Sometimes when learning a new language like Khmer, it can be difficult to decide where to start. Probably the best place to start is with words and phrases you would use everyday. Amongst the first things you should be learning therefore are the standard greetings and basic phrases: hello, goodbye, yes, no, thank you, etc. These words are important for making a good first impression with locals and can earn you a lot of respect for, at the very least, trying to use their language.
While the older generation are less likely to be able to speak with you in English, the younger kids and students will likely try to speak with you in English to practice and improve themselves. Even in this case, you should try to say hello in Khmer to show that you too are enthusiastic about their language.
When you go to Cambodia, you too can impress the locals by learning these basic words and phrases when you greet them. This is a quick guide on how to greet people in Khmer, Cambodia’s national language. Included are the transliterations and Khmer versions for reference. Oh, and it is not tonal either. They just stress the final syllable of the word.
It can be really frustrating when you meet someone but find it difficult to properly greet them and make a good first impression. After all, you only get one chance to make one. Bearing in mind that outside the touristy areas of Phnom Penh (ភ្នំពេញ) and Siem Reap (ក្រុងសៀមរាប), English fluency will drop dramatically, you will then have to rely on your Khmer capabilities or otherwise you will need to act and point.
When meeting someone for the very first time, it is important to use more formal language. If you are unfamiliar with the person you meet, using informal or colloquial language would be considered somewhat rude. Similarly, social status will also impact the language you should use when meeting someone — especially when it is for the first time. These are some of the ways you can greet and part with people in Khmer:
Hello (formal): joom reab sour (ជំរាបសួរ)
Hello (informal): joom reab lea (ជំរាបលា)
Good morning: Ah roeun sour sdei (អរុណសួស្តី)
Good afternoon: tiveah sour sdei (ទិវាសួស្ដី)
Good evening: sayon sour sdei (សាយ័ណសួរស្តី)
Good night: reatrei sour sdei (រាត្រីសួរស្តី)
Goodbye (formal): jom reap lia (ជុំរាបលា)
Goodbye (informal): lia haeuy (លាហើយ)
Just as your parents used to say, make sure you say please and thank you. Again, with greetings, you should always do your best to be polite and welcoming. A simple thank you when receiving something can go a long way. People are more likely to respond positively and go out of their way to help if you are kind to them. These are a few phrases you will be needing to make sure you are polite:
Please: soum (សូម)
Thank you: aw khun (អរគុណ)
You are welcome: munh I tay (មិនអីទេ)
Excuse me: soum toh (សូមទោស)
I’m sorry: soum toh (សូមទោស)
Some words in Khmer are gendered, in that the word changes based on whether a male or female is saying it which can get confusing. While there is just one example that would be used in everyday greetings and communication, I have made sure to include them here.
Yes (male): baat (បាទ)
Yes (female): jaah (ច៎ា)
No: dteh (ទេ)
Much like the wai is used in Thailand, in Cambodia they do the sampeah (សំពះ). This is a very traditional way to greet people when you meet them that is still used everyday in Cambodia. It is not just amongst friends, but strangers too. You can perform a sampeah by by placing your hands together like you are praying and bowing your head. Depending on who you are greeting, you will hold your hands at different heights. There are about 5 different steps overall for each level of social status.
For example, when you greet your friends you will hold your hands at chest height. For older or higher ranking people, you should hold your hands up to mouth level. Next, for parents, grandparent and teachers, you should raise your hands to nose level. For the king or monks, hands should be at eyebrow height. Finally, for the most important/sacred individuals and symbols, you hold your hands together at forehead height.
If someone does the sampeah to you, it is considered polite to sampeah back, so make sure you learn and remember these different types. Of course, as a guest, they may be very lenient and understanding if you get it wrong but you don’t want to be in that situation. Don’t worry too much — after a while, it becomes second nature.
Whether you are visiting Cambodia for work, living there or just backpacking, learning these Khmer phrases for greeting people can go a long way. Remember too that actions speak louder than words. The way you act will reflect your sincerity. From a simple hello to the sampeah, it is interesting to learn the ways different cultures and languages like Khmer greet each other. So even if there are just a few words you learn before you arrive in Cambodia, these greetings should be at the top of your list.
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