Every country has its own customs and code of conduct. It’s important to remember that while we’re guests in another country, we should treat our hosts with respect by abiding by their code. Try to leave any pre-conceived ideas and stereotypes about your host countries at home, because it’s likely that they’re inaccurate and will not benefit you during your time abroad. Go with empathy, an open mind, and a willingness to engage with and learn from locals. Here are some guidelines on how we should conduct ourselves when visiting or volunteering in Cambodia.
Understanding local Cambodian culture
While spending time in Cambodia, we need to keep in mind that Cambodia has a very unique culture and it’s probably vastly different from what you’re accustomed to. Recognise that Cambodian dress tends to be on the conservative side, so try to respect this and ensure that your dress is in accordance with this at all times. A great importance of your volunteer experience involves the understanding of the locals’ habits and their way of thinking. Humble and respectful behaviour is always expected.
Adhering to laws
Complying with the Cambodian government’s laws and regulations is certainly very important. Drugs and violent behaviours are not accepted in your home country, and the same goes for Cambodia.
Street children and money
You will likely encounter street children in a few places. Most of the time they attempt to earn the money by selling postcards or gum. Please do not give anything to these street children, and do not buy anything from them. We know it’s difficult to deny them, since they appear needy and can be awfully cute. However, by providing them with this small income, you are keeping them on the streets instead of in school, as they have just proven that they are more valuable to their parents as street vendors. Some will tell you that they go to school in the afternoon. This may or may not be true.
Do not fall for the children with babies asking for formula and diapers in Siem Reap. They take tourists to participating pharmacies to buy supplies, but then promptly sell them back for money afterwards. These children are sadly being exploited by adults.
Interacting with monks
There will be plenty of opportunities to see Buddhist monks. Most of them are very happy to get the chance to practice their English by speaking with visitors. Foreigners are always welcome in Buddhist temples, usually with a smile.
Monks are not allowed to touch money, so you should never offer it to them. You may put a small donation ($1) in any of the collection boxes in temples.
Remove your hat and shoes before entering a temple.
Show respect to the Buddha statues and images. Never touch, sit near, or climb on a Buddha statue. When you’re sitting, never point your feet at a person or at an image of Buddha. You are invited to follow the standard dress code when visiting holy sites in Cambodia, like Angkor Wat. There should be no exposed shoulders, cleavage or short shorts.
As part of the acceptance process, most of the not-for-profit organisations you volunteer for would ask you to read, agree and sign their Code of Conduct. Please read the document carefully, as it details the NGO’s expectations and the standards of behaviour that is expected of you. Typically, the Code of Conduct is written to help volunteers achieve the most out of their placement in a safe manner and ensure that the organisations and people that the volunteer works with are treated with respect during the placement.
Besides performing our duties as volunteers in our host organisations, it’s also an important part of our responsibility to respect the regional values and honour their code of conduct. While we’re there to provide services to the local communities, we should do our best to respect their local culture by upholding the local Cambodian customs and conventions.
Are you in doubt? Better ask…
Do you still have doubts? Just ask for advice—local Cambodians are always very happy to explain their habits and traditions.