Westerners like me are often quite hopeless at picking up local customs, and in Cambodia the first and most obvious custom is the Sampeah or greeting. The Sampeah is a particularly elegant and respectful way of greeting friends and strangers, with palms held together, and a slight bow of the head – it is less brusque than the various western equivalents, which must be collectively confusing to Cambodians. Westerners buy turns shake hands, kiss, or go through various awkward attempts. The protocols of greeting have, if anything, become more confused in the 21st century.
But in Cambodia Sampeah is universal. However as I found, there are five different Sampeah – different levels of greeting depending on the relative age or importance of the other person.
- Usually when you meet a contemporary, or someone younger than yourself the Sampeah you use is conducted at chest height, hands together and a slight bow.
- But if somebody is older than you, or is a senior position – your boss for example – then the Sampeah needs to be a little higher, the tops of your index fingers basically at chin height. The nod is also a little deeper and more pronounced.
- The third Sampeah takes things up another notch. Here, the tops of your index fingers are level with your mouth. The nod, a little deeper again. the Sampeah marks your respectful greeting of a parent, grandparent or esteemed teacher.
- When you greet a monk, then your Sampeah is higher again. This time the index fingers a level with your nose. instead of a nod, this time you bow slightly from the waist.
- The highest Sampeah, number five, is reserved for Buddha, or the King. Here, you raise your hands so they draw level with your forehead, and you bow deeply.
Perhaps it’s because I am travelling with a camera, or in notepad or have my hands full with shopping bags, but I never seem quite ready to handle that moment of greeting. A friend gestures with the Sampeah towards me, and I’m busy displacing those bags, or handing someone my camera so I can free up my hands. Then when it comes to the Sampeah itself, instead of giving them a respectful Sampeah among equals – a number one – I end up greeting them as if they were the King himself. The same in the classroom: I like to give a formal greeting to the class, and end up sending them the wrong signal – or perhaps the right one even though it is unexpected. The truth is, I look up to these kids, and while technically I should give them a basic Sampeah, I end up offering something somewhere in between the respect I would show for a parent or perhaps a monk.
I am very fortunate that Cambodians are so polite. While my efforts to be culturally appropriate still need some work, I have never felt anything less than welcome.
For more on Khmer customs: Meetings in Cambodia