Buddhism in Cambodia

Get to Know Cambodia

Most Cambodians consider themselves to be Khmers, descendants of the Angkor Empire that extended over much of Southeast Asia and reached its zenith between the 10th and 13th centuries. Attacks by the Thai and Cham (from present-day Vietnam) weakened the empire ushering in a long period of decline. The king placed the country under French protection in 1863. Cambodia became part of French Indochina in 1887. Following Japanese occupation in World War II, Cambodia gained full independence from France in 1953. In April 1975, after a five-year struggle, Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh and evacuated all cities and towns. At least 1.5 million Cambodians died from execution, forced hardships, or starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime under POL POT. 

A December 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside, began a 10-year Vietnamese occupation, and touched off almost 13 years of civil war. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords mandated democratic elections and a ceasefire, which was not fully respected by the Khmer Rouge. UN-sponsored elections in 1993 helped restore some semblance of normalcy under a coalition government.


Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, between Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.


Phnom Penh.



Ethic Groups

Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, other 4%.


Theravada Buddhist 95%, other 5%.

Language in Cambodia

Khmer is the official language of Cambodia and is used in most social contexts including government administration, education at all levels, and in the mass media. It is spoken by some 7 million people living there, roughly 90% of the population.

Regional differences are slight and normally mutually intelligible. Based on the dialect of the capital city of Phnom Penh, Modern Khmer is used throughout the nation and widely understood by its inhabitants. Much Khmer vocabulary used in literature, the military, and administration is borrowed from Sanskrit, or Pali. Due to years of French colonial rule, numerous French words have been incorporated into the language as well.

Cambodian Society & Culture


  • The majority of Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism.


  • Buddhism also reinforces a sense of hierarchy within society.
  • Interpersonal communication is built on the relationship between those involved.
  • Common hierarchical guidelines are that parents are superior to children, teachers to students and managers to subordinates.
  • Monks will even walk in rank order, highest in front and most junior at the rear.
  • Locals tend to ask foreigners personal questions as means to identify ‘rank’ rather than being nosy. They may change the way they communicate depending on a person's status.

Collective society

  • Cambodia is a collective society - individuals take second place to the group whether this is the family, neighbourhood or company.
  • In such societies, etiquette and protocol guidelines are used to maintain a sense of common harmony – for example subtle communication styles are employed in order to minimize the chances of causing offense to others.
  • The concept of face also ties in with this collective outlook.
  • Protecting both one’s own and other’s face is extremely important.
  • Face can roughly be translated as a combination of honour, dignity and public reputation that is attributed to a person.
  • Face can be lost, given and accrued.
  • Foreigners in Cambodia need to be aware of the mechanics of face to ensure they do not cause anyone to lose face as a result of unintentional actions.
  • Face is lost when someone is criticized, embarrassed or exposed in public.
  • It can be given by complimenting someone publicly, i.e. for their business acumen or hospitality.

Meeting & Greeting

  • Greetings between Cambodians are dependent on the relationship/hierarchy/age between the people.
  • The traditional greeting is a bow combined with a bringing of the hands together at chest level (similar to bringing hands together for prayer or the wai in Thailand).
  • If one intends to show greater respect the bow is lower and the hands brought higher.
  • With foreigners Cambodians have adopted the western practice of shaking hands. Women may still use the traditional Cambodian greeting.
  • The simple rule is to respond with the greeting you are given.
  • In Cambodia people are addressed with the honorific title “Lok” for a man and “Lok Srey” for a woman followed with the first name or both the first and surname.

Gift Giving Etiquette

  • Gifts are usually given at Cambodian New Year (Chaul Chnam).
  • Birthdays are not big events like in the West and people of the older generation may not even know their date of birth.
  • Unlike most other cultures, Cambodians do not celebrate birthdays. In fact, many older people may not know the exact date of their birth.
  • A small gift can also be taken if invited to someone’s home for food.
  • If invited to a home, take nicely presented fruit, sweets, pastries or flowers.
  • Avoid giving knives.
  • Gifts are usually wrapped in colorful paper.
  • Do not use white wrapping paper, as it is the color of mourning.
  • When giving gifts use both hands.
  • Gifts are not opened when received.

Dining Etiquette

  • Table manners are fairly formal.
  • If unconfident with the dos and don’ts simply follow what others do.
  • When invited to the dining table wait to be told where to sit as you would not want to upset any hierarchical arrangements.
  • The oldest person is usually seated first.
  • Similarly the eldest person should start eating before others.
  • Do not begin eating until the eldest person starts.
  • Never discuss business in such social settings.