The real name of the Cambodian language is Khmer. Learning how to speak Cambodian Khmer is actually really difficult for westerners. Let us take a closer look at the language and some of the more useful phrases.
Why Learn How to Speak Cambodian?
It makes things cheaper! A few simple words of Khmer shows the person you are not a completely green tourist and are unlikely to want to pay tourist prices for things. The same throughout the world, tourists pay more for things. If you are in a tourist area prices are often inflated.
Looking like a tourist can push the price up even higher. Not understanding the price or how the local currency works increases thing even more. And falling prey to a local unscrupulous stall holder means you are paying ten times what the true price of the item should be. Using a few phrases of the local lingo can help you to haggle for a price that suits both parties.
It breaks down barriers and shows you are wanting to learn a little about the country you are in. You want to connect with the local people and take part in society instead of sitting on the sidelines looking in. It is the first step towards friendship.
It stops you getting hassled by touts and tuk-tuk drivers. A simple "Atay arkun bong" (No thanks friend) often stops the hawker or the hustler in his / her tracks and they divert their attention to an easier target. On the other hand, if you actually want something they offer then it makes it even easier to ask them for it. It saves your time and their time.
It's a different language! Of course, it's a different language! It is not only different, but it's also very very different. The written part of it is ridiculously difficult. The spoken part I find not much easier. The problem for me is the alphabet. At least with Italian or Spanish, it is written in the same alphabet. The Khmer alphabet has 33 consonants, a handful of vowels, consonants with dependent vowels, diacritics, stacked consonants and ligatures. So initially looking at text is just unfathomable for someone used to the Latin or Roman "ABCs". The extra sounds in the pronunciation, such as the "ng" sound, make the pronunciation difficult. We don't use these sounds in the west so cannot pronounce them! The lack of letters in the Roman alphabet make writing the way words sound very difficult. The language has so many letters and variations for a reason. The only way you can represent fairly accurately the actual sounds is to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Not many people can understand IPA, and I am not one of them.
So we tried lessons with an English speaking local for a few weeks. Every time I wrote in roman alphabet how I thought the Khmer phrases sounded, I would return the following week and not be able to pronounce them. I have actually picked up a few words from people I work with at school and those I socialise with. For me, language is one of the biggest problems living here in Cambodia. We were also being taught the formal way of saying things. With the English language, we also mix the formal with the slang and abbreviated when talking to each other. It is the same in Khmer. I was trying out the new phrases outside of the lesson and friends were laughing and correcting me from the formal to the casual slang which I much easier.
Now I find I can get around with relatively few phrases, I can understand much more than I can speak. The main phrases I have covered in the video with our friend "Teacher Thea". A few more informal phrases are listed below, good luck with the pronunciation.
The word is missing from all guidebooks and intros to simple Khmer. It is a respectful way of addressing someone. So "Bong Bro" is like "brother" and "Bong Srey" is like "sister". It is respectful and a go-to word if you are addressing almost anyone. You can use it in a restaurant to attract the waiter's attention, combine it with almost any other phrase such as "A-tey arkun bong bro" - "no thank you, brother". When you listen to Khmers speaking, the more "bong" ing there is, the more polite they are being to each other. If in doubt - say "bong" a lot.
Common words we use around town
Bah - yes (if you are a man)
Chah - Yes (if you are a woman)
A-tay - No
Soo-sa-day - Hello
Lee-hi - goodbye like "See ya"
Sock sa bye - How are you? (and you answer either "Bah" or "Chah" then "Sock sa Bye")
Arkun - thank you
Som-toe - Sorry or excuse me
Schweng - left
Saddam - right
Chop - stop
Tini - here
D'trong - straight
Chhnang - delicious (hard to pronounce this exactly right but if you are eating people will understand the context)
Teuk - water
Bier - beer (lager)
Som ket loy - the bill, please
Poh maan - how much?
T’lay na! - too expensive
Cham mouy ey - What is your name?
Knyom chamouy - My name is _____
Mee en - have
Ot mee en - don't have
Loy - money
Numbers work on a base five system. so you count to five then use "Pram" as five. Then it is "Pram moi" (five plus one) for six. There is 4000 riel to a dollar so the thousands are useful to know.
Moi - one
Pee - two
Bye - three
Boo an -four
Pram - five
Pram moi - six
Pram pee - seven
Pram bye- eight
Pram boo an - nine
Dup - ten
Dup moi - eleven
Dup pram moi - sixteen
Roy - hundred
Pram roy - five hundred
Poo an - thousand
Pee poo an pram roy - two thousand five hundred
Pee poo an - two thousand
Moi mou an - ten thousand
Pee mou an - twenty thousand
Putting it together into common phrases.
Som teuk moi - "Please some water one"
Som teuk pi - "Please some water two"
Som bier moi - Please beer one"
Ot mee en loy - don't have money
A-tay bong arkun, ot mee en loy - no bro thank you, I don't have any money
Watch the Video and Learn How to Speak Cambodian with Teacher Thea.
If you are wanting good quality free lessons on YouTube then check out Dara Yin and his "Learning Khmer" videos. He has an extensive range of lessons and is a great teacher. There are two main texts for further study. David Smyth's "Colloquial Cambodian" includes audio to help with pronunciation. Hok Dada and Hok Sreymom produced"Learn Cambodian Everyday Dialogues For Foreigners" which is normally readily available on Amazon.
Below are valuable resources that we have developed to help you on your journey.
Getting to Cambodia
You will need a flight to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville. We have always found Skyscanner give us the best deals on flights. It is also easy to travel overland from Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. There are many bus companies that offer these services. Once in the county, travel between places is best done by internal flight or by bus. You can also travel by private car/taxi. For shorter journeys around town, you can hail a passing taxi or tuk-tuk.
Where to stay and long term accommodation
When you first get into town you will want to find a guesthouse or hotel for the first few weeks. We usually use Booking.com or AirBnB. When you want long term accommodation like an apartment or a house to rent then we suggest our fine friends Gemma and Cho at Siem Reap Property Services. Cho has always found us great places to live and is super helpful liaising with landlords and services etc.
We thoroughly recommend you take our travel insurance whenever you travel. We recently had to put in a claim for over $5000 when we had to cancel our flights and other bookings and quickly fly back to the UK due to a family emergency. The claim went through very quickly and we managed to recover most of our expenses. Without travel insurance, we would have lost the lot!
If you think you are going to be teaching then you are going to need a TEFL course. You do not need a CELTA straight away. CELTA costs a lot of money and is a big capital investment. You may decide after day three in the classroom that teaching isn't for you. Or you may find after a year of teaching that you really enjoy it and want to apply for better-paid jobs that require a CELTA. That is the right time to do one.
Buy a TEFL course from a reputable course provider. I found www.TEFL.org to be excellent. Tanya then went and completed one by i-to-i and I think it is better value for money. You also get better support and bigger discounts on things and better leads to jobs.
You can find out more about teaching English on Tanya's travel blog at Can Travel, Will Travel.
There are lots of other videos about teaching on the Going Nomad 123 YouTube channel. Check out this playlist.
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