Throughout South East Asia there is a single way to behave that is very different from my experience in the West. In each country it is called something different, but the underlying meanings are the same. The gesture is also performed consistently, in a similar way. It is so extremely civilized and has a calming effect on the mood for everyone involved.

In Cambodia, it is called Sampeah. In Thailand it is called Wai. These are both based on the Indian Añjali Mudrā used in namasté. In Bali it is called Sembah. There are names for this common gesture in Malaysia, Brunei, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. 

Royal Ballet Cambodia Apsara – photo by dalbera

If you have travelled to these areas or have lived down here, you know what I am referring to. The gesture consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. The higher the hands are held in relation to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect or reverence is being offered. To this day, showing the proper respect to other people, in society, is an extremely important part of social behaviour. 

Some of the norms include always returning the sampeah to another. But not initiating it to someone younger than you. If your arms are full of stuff, it is expected to make an effort, even if you can’t manage to get both hands together properly. (This happens to me a lot, I always seem to be carrying something). 

The wai may have developed from an ancient greeting, which is said to have shown neither individual had any weapons. In a way, I think that is still true today. Your defences are disarmed, psychologically by taking a moment to clasp your hands and bow. It seems like a kind gesture and I feel instantly warmer towards another by performing it. It is so much nicer than simply saying an obligatory hello, or a goodbye with a forced smile. The seconds it takes to form a sampeah set an intention in your body that is noticeable. 

How can one argue with a tradition that has stood the test of time, among a fairly peaceful group of countries?  The gesture may come from Buddhism, which sometimes involves prostration, or clasping the hands palms together and bowing to the ground. The gesture first appears about 4,000 years ago on the clay seals of the Indus Valley Civilization.

I’m just imaging what a typical day might be like if everyone back home offered this gesture. I should mention that a nice smile goes along with it. So now you have eye contact, a respectful nod with hands raised and a smile. It only takes seconds, but can you imagine the effect it would have? 

I already know the answer. The people I have seen, in the Siem Reap area are some of the most gracious people I have ever witnessed. This cuts across all parts of society. Even the youngest children will smile and wave. Riding their bicycles, sitting behind their parents on a scooter, or from the roadside as we peer into their villages from our tuk tuk. It is too spontaneous to be taught as a method to get something from tourists. This is a natural habit, practiced in their lives from day one.

In fact, children are raised differently in Cambodia. In Khmer society, to the age of three or four, the child is given considerable physical affection and freedom. Children around five years of age also may be expected to help look after younger siblings. Children’s games emphasize socialization or skill rather than winning and losing. From a young age, children are expected to show considerable respect to their elders.

I can see why people decide to live here, in South East Asia, despite the lack of material possessions and the challenges with getting Western style health care. Even with the extreme heat and humidity and the more modest lifestyle, there is a charm to life here, particularly in Siem Reap which is intoxicating. I think it all starts with the humble nod, above hands clasped together.

There could also be some Buddhist ideas creeping into my thoughts as well. In particular, the notion of peace and of not bringing harm to any living thing. That is a novel idea, which is not part of everyday life back home. I don’t just mean, not killing bugs, for example. I mean the very difficult emotional task of understanding if your actions will bring grief to others in the form of bad feelings, disrespect and general lack of kindness. In a world which seems to be out for themselves, to take a beat and consider the other person in the transactions of daily life, seems a big leap of faith.

Along the same lines, the idea of living my life in service to others is so foreign to me, I might as well be contemplating going to the moon. I don’t mean merely giving a sign of respect upon greeting, I am referring to taking a much bigger step. I want to organize my business of the future around supporting, helping and serving women in their creative journey. That means something different for each and every one of us, but I love diving into these personal stories. Being successful in providing encouragement, information and inspiration which allows others to thrive on their path has been extremely rewarding already. I can only imagine what it will be like when we start getting together for meet-ups, courses and retreats!

And when we meet again, you may not be surprised to see me giving you a short bow, with hands pressed together. Unless I know you well already, then I’ll give you a big hug!

Join me in this creative journey. I think it will be worth your time. I look forward to hearing from you! Use any form of communication which feels comfortable. Email, social media or even, if you want to give me a call, I can reached at cwestermark on Skype. Together, let us see where we can take this.

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Christine Westermark

I am working on a movement to empower women to practice creativity everyday, in every way we can. I believe this will be able us to realize our full potential in all facets of our lives. Be bold! Join, start or share in this social movement.
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Polite, respectful & kind – greetings, thank-you & goodbye
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