Sopheasett & Chbap

Khmer Proverbs & Didactic Code 

I like using proverbs and sayings in conversations or discussions where possible. They help me to express what I need to say in a short and concise way. I also find it to be a better way to get my message across without being worried that I might offend people when trying to explain, suggest, remind, warn or even giving advice. Why? It is because almost everyone in Cambodia knows and accepts that proverbs and sayings were written and passed down to us through many generations by our ancestors and wise men as social rules. They are intended to guide, warn and teach us to follow in order that we can have a better life and live together in harmony. Proverbs and sayings contain moral and civic codes on how to behave, to avoid pitfalls, to approach difficulties and to resolve common problems in our daily life. 

Proverbs and Sayings


Gourd Water Containers

Some proverbs have literal meanings, i.e. Cheh pi rean, mian pi rork’ or 'gaining knowledge from studying, and getting rich from hard work'. Some are metaphors, i.e. ‘Ngoeuy skork, aon dak kroap’ or ''the immature rice stalk stands erect, while the mature stalk bends over'.  Others are considered to be the predictions of the Buddha, i.e. Klauk lik, ambaeng ondaet’ or 'when the hollow dried gourd sinks, the broken glass floats'. I will try to interpret these proverbs in detail later. 

Proverbs are mainly presented in everyday language but sometimes feature rhymes and rhythms. The images used in the proverbs are drawn either from experience and wisdom in everyday life involving humans, animals and nature around us; or from folktales, novels, chbaps (moral and civic codes) and Buddhist teaching. The aim is to make them familiar, recognisable, simple and easy to understand and to remember. 

Before attempting to interpret (where possible, with a story as an illustration) some of the proverbs and sayings I would like to divide into five categories: 


  1.  Respect of traditions with regard to family and interpersonal relationships – i.e.

         Proverb: ‘Samnab yaung dey, srey yaung proh’
        (Rice seedling raises the soil, a woman supports her man)

         Saying: ‘Chaol sach, sra-var chha-oeung’
        (Throwing away meat, grabbing bone)

             Saying: 'Srey Kanh-cheu thluh'
              (A woman with holes in her basket)  

              Proverb: 'Tork tork penh bampong, chhong chhong kampub orh’
              (Drop by drop the pot filled, pouring carelessly leaves the pot empty)           Read illustrating story ...       

   2.   Encouragement of good personal qualities


Relevance and Practicality
In an ever changing world, most of the proverbs are still surprisingly relevant whilst some are not. I find a few to be out-of-date. For example, those that teach resistance to change, if believed in and followed would hinder socio-cultural development and progress – i.e. two proverbs below:

     ‘chanh chia preah, chneah chia mia' (Losing is divine, winning is evil)
     ‘Proh chia meas, srey chia kra-nat’ (Men are gold, women are cloth)
      (I will elaborate on these later) 

Some of them can be ambiguous. Depending on the area of Cambodia, their interpretation can differ to some extent. On the other end of the scale, it could be from being a negative to a positive connotation. For example:  


     ‘Chih krabey chamlorng phok’ (Riding a buffalo to cross a muddy soil)

In Cambodia, a buffalo is used to plough the field. Although, kids can be seen riding it playfully in the field, a buffalo has never been used as a form of personal transportation like a horse or a donkey. So, riding a buffalo is definitely an unusual practice.

The first interpretation would be: ‘When needs be, why not use resources available at your disposal to resolve your problems or difficulties’ – a good advice.  

On the other hand, if I describe a Mr A that ‘he has ridden a buffalo to cross a muddy soil’, it would mean that he has taken advantage of someone. To give you a concrete example, there was a Mr Smith who was in between jobs and had nowhere to stay. He met a Ms B who owned a flat. He asked her out and eventually married her just to be able to share her flat. As he did not love her, once he found a job and could afford a room, he left her. A very bad Mr A. He could have asked Ms B to let him use the flat and promise to pay the rent when he's got a job instead of 'leading her up the garden path' and broke her heart.  

So, we normally say: DO NOT 'ride a buffalo to cross a muddy soil’ as a warning advice.  

Chbap (Didactic Code / Code of Practice)

Alongside folktales, we have 'chbap' - a morally instructive set of codes which were mostly told at pagodas or at religious ceremonies, and taught at school. Unlike folktales, they were told in 'Kam-narb' - in verse (a well-defined poetic pattern with rhythm and rhyme). The act of reciting those chbaps is called 'smaut' a type of chanting without music. A few chbaps that I can remember from my days as a high school teacher are:

- chbap kaun chav, moral and civics code for children and grandchildren
- chbap srey, moral and civics code for women. This one in particular was often passed on at home from mother to daughter or from grandmother to granddaughter.
- chbap proh, moral and civics code for men
- chbap peak chah, ancient advice
- chbap ke kal, code for safekeeping of the heritage
- chbap Kram, code of etiquette
- chbap Krom-Ngouy, code for behaviour in general, written by Mr Ngouy - a Khmer wiseman. 


 (I will elaborate on this 'Chhap' soon ...)