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Seeing the elephant defecate, do not strive to defecate like the elephant.

Defecating like the elephant

Proverbs, sayings and idioms are an important part of the Khmer language, used to pass down traditions, enforce cultural norms, satirise society and just for laughs. A Khmer language expert – who asked not to be named because of her day job – sheds light on some of the more colorful phrases this week, while illustrator David Pinho brings them to life.

To look at someone like a water buffalo looking at television.
People are coming up with new proverbs, idioms and sayings all the time and this is a new one. You use it when someone doesn’t understand what they’re being told to do and then goes ahead and makes an attempt at it anyway.
To work with the shirt covering only half of the ass.
A lot of the time people will do something but only because they have to and they will put in as little effort as possible and take no responsibility for the outcome. That’s working with your shirt covering only half your ass.
When a tree falls, the monkeys scatter.
When the tree falls, the monkeys have no place to live. In the same way, if the government or country falls, then the people fall too.
Old cow wants to eat young grass.
This one is like a commentary on society. Old men always want to be with young women like cows always like to have the freshest, juciest grass. It’s kind of saracastic. It’s unusual to have a proverb that’s critical of older people. Most pay respect, like “the older the ginger, the stronger the taste”.
When water rises, fish eat ants; when water lowers, ants eat fish.
Most Cambodian proverbs are about culture but we have some that are political too. This one is about the political cycle in Cambodia: whichever party is in power “eats” the other. When the tide changes, they get eaten.
A mountain cannot have two tigers.
This is another political saying. It’s about power. There can only ever be one leader in one place. If there’s two they will fight. It’s very reflective of the Cambodian context. There’s a joke that if the second tiger is a female, then it will be ok.
Do not assume a sleeping tiger is dead, do not a assume a crouching tiger is kowtowing.
This is a warning about making assumptions about people – especially enemies. If they are quiet, do not assume that they’re not up to something.
Kicking the wind.
This is a funny one that people use every day. It basically means being unemployed, having nothing to do. People will ask: “What do you do nowadays?” and they will reply, “Oh, I am just kicking the wind”.
Tending the water buffalo, ride the water buffalo; tending the cow, ride the cow.
If you tend a buffalo, you will know it well and you should use it in other ways. Likewise in life, make the most of the skills and possessions you have.
Seeing the elephant defecate, do not strive to defecate like the elephant.
According to traditional Cambodian culture, one shouldn’t try to be something they're not. If you see a bong thom driving an SUV, you shouldn’t think you should have to have one too and get a big loan for one.
Illustrations by David Pinho
Rediscovering wise words

The Khmer Old Sayings

In the basement at my mother’s house in the US, she has set up a small memorial to my father, which has a small pile of his favourite books. Among them is one titled The Khmer Old Sayings, by Pich Sal.

My father loved to recite Khmer sayings. Perhaps it was a way for him to keep alive the knowledge and love he had for Khmer literature. Growing up, I didn’t understand the significance of these sayings but now that I am relearning Khmer, I am discovering the beauty of these phrases. Back then they were just words to me but, as I learn more about the language I am finding that these short phrases are a window into Khmer culture, character and mentality.

Some of them deal with the importance of family, such as "A mother thinks about her children like an oar to a canoe. Children think of their mother like the Buddha who turns his back." He was trying to tell us that parents always think, worry and love their children, but children don’t often think of their parents in the same way.

When he became a grandfather another phrase I recall him vividly saying was “Love your children one tao (a unit of measurement – a large basket to put rice in). Love your grandchildren one thaing (one thaing is equivalent to two taos)”. The meaning in this proverb is that as a parent you love your grandchildren twice as much as you love your children.

He taught us the importance of studying hard and working hard to achieve our dreams. He would say: “You learn from studying, you have wealth from working” He wanted us to understand that if you study hard, you will learn. If you work hard you will have wealth.

Humility is very central to Khmer culture and many Khmer sayings teach the importance of being humble and not too brag. A phrase my father would say often about this is: “Sit in the basket, lift up yourself.” It means, don’t brag about yourself too much. If you sit in the basket you cannot lift yourself.

This is an abridged version of a blog post by Cambodian-American writer Mitty Steele. To read more about her journey rediscovering her cultural roots, check out



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