Finding contentment through a smile in a land of poverty and corruption

I saved Cambodia as the last place for my ventures throughout Asia because I felt as if it would be the perfect spot to end what I hoped would be an exceptional and enlightening trip around Southeast Asia, and what a trip it has been. I initially felt drawn to Cambodia because of the beautiful landscape, the humbling feeling that one must experience while standing beneath the ruins and stones of Angkor Wat, and the contagious smiles I saw in the pictures of faces that made up a culture I was intrigued to experience.


Source: Vietsky Travel

My eagerness to experience this culture didn’t mean I wasn’t naive with my travels into Cambodia. I was aware that behind those smiles were souls in poverty and amongst harsh living conditions that many experienced as a result from a corrupt government, lack of access to clean water, and even less access to adequate education. I knew from research that many of the orphanges and volunteer organizations weren’t reputable as some would take children away from their families and place them in “orphanges” so that tourists could volunteer for a day or two and have their picture taken doing their act of charity for the community. What many don’t realize is that even out of the best intentions, volunteering for only a couple of days or even less than a month can do more harm than good for these children as it doesn’t give them a foundation to grow from because they are constantly taught the same basic concepts and unable to grow from one stable group of people as their teachers are constantly changing. They also end up forming relationships with a stranger just to have that relationship taken from them, resulting in either a fear of connecting to someone or heartbreak from constantly being abonded by their new friend. I knew very well that I was going into a culture that was beautiful on the outside looking in but also had tragedy and heartbreak on the inside. What I didn’t realize was the extremity of some of these conditions and that I was in for a bit of a reality check.

Upon my arrival in Siem Reap, I was surprised at the ease I experienced going through customs and receiving my visa as I heard others had a more difficult time. As I drove down the streets by the river in my little tuk tuk, I loved the tree lined streets and markets that made up the Old French Quarter, Old Market, and the infamous Pub Street. I found myself smiling at everyone I locked eyes with, and in return they expressed the most beautiful smile back.

I ventured around the city, which didn’t take much time to get familiar with since it consisted of only a few main streets, and found a cute little cafe along the river called Sister Srey that had raving reviews of clean, delicious food and a humble, comfortable atmosphere. It was opened by a couple of sisters from Australia who had planned on spending only a few days in Siem Reap but after volunteering at a Padgoda school outside of town and falling in love with the city, ended up staying 2 months in the town. 10 days later they came back and opened their cafe with a vision of supporting Khmer students by helping them balance their lifestyle with continuing their studies while supporting their families. I later found out it was also very uncommon for students to even finish primary school and one of the wonderful parts about Siem Reap is there are many restaurants, organizations, and individuals who are supportive in giving back to the community through hiring local Khmer residents and providing them with not just benefits, pay, and supporting their future, but also skills and assets that will help them when they are on their own. I learned another issue with many orphanages is that because the children are given everything their entire lives, they expect to continue being given everything after they turn 18 and end up struggling to survive on their own. A couple of other restaurants that I went to that helped support the Khmer community that I would highly recommend are Haven and Genevieve’s. I think you can guess why I was initially drawn to the latter of the two, but I was even more delighted to find out that the woman it was named after was quite the philanthropist and the restaurant was very supportive of hiring locals and giving back.

A bit of cappuccino love at Sister Srey Café.

The more time I spent in Siem Reap, the more that my view of the culture started to shift as I took trips out to the villages away from the tourism aspect of the city. The way the light would bounce off the rice fields and through the shaded trees over the orange roads in the countryside was far more beautiful than the city life and I was delighted to get a break from the tuk tuks and tourists running around with elephant t-shirts, beaded bracelets, and knock off Ray Bans they had bargained for at the market. My driver dropped me off a couple of hours outside the city at Beng Mealea, a mysterious temple built in the 12th century similar to the floor plan of Angkor Wat but taken over by nature’s path from erosion and the growth of the jungle. It’s almost like a beautiful children’s playground and mind blowing historical icon all combined into one monument.

There were children all around, some completely naked, riding on bicycles that are too big for them and swinging from ropes into shallow bodies of water. “Where are their parents?” I would wonder to myself, but their delightful laughter following the splash as their tiny bodies hit the water gave me the impression that I was in a culture where this was a norm and the idea “It takes a village to raise a child” is more than just a saying, it’s a lifestyle.

As impressive and breathtaking as it was to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, explore ancient ruins and temples, hike up to Phnom Bakheng and catch the sunset over the city, and travel along the countryside, I couldn’t help but feel my heart grow heavier as I started to experience the reality of the living conditions of many of the Khmer. For starters, the moment you walk outside you are immediately flocked to by tuk tuk’s who will drive you around all day for a small fraction of what many may spend on dinner and drink during an evening on the town. They will camp out in hammocks and wait out in the street beckoning for any passerby to allow them to take you even a couple blocks down the street for only $1. Being someone who best explores a new place on foot, it was difficult for me to constantly say no to the looks of desperation at times. It became even more heartbreaking when I started noticing the effect that all the land mines in Cambodia had on many of the locals. Because of three decades of war, Cambodia has one of the highest numbers of land mines and amputees of any country in the world with over four to six million land mines believed to still be unexploded. While in the middle of calling my boyfriend for the first time since coming to Cambodia, I saw a man who had his eyes sewn shut, on crutches, and being led by a young boy down the street. I couldn’t even carry on my conversation I was so struck.


Touring around the temples was where it hit me the most. The minute my tuk tuk stopped at each temple,  voices would call out to me “Lady, lady. You buy pineapple? T-shirt? Cold water?” and children would run up and flock to me as they tried to put bracelets on my wrists and leer me into their shops set up by tents and tables. I had one little girl ask me where I was from and was able to name the capital and president of the United States. That was where she got me as I opened up and she took that as an invitation to start drawing me in.

“You are so beautiful. I have a bracelet for you, it’s for free. My gift. Please take? If you don’t take it, then you don’t like me. Please take my bracelet, it’s a gift.”

I drew my hands in close to my chest and as rude as I felt, tried to avoid eye contact as to not feel even more overwhelmed by the pleading look in her eyes. I looked ahead and my two friends had two small girls doing the same thing to them. The girl then grabbed my hand and slid the bracelet on my wrist as she told me to come by her tent afterwards for water and elephants. We walked around the temple and upon returning to our tuk tuk the same girl ran over to me and called out “You have to buy water. You said you would. I gave you my bracelet!” and as I started to crawl into my tuk tuk I looked down to see a little girl no older than 4-years-old with a tray hanging from her neck beckoning me to buy a keychain with Angkor Wat that doubled as a bottle opener. She held onto our tuk tuk and kept mumbling and pointing at the tray. In the background I kept hearing the same lines start to slur together as they called out beckoning us to buy something from them. Combined with the long day we had from waking up for the sunrise, being out in the sun and humidity all day, and helpless feeling that had formed in my gut, I found my eyes start to tear up and it was all I could do but to look straight ahead avoiding eye contact with my friends and gripping my bag that was now clenched between both knees and my fists. Never had I felt so overwhelmed, helpless, and wanting to get out of there all at once.

And yet despite the poverty, corruption, heartbreak, and pain that I saw, there was also so much happiness and joy in this culture. One of my highlights was playing volleyball/football with a group of kids who we met in a village during our temple tour. Not only was it a nice break from all the temples, but it was inspiring to see a young boy with so much energy and joy playing with us only to find out he had part of his top leg burnt off from a moped accident when he was 5-years-old.

Or the young girl who I conversed with in the park after we kept exchanging smiles as she would inch closer and closer to me. We communicated through hand guestures, pictures, and videos I showed her on my phone. She quickly was amused by my phone and would constantly press the play button on my videos of the elephant I took care of in Thailand, my friend singing karaoke to Usher, and a clip of my friend’s dog playing in the snow. When she realized she could take pictures of herself on my phone she pointed at me then at her and smiled. I went to take her picture and a little boy who had been running around us slipped in the background and made a funny face. I laughed and showed her the pictures and she smiled and turned around and tickled the little boy who in return let out a little shrill of joy and I caught his mom pass me a smile.

I will never forget the smiles here. Not once would I smile at someone and would they not return with the biggest grin and lock eyes with me until we were out of each other’s sight. If there is any memory I want to stick with me I want it to be of the drives I would go on and the exchanging of smiles I would engage with as families would drive by on their mopeds, often squeezing three or four people on a little bike with little kids hanging on as they would wave and laugh riding side by side next to me. Here was a community where complete strangers to the society would visit and immediately feel drawn to wanting to help them succeed. Not out of pity or wanting to do something to make them feel better about themselves, but because they genuinely wanted to see them succeed and realized that the Khmer’s happiness brought others an abundance of joy. Take my lovely friend Caen who I saw every day I went to Sister Srey Cafe (which was quite often during my three weeks in Cambodia.) Even if I didn’t absolutely love the yogurt trifle and their refreshing juices, I would still come back each day just to catch a glimpse of his smile and the light of joy I felt every time we would talk.

Caen was in his 2nd year at the local university studying English literature because tourism is such an essential part of the Khmer economy. He was the first friend I made during my time in Cambodia and would greet me with the biggest smile and raise of the eyebrows when I would walk in. I’ve always believed a smile goes a long way but have placed even more value and found an abundance of comfort in it since my travels. A smile is the one gesture that evokes the same message in every language and I found can remove barriers and create a common ground of comfort and respect. I shared many conversations with Caen but my favorite was a story he shared with me about his buffalo.

“When I was a little boy, I used to sit on my buffalo in the middle of the rice fields. I would sit there and sing songs about how much I loved my life while the sun set over the fields.”

The way he shared his story made me wish I had a buffalo and field of rice back home to sit in the middle of and watch the sunset. His happiness and optimism was contagious. One day I was talking about traveling and how I enjoyed being out on my own, but that it could get quite lonely. You get to be on your own schedule and make the decisions on what you get to do and when. But at the end of the day you sometimes wish you had someone there to enjoy the culture with and share your stories over dinner and a glass of wine or laugh about a funny instance that happened while you were traveling. Like the time I somehow ended up on an overnight bus next to a monk that ended up being a nearly 24 hour bus ride which stalled and dropped me off in the middle of nowhere only to turn back around a day later and sleep on a hotel bus next to a complete stranger who spoke very little English and apologized if he “aahh chaaa ahhhh chaa” in the middle of the night. Even if I hadn’t been paranoid of being robbed all night because of the stories I had heard, his “aah chaa”, or snoring as I later found out,  kept me up all night. Not so funny at the time, but it would have made a great story over dinner and wine that night.

Caen looked at me as he tilted his head to the side and gave me one of his lovely smiles as he said, “But Gen. You may be alone, but you are never lonely.” Every time I felt lonely after that, I would find comfort in imagining his beautiful smile and recollection of his stories he shared with me.

I was also fortunate to be able to work with the Future Children of Khmer, an organization that provides free education as well as health care, clean water, and food supplies for families in the surrounding rural villages. Initially I started helping with creating a newsletter that the organization could update regularly on their own to keep sponsors and future potential partners informed on the progress the school has made and how they have continued to grow since 2008. I was later fortunate to be able to also teach the different classes and levels and see the incredible educational opportunity the school has provided for the children in the community. Even though I wasn’t able to stay for a substantial amount of time, I felt comfortable working with the children because of the firm foundation already set and knowing that my teaching was part of the lesson plan, not just something they already knew and wouldn’t benefit from.

I won’t forget those sweet faces though, even during the times where they would play tricks on me like throwing a cockroach on my foot when I thought it was a giant spider causing the class to squeal with laughter. On my last day teaching, I heard a little voice whisper “Teacher!” as I looked down and saw  one of the level one students crouching down through a hole in the wall smiling and reaching his hand through the wall with a paper butterfly he had folded and a picture he drew for me. I now have a new theory that paper origami and stick figure drawings may have the power to bring peace to the world we live in. My heart melted and I started calculating in my head how I could make it back here again next year. Cambodia had officially pulled at the strings of my heart and I was hooked.

So what does one learn about contentment when in a place where there is a mixture of poverty and corruption, yet so much joy and kindness?  It took me awhile to think about this and sum up this lesson on contentment I was experiencing. And then I answered my question with another question.

During those moments where you are in an undesirable position, where you are in a state of possible discomfort, can you still be kind towards others and yourself? Can you see the good in life and in others when conditions may seem unfair? It’s not for me to say what is fair and what is the desirable living situation as I haven’t experienced living in this culture and I am an outsider looking in. But it definitely has been eye opening and given me a different view on life through not just being grateful, but at the end of the day being able to breath through the hardships and challenges that life throws your way and realizing the power that a genuine smile has on the world around you.