Why We Smile

by Liz on April 28, 2012

in Opinion,Travel


This past winter I traveled to Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia, and I thought I owed it to myself to write a few thoughts that have lingered on. Travel took place mostly by land, on roads that were at times littered with rubble or sometimes crowded with ox carts that were a throwback to the bas-reliefs of Bayon. It was quite the adventure.

In many ways, and even before I began my travels I expected the food to be sublimely delicious and the sights show stopping. After all, Angkor Wat was on the itinerary, but the one thing I didn’t expect were the smiles. The miles and miles of smiles of ordinary people that made sense in those cultures, but perhaps not anywhere else, and particularly in a city like New York: large, impersonal, and generally free of obligations to your fellow man.

And I feel so bewildered. Perhaps we used to smile like that too. Once upon a time. But when I think of the smiles of Cambodians I met, I think I can be forgiven for momentarily forgetting the headache-inducing headlines of newspapers and CNBC ticker tape updates. Whenever that simple greeting of unspoken words came my way, I thought, why not? After all, what is there to frown about? I was on vacation after all, and so I smiled back. In fact, I ended up smiling all the time, even when there was really nothing to smile about. And I’m pretty sure I looked like an idiot.

A Khmer family enjoying the vista at Angkor Wat.


But the Cambodians I met were hardly on vacation. Most people live under the heavy hand of political corruption. The Khmer verb to govern literally means, “to eat the kingdom,” and now as it was back in the days of the powerful Khmer kings, the many live in rural poverty, taking on the backbreaking work of planting rice. Meanwhile modern mandarins collect significant fortunes by selling teak and other valuable resources to the Thai.

Check out my belly button! Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Which pretty much left me to grapple with the other side of this perplexing equation: the seeming impossibility of that smile, from amputees serving as a daily reminder of the land mines, but who walked around Siem Reap with a bright smile waving a friendly hello. Or the little girl in a boat in Tonle Sap who smiled into my camera with abandon, because this is what two people do when they meet. They greet each other. But this wasn’t Eden. Obviously. There was some squalor, and the feeling most inhabitants were just getting by, but the instant friendliness of everyone took me completely by surprise.

So maybe Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorer countries rich in other ways. Coming from a country (or countries) that has a love/hate relationship with wealth, money, and good looks, I guess I’ll never completely understand why humble Cambodians smile as they do. But there is something powerfully liberating about drawing from a well of enduring satisfaction, and extracting happiness from a place that’s never too far away. Perhaps that’s what it means to be alive, just to be here.

And I’m grateful.

Thai monks walk by colonial buildings in Penang, Malaysia.

  • Ross Cranwell

    When I travelled to Cambodia around 10 years ago, I also noticed the smiling from the locals. They were fantastic and definitely people to learn from in terms of level of happiness despite hardship

    • Liz

      Thanks for visiting Ross! Glad to hear my essay resonated with you on some levels. Nice to meet you!

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