Freelancing Gods 2015

10 Apr 2009

Speaking Khmer

This is the second of my guides to Cambodia.

While I’m pretty good with programming languages, spoken languages is a completely different kettle of fish. Still, I spent a long enough time in Cambodia to pick up some Khmer – not enough to have conversations, but generally enough to get the gist of what the locals were saying to me.

Khmer has its own character set – sixteen vowels and thirty-five consonants – so my attempts to provide speaking guides below aren’t anything to swear by. There’s a few characters that can be translated as mixtures of our own, such as bp and dj.

Also, keep in mind that if you speak more than the very basics, then you’ll get one of two reactions. Either the Khmer will assume you know the language, and will answer in the same language – which quite likely won’t be that helpful; or, they’ll do a double-take, and repeat what you said and laugh. The latter happened to me a lot in Siem Reap in particular, because Westerners (Berangs) that speak Khmer in such a tourist-heavy location are few and far between.

If you get stuck in the former situation though, I’d recommend saying “Khmer tik-tik” (small Khmer), and they’ll probably laugh and then switch back to English, should they know any.

Greetings and Thank-you

  • Hello: Soos’dai
  • How are you?: Sock-sa’bai? (Literally: Healthy and Happy? This can also be used as the response – much like ├ža va in French)
  • Happy: Sa’bai
  • Very Happy: Sa’bai na
  • Good: L’or
  • Very Good: L’or na
  • Thank-you: Oarkun
  • Thank-you very much: Oarkun Djeraan
  • Yes: Baht (when said by males) or Djaa (when said by females)
  • No: A’tay (Again, works very similarly to the French ne pas, with the word being negated going in between, as shown in the next example).
  • No Problem: At-banya-ha, or more correctly At-banya-ha-tay.

Sock-sa’bai is used as a general greeting, and more than often will be the response offered in return. If you want to be a bit of a smart-arse, you can switch the syllables of Sock-sa’bai to Sai-sa’bock – which is something the Khmer do themselves occasionally, but a Westerner saying it is often seen as a great joke to them.


The Khmer counting system is pretty easy to get your head around – it generally works by fives, as you can see below. The only thing I find tricky is each multiple of ten has no connection to the factor (ie: 2 and 20 don’t sound the same).

  • 1: Moi (as in Moira)
  • 2: Bpee
  • 3: Bai
  • 4: Buan
  • 5: Pram
  • 6: Pram-Moi (ie: 5 + 1)
  • 7: Pram-Bpee
  • 8: Pram-Bai
  • 9: Pram-Buan
  • 10: Dop
  • 11: Dop-Moi (10 + 1)
  • 12: Dop-Bpee
  • 16: Dop-Pram-Moi (10 + 5 + 1)
  • 20: Moi’pai
  • 21: Moi’pai-Moi (20 + 1)
  • 30: Sam’sup
  • 40: Sae’sup
  • 50: Ha’sup
  • 100: Moi-roy
  • 121: Moi-roy-Moi’pai-Moi (100 + 20 + 1)
  • 200: Bpee-roy
  • 1000: Moi-bpuan

Wikipedia has a lot more detail on the number system, if you’re feeling curious.


When talking about people, you’ll generally indicate their age (younger or older than yourself) and gender.

  • Older: Bong
  • Younger: Ohn
  • Male: Proh
  • Female: Srei

So, if you’re at a restaurant, and you want to get the waiter’s attention, it’s best to err on the side of seniority, and call him Bong-Proh. An older woman is Bong-Srei, although Bong will likely be fine in both cases. The literal translations are older/younger sister/brother, but it’s not meant as an indication of immediate family (although they are also used in that manner).

  • Older Sister: Bong-Srei
  • Older Brother: Bong-Proh
  • Younger Sister: Ohn-Srei
  • Younger Brother: Ohn-Proh

Keep in mind this is just the basics – I didn’t really get my head around the rest.

Dining and Shopping

This is one area where I’m quite rusty – I never really ordered in true Khmer restaurants (only places that catered for Westerners). You’ll notice, though, that each meat shares the same prefix – Satch, meaning flesh. So if you see the live animals (ie: a cow), just call it Ko, instead of Satch-ko.

  • Chicken: Satch-muern
  • Beef: Satch-ko
  • Pork: Satch-cheruu
  • Banana: Jake
  • Tasty: Chng’ngyang (this one takes a bit of practicing)
  • Delicious: Chng’ngyang na (literally, very tasty)
  • Cheers: Chul moi (As one)
  • Money: Loy
  • Can I have the bill?: Som kit loy?
  • How much is this?: Tly pon-man?
  • Expensive: Tly na
  • One more: Moi tiet


  • Turn right: Bat saddaam
  • Turn left: Bat schweng
  • Straight ahead: Dtrong
  • Here: Tini
  • There: Tinu

Everything Else

  • Westerner: Berang (in the past, this meant French, as they ‘colonised’ the region, but it’s now a catch-all term for any Anglo-looking person)
  • Pretty: Sa’at
  • Beautiful: Sa’at na (literally, very pretty)
  • Small: Tik-tik
  • Large: Tom-tom
  • Slow: Yuut-yuut
  • Strong: Klung
  • Miss: Nook (as in, to miss someone)
  • Dog: Ch’kai
  • Cat: Ch’maa
  • Don’t need: A’trega (Useful when dealing with the never-ending calls of touts for taxis, tuk-tuks and motos in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap)
  • Have: Mien
  • Already: Howie
  • Have already: Mien Howie

That should give you a decent start – although I’m sure I’ll think of more words tomorrow. Next up in this series (and hopefully appearing a bit more quickly than this post) is tackling travel around Cambodia.

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