How to eat with locals in Cambodia

Date : Nov - 28 - 2019

If you’re coming home to a Cambodian family for the first time and want to eat with locals, you’ll probably wonder about the customs. Eating with locals also means knowing how to behave correctly and not commit a faux pas. We have a little guidebook on what you can do in a Cambodian house and what not. Before we go into detail, there’s something else about gifts: she’s not expected. Khmer sometimes bring some fruit when visiting relatives. We recommend our guests to give a generous tip. The family doesn’t really want souvenirs.

The art of the Sam peah

When you approach the house, the family will usually be waiting and waiting. In Cambodia, as well as in Thailand and Laos, people greet each other with hands clasped together, held in front of the body. In Cambodian it is called  “Sam peah”. How high your hands are held depends on the other person.

Sam peah, the Khmer greeting for friends

Sam peah, the Khmer greeting for friends. Important to know if you visit a house and eat with locals.

Sam peah, the Khmer greeting for monks

Sam peah, the Khmer greeting for monks

Sam peah, the Khmer greeting for older people

Sam peah, the Khmer greeting for older people

Sam peah, the Khmer greeting for the king

Sam peah, the Khmer greeting for the king


  • If the other person is younger or the same age, you hold the clenched hands directly in front of the chest.

  • If the person is older than you, your fingertips are almost touching your chin.
  • If you face higher-ranking people, like a village elder, a professor, a politician, then your fingertips are at nose-high.
  • You greet Monks with the flat hands at about eye level.
  • If you should ever meet the king, then the hands must be folded over the head, often the head is also bent forward.
  • It is just with younger members of the family sometimes handed the hand, then shake it, but with a very light handshake. But wait, until this is offered to you.

If you can say something in Khmer, welcome with “Jem Reap sua”.

Take the shoes off

In a Cambodian house no shoes are worn, so you will have to take them off, but you can keep the socks on. A small exception is a terrace in front of the house. Most of the time you can see a lot of shoes where you should take them off. When entering the house best not to touch the threshold, which brings bad luck.

Takes shoes off before enter a Khmer house

Takes shoes off before enter a Khmer house

If you help our hosts with cooking, the kitchen will usually be outside and you can start shoes. It is a bit unusual that guests cook, so there are not many rules. Our hosts are very relaxed and will tell you what you can do. Do not be afraid to do something wrong, you will be rewarded with a hearty laugh.

Eat with locals in their house

At meals, there are some rules of hospitality that mainly affect the locals. A guest is an important person in a family and should be treated accordingly. There is no fixed seating arrangement, but one waits out of courtesy until the oldest person has sat down. Most of the time you are sitting on the floor. Men sit cross-legged while the women have their legs bent to the left or right. Most of the times you will sit in plastic chairs those days. 

Guests after cooking with locals in Phnom Penh

Guests after eat with locals in Phnom Penh

First you will get a glass of water, sometimes in a small silver bowl. The water is purified drinking water, so you do not have to worry. Then rice is served, mostly by the wife in the family. The oldest person gets rice first, then mostly the guests. The rice is placed directly on your plate. The small bowl, which stands most next to the plate, is for the soup.

If everyone got rice  you can start to take something from the different dishes. Apart from a clear soup, everything is eaten together with the rice on a plate. The food in Cambodia is cut in small pieces, so you will not see a knife. Eaten with fork and spoon. Chopsticks are actually only available for pasta dishes, which are usually also served in a large bowl. Incidentally, you are welcome to sip noodles here.

You signal the end of the meal 

If you eat with locals, you will be asked again and again to eat more. But you are waiting for a signal that you are full. It is common practice to stop eating when the guest finishes the meal.

After eating you can get up, stretch your legs and look at your house and garden. The first floor is mostly taboo, unless it is explicitly offered to you (here is the bedroom and ancestral shrines). In the house look at everything, but ask if you can touch something. For everything that looks religious, it’s best to keep your hands off it.

Host Ms. Phanny in Phnom Penh

Host Ms. Phanny in Phnom Penh

If you get a dessert, it will be taken while sitting. Cambodian desserts are delicious. The mother of our host Sareth makes various desserts and sells them in the market. If you come for lunch, you will be able to taste it.

Say good bye and wave

When you say goodbye after you eat with locals you will stand with the family in front of the house. It is customary to thank you again, and to do some small talk. The farewell phrase is “Jem Reap Lia”, and you will fold your hands again as you would on arrival. Always start with the oldest person. Children will often wave, then wave back. Sometimes you will also get a small farewell gift to eat a fruit or a snack.