Every place has its own way to greet somebody. In many Western countries a shake of the hands or a kiss might do the trick. In Japan, a bow can determine levels of respect and formality. In Taiwan they usually start with “have you eaten?” while in Benin they snap their fingers as they shake hands. Many people know that in this region of the world, many Southeast Asians put their hands together in prayer gesture and greet each other. In Cambodia, although it seems simple enough to carry out, there are traditional complexities that say much more than words could express while performing “the sampeah”, Cambodia’s local greeting.
A couple years ago during some bilateral tension, Obama’s visit to Cambodia came with a stern message to Prime Minister Hun Sen about democracy. However, much of the media attention was focused on an alleged diss by Cambodia’s first lady through a subtle but locally understood use of the sampeah that would indicate Obama at the level of a servant. Whether or not you think this was intentional, it’s important to understand the dynamics of the sampeah!
The sampeah is officialised enough to the extent that there are public service instructions indicating how to hold your hands together and bow depending on who you are greeting and what your position is in relation to him or her. When greeting, you say “choum reap suor”. On departure, you use “choum reap lear”. Essentially you hold your hands in the shape of a lotus flower at a level that determines respect for the other person. The Obama-servant incident portrays First Lady Bun Rany’s hands low and far from her body.
Here are the standard levels of greeting in sampeah style:
- When greeting friends who have the same age, place both palms together at chest level
- When greeting your boss, an older person or higher ranking people, place both palms together at mouth level.
- When greeting your parents, grandparents or teacher, place both palms together at nose level.
- When greeting the king or Buddhist monks, place both palms together at eyebrow level.
- When praying to Buddha or any sacred statues, place both palms together at the forehead level.
So I hope you can properly greet when you come visit me in Cambodia and just in case you need some more visual guidance, check out this cute video by students to teach foreigners how to successfully perform the sampeah!