Making Friends (or at least Friendly Conversation) in Cambodia

8 10 2011

As I’ve mentioned in several of my previous posts, Cambodians are nice people. It is incredibly easy to start a conversation with people here, especially if you take these tips into consideration:

1.) Learn something—anything—in Khmer. When I am talking to somebody for the first time, I greet them with the standard Khmer greeting and am usually met with silence. It seems to me that knowing the equivalent of “Hello, how are you?” does not demonstrate that you can converse in Khmer adequately enough for a Cambodian to respond to you. This is why it is imperative to learn at least one other phrase that you can pull out. It doesn’t matter if you actually speak the language, just find an initial phrase that gets you into the conversation. Mine is usually, “Your child is so beautiful. How old is (s)he?” Once I say this, everyone laughs, realizing that the barang (foreigner) does, indeed, know Khmer— whether it’s true or not. Then they start talking a mile a minute, assuming that because you can ask someone about their age, you can converse about anything! This is a good start. Nod your head like you understand, laugh a little and then, just like that, you have a friend who is giving you fruit and putting their number in your phone.

2.) Make a mistake. Mispronouncing something, using the wrong word or having to act out the word you want to say will score you dozens of friends a day here. They LOVE this. Cambodians will laugh and hoot and holler over you making a mistake, but they somehow do so in a way that isn’t offensive and shouldn’t hurt your feelings. So learn a little Khmer, but learn it wrong… and voila!

3.) Be different. People stop and talk to me all the time just to point out the obvious differences between me and them. “Your hair is short.”  “Your skin is light.” “Your eyes are blue.” In fact, while walking through the market the other day, a woman behind me muttered “kabua, kabua, kabua (tall, tall, tall)” with every step she took. So when I turned around and said, “Yes, I am tall,” a huge grin came over her face and we both began to laugh. So if you want to make friends with Cambodians, a good way to do so is to make sure you don’t look like them.

4.) Fit in. On the other hand, looking like them works well too. I have, as I’ve mentioned, had a few outfits made here. I’ve gotten a traditional wat/wedding outfit, a couple of button down shirts and two sampots (Khmer skirts). Now, I’m not normally a proponent of trying to dress like the local people. In the places I’ve visited, it has seemed offensive and distasteful. But here, Cambodians LOVE it. They will think that you are so saa-aa (beautiful), and it will truly win you respect and friendliness. Even a 75 cent mani/pedi gets you this attention. Women in the markets will see your nails or your sampot and they will know that you have learned something about their country or that you respect their norms. Fitting in has been one of my most successful conversation starters.

5.) Grab a thigh. Last, but not least, you should not be afraid of some good ol’ same-sex touching. Although men and women should never touch in public (even if they’re married), same-sex touching is a huge part of Cambodian culture. Old women slap my butt, clench my arm or stroke my leg all the time. It’s normal— Cambodian women do this to one another as well. The same goes for the men. If you, as a man, put your hand on the thigh of the guy next to you while he’s talking, you’ve got an instant in!





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