speaking to strangers is a good rule when traveling at home or abroad. English is a common language in Cambodia and criminals will use it to try and find out information about you. It is best to avoid speaking to strangers that approach you on the street, but if you do, make sure you do not give them any personal information like where you are staying. One of the best ways to avoid this is to pretend that you do not speak English if you are approached by a stranger.
6. Don't point at anything
Using your index finger or any finger, to point at something is considered rude. Instead, use your right hand, palm up and fingers kept together to gesture. This is the proper method to point at something in a shop, on the street, or in a place to eat. Remember to never, ever use your left hand to gesture at anything or anyone.
7. Don't try to touch monks
One of the things Cambodia is famous for is Angkor Wat. This ancient temple complex is one of the first stops for most tourists visiting Cambodia. But before you go there are a few etiquette rules you need to know. First, Buddhist monks can be seen in all parts of the country. You will know them by their brightly colored robes. They are happy to speak with you but be mindful of treating them with respect. You should never try to touch them and this is especially true for women. If the monk is sitting, you must sit also before speaking to them, making sure that you are not seated higher than the monk is. Always ask for permission before taking their picture.
8. Don't enter a temple wearing your footwear
You will find that shoes are not allowed in many homes and establishments here. This is definitely true when visiting the temples. No footwear is allowed in any place of worship. If you see a pile of shoes and flip flops outside any building this is a great indicator that you should remove your shoes before entering. Feet are considered to be the dirtiest part of the body and therefore they are not sacred. Be careful not to show the bottoms of your feet to anyone and especially avoid pointing them at a statue of Buddha, as this is considered the height of rudeness. Shoes that slip off quickly and easily are the best ones to wear when visiting Cambodia.
9. Don't do drugs
The drug laws in Southeast Asia are some of the toughest on the planet. During your visit, you will likely be approached by men trying to sell you either marijuana, cocaine, or heroin. Don’t give in to the temptation. Cambodia did remove the death penalty for controlled substances, but the consequences if you are caught are not worth the risk. You may notice some locals growing a marijuana plant or two, and for them this is legal, but as a visitor, it is not legal for you to bring it into the country or try to purchase it while you are visiting. Getting caught with illegal drugs can get you anywhere from five years to life in prison. If you take prescription medications it is a good idea to bring the prescription with you, just in case.
10. Never be careless while traveling in a tuk tuk
One of the best ways to get around the city is in a tuk tuk. These are two-wheeled passenger carts pulled behind a moped. You will see them everywhere but pay attention to a few simple rules to stay safe. Always negotiate a price before getting in the tuk tuk, a trip across town should run about 3 USD. Keep your bags close to you and your phones in your pocket. Street criminals on mopeds are quick to snatch a phone or bag that is not carefully guarded. Don’t try to give directions based on street names–know the name of the attraction, restaurant, or market you want to visit. Most drivers don’t actually have a comprehensive knowledge of the area they are working in.
11. Don’t go for elephant rides
In many parts of Asia, elephants have become more of an attraction than an animal to see at a zoo. It’s no different in Cambodia where local poachers and circus trainers are cruel to elephants, offering tourists a ride in various parts of the country, without knowing the harsh conditions these animals are put through. It’s said that baby elephant are snatched from their mothers at birth and then trained and tortured for riding and performances. This is an inhumane practice many other locals look down on and is something tourists should be aware of and help promote when traveling to Cambodia.
12. Avoid drinking tap water
In various parts of the West and European countries, drinking from the tap is okay and accepted. In Asia, specifically Cambodia, the rules are different as tap water is not totally hygienic and safe for consumption. Many locals use tap for dishwashing, bathing, and laundry but not drinking water. It’s best to purchase bottled water in local groceries and convenience stores. For greener tips, best to buy a gallon for a part of your trip and bring a reusable jug or tumbler for refills to avoid consuming plastic waste while exploring the rest of Cambodia.
Simple courtesy goes a long way
Cambodia, like most Asian countries, has a different take on what is considered to be rude than what those in the West do. By knowing these rules beforehand you will be able to enjoy your trip with less worry. The rules are pretty simple; be kind, courteous, and show respect to the locals, the monks, and folks older than you. That said, now enjoy the beach holidays and tourist attractions that Cambodia has to offer.
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