All of the Cambodian Smiles

The Khmer people of Cambodia are literally some of the nicest, most genuine, giving, selfless people I’ve ever met. They are always smiling and laughing and joking with each other. They have hearts of gold and are honest and sincere. Below are only a smattering of my experiences of this so far, but these stories certainly warm my heart in times of travel stress.

When I went on a four-hour horseback ride through the countryside near Siem Reap, every single child (some pantless), would stop whatever it is they were doing (kicking balls around, helping mom cook, playing with the dogs) and run out to the road, beaming and yelling “Hello-lady-how-are-youuuu!!!!” while waving their little arms frantically. Just so excited to see me! They don’t even know who I am! I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face.

Two days into my trip, as I’ve written about, I got food poisoning. It sucked. But early one morning when I was in the lobby of the guesthouse, attempting to dump spoonfuls of sugar down the narrow mouth of my water bottle (rehydration fluid recipe courtesy of Dr. Ronald Fritz, thanks Dad) and the sugar granules were landing anywhere but in the water bottle, the adorable dining room attendant brilliantly helped me by fashioning a makeshift funnel out of a napkin. She didn’t speak much English at all, but she could see I was struggling and close to tears in my hazy state, and she reached out and helped me with a very ingenious solution.

Everyone just wants to help. Here I am, sitting at a little guesthouse in a town with a name I can’t pronounce, typing this up on the front desk attendant’s laptop. He was all too eager to have me use it since my phone wouldn’t connect to the internet for whatever reason, and I desperately needed to search plane tickets and e-mail home. He then gave me a water bottle, adjusted the fan so it would blow on me, and later shyly asked what my name was so we could be “Facebook friend.” My heart is glowing.

Anytime we eat somewhere with Gabe’s local friends, they always offer for me to try whatever they ordered before they touch it. “Loh-ren, do you want to try?” It’s the sweetest thing. Or if we’re at a stand by the road buying coconuts or local fruit, they make sure to ask “Loh-ren, you want?” before they purchase one for themselves.

My server one evening at Il Forno, an amazing Italian restaurant in Siem Reap, struck up a conversation with me as I was paying my bill, asking if I was traveling alone and where I was from and if I had siblings and what I did for work and how old I was. She was so un-shy and curious, such a delight to talk with. People here care about you and your story instantly, even if they met you only a moment ago. I’ve been back twice to visit with her at the restaurant. 

And although there have been a few occasions on this trip where I’ve felt a little bit isolated from certain people around me, I’ve never felt lonely, because I can literally walk the streets and smile at anyone and they return it with the largest, most genuine smile. I instantly feel at home in a city I’ve never been to before. It’s all because of these amazing people.

I could do well to take a page from their book. What are these boundaries and walls I have put up in my life back home? Barriers between me and my friends, my family? I’ve always been a private person that way. I’ve never liked to open up, because I dislike attention focused on me. The Khmer people help reinforce the realization just how unnecessary these barriers are. Life is meant to be shared and lived and absorbed from the people around us. We are all connected in the human experience. And we all have unique stories to share. What’s the worst that could happen when you open up to someone and attempt to connect?

So my goal for the rest of this trip: BREAK DOWN THE FRICKIN’ BARRIERS. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’m sure I’ll be meeting and talking with plenty of strangers, locals and travelers alike. A smile is an instant connection. Share it. Boom.

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