“Burn it to a crisp or leave it raw”: Cambodian Proverbs

I’ve always been interested in cultures, specifically the differences between them. Anthropology was one of my favourite subjects at university and I continued this interest by focusing my masters’ research on Cambodia. Oh, and living in Cambodia. The culture here is unique, special, and fascinating. Recently I’ve been doing some research work which brought me into contact with some traditional Khmer proverbs. I thought I’d share some with you today as a way to offer an insight into this amazing country in which I live. And then comment on them in humorous ways, naturally.

  • “Negotiate a river by following its bends, enter a country by following its customs.”

This is important everywhere and recently Cambodia has had some problems with tourists. Naked selfies at Angkor Wat, for example. I mean, what? Who in their right mind would do that? Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. You wouldn’t walk into St. Paul’s Cathedral and strip down so why is it ok to do so at Angkor? It isn’t, they got deported.contentimage-11719-239906-knustetallerkener

  • “Don’t let an angry man wash dishes; don’t let a hungry man guard rice.”

Well, yeah, that makes sense. Although in Cambodia men rarely do the washing up so I’m not entirely sure where this came from. It’s logical though, I’ll admit.

  • “A bunch of sticks cannot be broken.”

I take this to mean alone one person can be weak/vulnerable but together we can be strong. Agreed; teamwork is the way forwards. Although, let’s be honest, a chainsaw would get through a bunch of sticks … *cough* CPP *cough*.

  • “If you know a lot, know enough to make them respect you. If you are stupid, be
    stupid enough so they can pity you.”

So basically don’t get Cs in your exams …

  • “The tiger depends on the forest; the forest depends on the tiger.”

I’ll amend this to the tiger depended on the forest … Cambodia no longer has any tigers left in the wild since they were hunted into extinction. So I suppose whoever was making their living from selling the skins didn’t hear this proverb. But more broadly, everything is interconnected; everything is important.

  • “The immature rice stalk stands erect, while the mature stalk, heavy with grain, bends over.”

Respect your (hunchbacked) elders. True, and Cambodia does this more than most western countries.


  • “Active hands, full bellies.”

Tend your crops and reap the rewards. Makes sense, right? The more rice you plant, the more you grow to eat/sell. That can be expanded out though; work harder to earn more money.

  • “For news of the heart, ask the face.”

I like this one. Emotions show on our faces even without our knowledge. You can always tell when a friend is upset or happy or confused or in love. And they can’t hide it from those who know them best.

  • “Catch a fish without muddying the water.”

AKA be discrete. True; if you catch one fish and the water is still clear, you’ll be able to catch another. Two fish – yummy.

  • “If you are doing wrong, make sure you don’t get fat from it.”

I have no idea what this means, but I like it. Does it mean, don’t eat pizza?

  • “You don’t have to cut a tree down to get at the fruit.”

This is important in Cambodia because most people favour immediate gratification over long-term gains. So yes, you could cut down a tree to get every piece of fruit from the highest branches but then what happens next year? Make a ladder, climb up, be patient and work hard and you will receive more in the long term.

  • “Burn it to a crisp or leave it raw.”

If you’re going to do something, commit to it! Obviously this doesn’t apply to food. You can cook without taking this proverb seriously …

  • “Love is blind.”

Awwww, how cute! My Khmer friend told me this one and clearly it’s a worldwide belief. It’s true; sometimes who we’re attracted to has nothing to do with physical attributes. And why should it? It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

  • “Physical death is better than the death of your reputation.”

Is it? To be honest, I disagree but it highlights just how much importance Cambodians put on how they are viewed by others.

  • “If there is water, there is fish.”

My friend told me this one … he was rather upset when I told him I was drinking a glass of fish-less water at the time.

  • “Men are like gold, women are like white cloth.”

This sums up Khmer traditions perfectly. Scandals stick to women but the men can walk away from the mess without any repercussions. It’s accepted that men visit prostitutes before they are married but women are expected to be virgins. If a man cheats on his wife, oh well. If a woman cheats on her husband, all hell breaks loose. Different expectations for different genders are increasingly archaic as a concept and I hope to see Cambodia moving on from this soon.

So there you have it; a few of my favourite proverbs from Cambodia. There are many more but some of them don’t make sense, some of them I don’t understand and some are just plain weird! But I hope they’ve entertained you and contributed to your understanding of this amazing country.

Categories: Angkor Wat, Awareness, Cambodia, Culture, different, Education, Expat, History, Opinion, phnom penh, Proverbs, Quote, Random, Tourism, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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