Customs and traditions

The Cambodian way of life

Customs and traditions

The culture of the Cambodian people can be seen as a mixture of hinduism and buddhism, and reflects a country rich in history and heritage. The official religion of the Kingdom of Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism, which is practised by more than 90% of the population.  

Cambodia’s complex culture reflects the country’s long and varied history. There are recognisable influences from its neighbouring countries, most significantly India.


The golden age of Cambodia was arguably between the 9th and 14th centuries, during the time of the Khmer Empire. At this point in history, Cambodia’s achievements in the arts, architecture and other cultural elements were unparalleled in the rest of Southeast Asia.

The impressive Angkor Wat temple, once the centre of the empire, is a lasting symbol of Cambodia’s dominance and remains a source of national pride.

Way of life

Some 80% of the population live in rural areas as subsistence farmers. Most family units have their own land, rice crop and livestock. Village houses are built from natural materials such as bamboo and palm leaves, and usually around the local wat (temple).

In the cities, the poor live much like those in the countryside but this is starkly contrasted against the rich middle classes that also inhabit Cambodia’s urban areas. Poor sanitation means infant mortality caused by intestinal diseases is high.


The history of Buddhism in Cambodia is seen most clearly in the way that Cambodians interact with each other and their national festivals.

Similar to the Thai wai, the Cambodian sampeah is used both as a symbol of prayer and as a greeting. A sign of respect and politeness or a way to say thank you or to apologise, the sampeah can be seen all across Cambodia.

When greeting someone who is considered a peer, hands are pressed together in prayer in front of chest. The higher your hands are in relation to your forehead and the lower you bow the more respect you are showing.

These days, except when greeting elders or public officials, the sampeah has largely been replaced by a handshake.

In Cambodia it is not acceptable to make eye contact with anyone who is older or who is considered of a higher social status that you.


Khmer New Year celebrations commence on the 13th or 14th of April and continue for three days. It marks the end of harvest time, when people can relax and enjoy the fruits of all their hard work before the rainy season comes and their work must start again.

The first day of the celebrations denotes the end of the old year and the start of the new one.

Traditional clothes are worn and offerings of thanks are made to images of Buddha.

The second is a day of remembering ancestors during a special ceremony at the local monastery. It is also customary to help those less fortunate.

On the third day, Buddha statues and elders are cleaned with fragrant water; which is thought to bring luck and longevity.

The new year is a time when traditional dances and games are performed across the whole of Cambodia.

Further reading

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