Mar 20 2012

Dress code in Cambodia

Published by at 2:58 am under Culture

I live in quiet dismay at the latent school marm within me. She’s a desiccated, dictatorial old bag, and once even gave a friend of mine a sharp chop to the base of her spine to make her stand up straight. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised. Luckily, the school marm doesn’t get out often and I haven’t seen much of her since I went back to university in Dublin a few years ago, when she spent the whole year quietly exclaiming “Holy God, she must be freezing!” at the sight of fellow students whose concepts of subtlety clearly needed some work (a first sign that I was probably getting old).

As he may say himself "Epic fail, dude!"

As he may say himself "Epic fail, dude!"

But she burst out in full “Well I never!” form on a trip to the supermarket recently, kicked into life by the now annoyingly common sight of a guy standing over the dairy fridges wearing nothing but shorts and flip-flops. He was sweating on my yoghurt. Yeuch!

And even though the school marm is a desiccated, dictatorial old bag, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t sometimes have a point. I enjoy the sight of a ripped male body as much as the next woman and gay guy. But there is a time and a place for everything and even in the case of such a fine six-pack, the supermarket is definitely not it.

The same applies to restaurants and bars. It’s usually very easy to tell the difference between a place that is so relaxed that no one cares if you’re dressed or not, and a place that would really prefer it if you kept your shirt on. You’d think that not many would be so intellectually impaired that they can’t tell the difference, but still it happens. These fellows shouldn’t be surprised if management start speaking very slowly while asking them to get dressed or leave.

Needs to exercise some thought

Needs to exercise some thought.

A friend of mine has a slightly more mischievous approach to inappropriately dressed visitors. As a manager of a restaurant in the Pub Street area, she watched bemused one day as two women cantered down the road wearing acutely unambitious shorts and bikini tops. Nudging her wide-eyed work colleagues, she whispered “sex workers”, a conclusion they had already reached as this is just how sex workers in Cambodia dress too. Her team nearly had to be passed the smelling salts when another girl came in wearing a dress whose entire relevance was up for question since it barely skirted the arse which it was in any event too transparent to conceal. Someone forgot to tell her there’s no beach in Siem Reap.

We know that they probably weren’t really sex workers on the street, or an utterly beyond redemption raving narcissist in the supermarket, but I’m sure there are plenty of other ways of advertising availability for sex without freaking out the locals or making me want to hurl into my shopping basket. Maybe a big sign, or a T-shirt?

Are they still in their pyjamas?

Are they still in their pyjamas? (This is a temple. A temple.)

Cambodia is a country in which modesty is valued. Visitors might not agree with that viewpoint, but while here we are under an obligation to respect the moral codes that don’t violate our own ethics. The capacity to parade around half-naked is not in itself an ethic or, incidentally, liberation. We expect the same of visitors to our own countries.

I wonder if the young women who demonstrate such bare-arsed cheek would be so happy if people from their own communities were to mistake them for commercial sex workers too and, if not, why is it okay here? It is deeply ironic to overhear the scantily dressed babbling loudly about how much they love Cambodia, and how wonderful they find the people, while they publicly demonstrate such a threadbare regard for the opinions of those very people.

But the weirdest and worst is seeing people traipsing around the Angkor temples wearing not a fantastic amount more than what nature bestowed them. Since they came to Cambodia to see the temples, it’s probably fair to conclude that they do realise that these are religious buildings, sacred to the people of Cambodia and to the monks and local people for whom Angkor Wat is still a living, breathing place of prayer. My brain can’t cope with trying to make the connection between that knowledge and the decision to wear hot pants and a tube top. Maybe the early morning rise muddles up thought processes.

Picture this if he were in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, or St. Patrick's in New York...

Picture this if he were in St Paul's Cathedral, London, or St Patrick's in New York...

No one’s asking anyone to don a burka, but out of a basic sense of respect it can’t be so hard or unendurably limiting for women to cover upper arms and legs for a day or two. And for the blokes, do keep your shirt on. It’ll surely make us poor deprived women appreciate it all the more when you rip it off again. Just not in the supermarket, okay?

Photos by Stéphane De Greef.

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13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Dress code in Cambodia”

  1. Lingyon 20 Mar 2012 at 10:44 pm


    Couldn’t agree more.

  2. Tim W.on 21 Mar 2012 at 7:28 am

    Excellent article. The author is very well spoken on this issue. A little more respect is in order from some of the tourists here.

  3. Solaon 21 Mar 2012 at 8:27 am

    It bothers me when foreigners are disrespectful to Cambodians by bargaining unnecessarily at the markets, are unconcerned with fair trade or environmentalism, or complain about “Cambodians” as a whole.

    While the author’s sentiment is echoed the world over, I would like to respectfully disagree with the basic tenets of the article, specifically with how it addresses women’s attire. Yes, Cambodia is certainly a modest society. Yes, the majority of Khmer women do cover their arms and legs. But the suggestion that a scantily clad woman, Khmer or foreign, is a sex worker is disrespectful to all women.
    You said that you don’t expect women to wear burkas, great. Thanks. Glad I don’t have to adhere to that standard of modesty.
    I have a number of Khmer friends who wear skirts above their knees and tank tops: entrepreneurs, mothers, and not one a sex worker.
    Young people dress to express. Did you ever think that the woman wearing booty shorts and a tube top is most comfortable that way?
    I hope that one day we will live in a WORLD culture where damaging assumptions are not made on the basis of something as benign as a wardrobe choice.

  4. Blixicaton 21 Mar 2012 at 9:10 am

    I am kind of with Sola on this one. Khmer men get around with no shirts all of the time!! and sometimes just with a Krama around their waist – and if it is sweaty, there may not be a lot left to the imagination. Also, men just in towels on the street isn’t unusual.
    Khmer women, especially in Phnom Penh also wear modern clothing and it would be just plain rude to assume that being fashionable makes you a sex worker.

  5. Dave Perkeson 21 Mar 2012 at 5:07 pm

    I note the comment by Bixicat about Khmer guys dressed in Kramas. They may do so casually; but you will never find a genuine Khmer dressed that way in the Temples.
    Cambodians dress very well considering their lack of Money. Foreigners ;and not always westerners do not always dress with respect. Most Temple Guards are obliviois to this; except at the Top Level Of Angkor Wat and Baphuon. The Tour guides who work for me; always advise the best dress code before going out on a tour.
    Independent travelers;are the biggest dress sinners. They ae usually young bakpacker types who don’t give stuff for the culture; don’t use a guide (probably because they are too tight fisted and would rather spend their money on beer).

  6. Abigailon 22 Mar 2012 at 3:41 am

    I agree that many modern Khmer women wear shorter skirts or even tank tops/vest tops, but you won’t see them wearing those clothes to a temple. It’s disrespectful. They are also unlikely to sport an outfit that shows too much of anything – shorts with a shirt, rather than a vest top, or a vest top with jeans. It’s all about moderation.

    I regularly observe backpackers in Phnom Penh who have lost the beach – my best/worst spot was at Central Market last week where a girl had customised her Vang Vieng T-shirt so much that the armholes went down to her midriff and her see-through purple bra was entirely on show through the gap. I seriously doubt she would wear the same to go shopping in her own capital city.

    Khmer men may hang about their own neighhourhood in a krama and no top, but would certainly get dressed to go elsewhere. I also hate to see sweaty male torsos on display in shops or bars – it’s just not necessary or considerate.

    No-one is going to suffer excessively from the heat by wearing shorts that go to the knees and a T-shirt that covers shoulders. In fact, it’s likely to reduce sunburn and insect bites.

    Places like the royal palace in Bangkok and the Taj Mahal have strict entry policies for clothing – perhaps we need something similar introduced for Angkor Wat?

  7. Aaronon 22 Mar 2012 at 8:30 am

    Married to a Khmer and I can tell you right now that she’d rather die than wear short shorts or a mini-skirt to a Pagoda (or any other temple). White shirt (with sash) and ankle-length skirt is the correct attire and if that isn’t possessed then long jeans and utterly unrevealing t-shirt is acceptable.

    Likewise the men. They may wrap a krama on as a sarong before or after work and for a shower, but they WILL wear the very best clothes they own to a pagoda.

    As for Sola’s World Culture, such a culture would respect the dress sensibilities of regions. Until that happens, dismissing the ignorant and their ignorance with a putdown is de rigueur. Calling them the local equivalent of “hos” was probably a bit unfair to all women in an enlightened PC-type world, it certainly doesn’t make for much of an advertisement for one’s own respect for another’s culture, but the underlying sentiment is certainly correct.

    The wardrobe choice was benign at home and quite the insult in Cambodia.

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  9. Carolinaon 27 Mar 2012 at 2:08 am

    Excellent post! And I completely agree. You can avoid the heat and still be appropriately dressed if you choose light fabrics. Also, please research the customs for dressing before visiting a foreign country!

  10. Paul Con 10 May 2012 at 4:42 am

    Snapped this a couple of years back at Angkor Wat:

    Attractive girls, sure, but really, would anyone wear that at St. Peter’s Basilica?

    I think a dress code for the temples would be a good thing. In fact, I’m bloody surprised that it’s not already been implemented.

    I’ve spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, most of it in Cambodia, and I always wear long pants/jeans and a collared shirt. Locals have complimented me on my dress sense. One night I was hanging out at my guesthouse in jeans and a singlet top and went to Pub Street to buy some cigarettes without throwing a shirt on first, and I was treated differently by all the touts and tuktuk/moto dudes.

    All it is is respect. Think of how you’d prefer visitors to your own country to dress and act, then do that. It’s not that hard.

  11. […] has already been written about the lack of respect shown by scantily-clad backpackers oblivious to the fact that ancient sites such as Angkor Wat are still places of worship. But sadly, […]

  12. neil tristan yabuton 29 Sep 2013 at 10:08 am

    take those pictures from the front next time, so we can see what these idiots look like

  13. Borealon 25 May 2014 at 9:39 pm

    Excellent article!
    I deeply agree about showing respect to foreign countries/cultures.
    A postmodern world require sensibility, knowledge and maturity to appreciate the other.

    To say that: “young people dress for express themselves”, is an extremely poor argument. It only justifies a prefund sense of entitlement, laziness and arrogance.

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