Asia Stories and Tips

Khmer ភាសាខ្&#

Central Market Photo, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

If you do not see the Khmer characters in this article title, they can be downloaded at here; if the link has been discontinued, contact me and I’ll send the Unicode installation pack.

Cambodia is Campuchea

The variety of Cambodia’s name transliterations is baffling. It seems as if every one of the last regimes had changed the country’s name; however, the simple truth is that all the Romanization variants are equally faithful to the original name. Khmer is richer in sounds than most other languages; fitting an exact match to a Khmer name is difficult.

For example, the Khmer rendition of the name Cambodia consists of three complex characters. The first is a "K" – it even looks as a stylized "K" - and has no subscript vowel, thus it automatically receives an "ah." The second is an "M" and it has two subscripts, the first accounts for a "P" or a "B" and has a sub-subscript which fits an "uh" or "oh," creating thus a syllable that can be transliterated in several fashions "MPU," "MBO," and so on. The third main character fits a "D," a "J" or a soft "CH" and is joined by an ending diphthong which sounds like "IA" or "EA." Cambodia is thus Campuchea and we are humbled by a stronger, richer alphabet.


During my graduated studies, I was in contact with a research group studying the way brains perceive consonants. They used MRI related equipment for monitoring the brain response to carefully created sounds and compared the results between people from different cultures.

They found that a given sound can be perceived differently. Moreover, by studying a group of Mandarin-Chinese speakers, it was found that babies which were not exposed to foreign languages until the age of ten months lost their capability to differentiate between "L" and "R," unless later in their life took intensive speech laboratory classes.

Thus our incapacity to correctly transliterate and pronounce foreign – Khmer in this case - consonants should be expected. My best advice is to listen carefully to a local pronunciation and then trying to replicate the sound the way we heard it.

Moreover, Khmer has the most complex alphabet known. Thus transliterating foreign names into Khmer is easy, while the opposite leads to the biggest metaphorical minefield in the country.


Khmer is different from the other main modern languages in South East Asia in more than one aspect. First it belongs to the Mon-Khmer family of languages and not to the more common Tai-Kadai one and second it lacks tones and thus for Westerners it is easier to learn speaking Khmer.

Historically, this was the first language to adopt a scripture based on Sanskrit and Pali brought by Buddhist monks in South East Asia on the 7th century AC. Later, Khmer became the base for the development of the Thai scripture.


As Indo-European languages (a definition which includes the Sanskrit on which it is based), Khmer is written from left to right and then top to bottom.

In the far past even Latin was written with no spaces between the words; Khmer (like Thai and Lao) keeps this characteristic until now, so that reading it is quite difficult.


Khmer letters can be written in three styles, which make the learning even more difficult.

"Âksâr chhôr" is the default type and refers upright letters; this is the font used in computers.

"Âksâr chriĕng" are the slanted letters which were the favourite in the past but have been displaced by computers.

"Âksâr mul" are the round letters used in official texts and signs


Thirty-three consonants survived out of the original thirty-five Khmer ones. However, consonant clusters are united by subscript consonant marks which create the complex shapes of Khmer texts. The subscript cancels the inherent vowel of the preceding consonant, but a new vowel can be added as a sub-subscript.

Twenty-three vowels complete the letters list and some of them can change the shape of the preceding consonant by merging with it; adding thus yet another difficulty to the reading process.

Useful Phrases

Chum-reep su-or Hello

Sok sabay ta How’s it going?

Akoon Thank you

Som Please

Awt-tay No

Baat Yes, for man

Chaa Yes, for woman

Mao-pee-na Where are you from?


At least in Pailin, Angkor and Phnom Penh, Thai is widely understood at a basic level. Since Cambodians tend to pronounce it without tones, their Thai is easier to understand by Western ears than the original version.


Vietnamese is spoken by the large Vietnamese refugees minority on the Tonle Sap Lake floating houses, Phnom Penh and along the border with Vietnam. It is useful mainly in the abundant Vietnamese restaurants.


There is a significant Chinese community in Phnom Penh. Recognizing them is easy but guessing which Chinese dialect they speak is almost impossible. However pronouncing the friendly Xie-Xie (thanks) would assure a wide smile.


In a short leisure trip to Cambodia, expecting to learn reading Khmer is an unreal hope. Recognizing some popular word and phrases is however a doable task which holds an additional benefit to it.

More than any other people in South East Asia, Cambodians value travellers’ efforts to communicate in their language; maybe this is due to its relative insignificance, or due to their long years of isolation and wars. Regardless the reason, if the small gift of our (mis)pronouncing a few words in their language makes them feel relevant and worthy humans in a world that abandoned them in their toughest moments, then we should do every effort to accomplish that.

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