Sampeah — Cambodian greeting.

When greeting a child, or someone of equal age – the Sampeah is conducted at chest level. What  I never realised was that there are 5 levels of Sampeah.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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


Thatch Roof Interior – keeping it cool Bakong

Thatch Roof Interior - keeping it cool Bakong

Roofing is always a challenge in rural Cambodia. There is corrugated iron which is watertight during the wet season, but proves far too hot during the dry hot months of March through to June. Living under zinc is like living in a brutally hot oven, a point lost I feel, with a few of the Habitat for Humanity projects I have seen.

Better than the tin is roofing tiles, and architecturally these have a reference back to the red earth of Cambodia itself. Cost wise, tiles are out of reach for many rural families, and actually too heavy for many huts which are built out of bamboo.

This leaves thatch roofing which is cool, inexpensive, and comfortable – at least until the heavy rains come. In Bakong, locals earn spare money thatching palm leaves together into panels which they then take into the markets of Siem Reap.

One day Savong and I were driving back to Siem Reap from the school, and we came across two young men on their bicycles, loaded up with thatch panels about to make the long trek.  Savong wound down his window and asked if they would prefer to deliver the roofing to the SOC instead. He handed them a few dollars and next day when we came to the children’s home I saw the thatch roofing placed carefully on top of the iron roofing which stood at the time – helping the buildings to stay much cooler. I love thatch – and I love the craftsmanship that goes on to weaving this material, and attaching it so elegantly to traditional bamboo structures.

I imagine if you grew up in rural Cambodia, and then later moved to the big city one of the things you would miss would be the organic almost vanilla fragrance of those lovely thatch panels.

See also the Bamboo ladder

Ladder in Bakong

Ladder in Bakong

Every night where I live they advertise on television the new aluminium multipurpose extenda-flex ladder – which is really 28 ladders in one! The thing is, I can almost guarantee that none of these 28 ladders would be much help if you were trying to ascend a 30 foot palm tree in order to bring down some coconuts.

Another case of bamboo and traditional artisanship to the rescue.

I took this photo virtually outside the gate of the SOC in Bakong.

For other examples of Khmer architecture and craftsmanship:

Facebook in Cambodia – huge growth

Facebook in Cambodia - huge growth

Four years ago there were an estimated 100,000 users of FB in Cambodia and by March 2012 this had risen to  491,480 and in December 2013 pegged the figure at 1,120,000 users – reporting that there has been steady straight line growth at the rate of 1,100 new users every day or one Cambodian every two minutes.

So today the number is – in my rough guesstimate – well in excess of 1.3 million.  That means more than a third of users have supported the most popular measured site in Cambodia: that of politician Sam Rainsy who has 480,000 “Likes” on his Facebook page.  The second most favorited site is the Voice of America.

According to SOCIALBAKERS.COM who measure social media globally, the age-breakdown of FB users in Cambodia is skewed heavily (I would say seismically) towards the under 25s. Users 13-24 years old make up 62% of all users.

Females are catching up also. Four years ago FB users in Cambodia tended to be very predominantly male – but now the gender balance is 59% to the boys and 41% to the girls.

Growth of Facebook in Cambodia has been accelerated through the arrival of smart phones and cheap phone data deals. estimated that just on 75% of Facebook users were subscribing via their mobile devices.

Ghosts in the Cambodian schoolyard


Darkness falls quickly in Cambodia. A group of young men were laughing and shouting, they weren’t human; they were ghosts.

When dusk falls in Bakong, it falls mighty quickly. One minute the sky is a fiery orange and the next, everything is pretty well pitch black. On a clear night – which is not that often in the hazy tropics – you can look up and see stars bright enough that it seems you can almost reach them. On one of these evenings I had just emerged from the classroom at Savong School when I looked up and I saw a man-made satellite drifting silently, eerily, across the sky. I pointed this out to a couple of students, and soon there was a large group of us scanning the horizon for more satellites.

But in this same schoolyard there are other unseen things – eerie things – which locals acknowledge but Westerners find difficult to believe. I’m talking about ghosts, and when I first went out to Savong School several of the locals told me about the ghosts in the schoolyard. First, there is the elderly lady, a widow, who lives in the tree beside the generator shed. She is harmless and likes to be left alone. People talk respectfully of the old lady.

But back in the day when Savong lived in a thatch hut on the school grounds, I was told of another group of ghosts – young figures – who would wander into the schoolyard at night, laughing, drinking and disturbing the peace. Now where I live in Auckland New Zealand, there are plenty of these young people – we used to have a nightclub located opposite our house – so I wondered, were these really ghosts that the locals had heard, or simply young people; looking for a good time?

“No, these were definitely ghosts!” I was told. And in fact that was one reason why, at that time, the installation of the gates were seen as an important step for the school. It wasn’t just to keep out  thieves,  (see our recent story,) but to keep out the disturbing spirits.

What I like about the Cambodian ghosts, is that they seem approachable and basically decent. The same is true in Thailand, and Thai stories I have read feature the same benign spirits. How different from western literature in which ghosts are inevitably unhappy souls determined to disturb the lives of the living. Here in Cambodia the ghosts are simply part of the neighbourhood, and don’t seem to be a worry to anybody. Live and …ahem…let live.

Near the old lady’s tree Savong used to have a small Buddhist shrine at which he would burn incense and occasionally offer prayer. In Cambodia you will see these shrines at hotels, office buildings and people’s homes. Spiritual life is a very important part of the Cambodian social fabric. One evening Savong asked if I wanted to pray with him at the shrine, and I agreed.

There, in the dark we kneeled before the shrine and beside the old woman’s tree. Above us was the infinity of stars, and for a few minutes I was utterly swallowed up in the vast cosmic silence. I was conscious for those minutes of the vast gulf that lay between our two cultures, and at the same time I was conscious of our vast similarities as two mere humans: two specks in a mysterious universe. I prayed for Savong, I prayed for the school, and yes I prayed for the old woman in the tree.

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!

Haing S Ngor accepts Best Support Actor Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields

This year a Cambodian, Rithy Panh came close with his movie The Missing Picture, to winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it is thirty years ago when Haing S Ngor won his deserved acting Oscar for his part in The Killing Fields: a movie that has very much shaped the West’s modern appreciation of Cambodia. This video clip of Ngor’s acceptance speech hints at the luck he had in being cast for the role (he was not a trained actor,) and simply bursts with his pride, joy and – yes – blessings not only for the Hollywod recognition, but for the fact that he made it out of Cambodia, alive. Watching it right now I admit: I burst into tears.

Another American/Cambodian connection: The Kent State Massacre – 4 Dead in Ohio