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Culture and Customs

Whether you are volunteering in Cambodia or simply passing through on your gap year abroad, it is useful to know the local culture and customs to really make the most of your experience. True gap year travel is all about immersing yourself in new communities and cultures, so let us give you a head start!


Cambodians primarily speak Khmer. Although this is not a tonal language like most others in Southeast Asia, its large assortment of consonant and vowel clusters can make it make it tricky prospect for gap year travellers to learn. English is the most popular foreign language for younger Khmer generations so you will find locals speaking anything from basic to fluent English in most major towns and cities.
Some of the older generations speak French from the colonial days but persecution during the Khmer Rouge era means that this is quite rare. Likewise, Cambodians speaking German or other European languages are few and far between. Those on a gap year in Cambodia should also note that Vietnamese is widely spoken in Phnom Penh.


As a country Cambodia is fairly new to tourism. While popular tourist spots such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have adjusted to tourist behaviour, locals in places like Stung Treng and Banlung may be more wary. With this in mind travellers on a gap year programme in Cambodia should act respectfully and ask permission before taking photos of local people.
As in Thailand, local dress is conservative and Western gap year visitors will need to cover up when visiting temples and scared sites. While Cambodians are friendly and welcoming people, the Khmer Rouge issue continues to be a particularly delicate, and one that Cambodians generally prefer not to talk about.


Those who travel Cambodia as part of their gap year programme should definitely sample Khmer cuisine, which has many similarities to Thai and Vietnamese food, and is tasty and cheap. Cambodians love a strong sour taste in their dishes, but Westerners may prefer more subtle tasting dishes such as Amok and K’tieu. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, most dishes are served with either rice or noodles.

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