Cambodians are really friendly people. I mean, just really pleasant people. Friendlier than in Thailand, the land of smiles. Friendlier than in Australia, a place where I thought I could always rely on a stranger’s kindness. Not that a nation’s value can be measured by how much they display their happiness. It’s just really nice to be in a place where people’s first instinct is to grin, joke and help you rather than to react with apprehension or indifference.
It’s something that we noticed as soon as we walked out of the airport (because the officials who work in the airport were certainly not a fair representation of their compatriots). It’s an impression that was created after several first-hand interactions with sellers, tuk-tuk drivers and ordinary people on the street and also after witnessing how Cambodians interact with each other.
It’s the considerate taxi-driver who gasps and apologises loudly, even though the cyclist that he just accidentally splashed with puddle water can’t hear him.
It’s the kind stall-owner who offers, with an amused giggle, to help the tourist who is struggling to make sense of how many riel he needs to hand over.
It’s the chatty tuk-tuk driver who talks freely about the severe corruption and poverty in his country and then warmly shakes your hand and wishes you the best of luck at the end of your journey.
It’s the countless faces that crack into giant grins as you walk by them on the street. Just because.
It’s the half-naked children who run to their front gates calling “Hallo” as you cycle past them in a rural village.
It’s the shy waiter who smiles humbly and bows his head when you try and thank him with a Khmer “akon”.
It’s the welcoming neighbours who smile at you and wish you good morning every time you leave the yard to explore Siem Reap.
It’s the kindhearted girl behind the counter of a drink stall who rinses your reusable cup because it’s a bit dirty and then, after serving your cappuccino, gives you a top-up of the extra froth from said cappuccino.
It’s the thoughtful street-side cook who notices you reaching for napkins from another table and decides to bring you your own dispenser.
It’s the embarrassed salesman who apologises profusely when it is he who doesn’t have enough change for the 20 dollars you are trying to use for your 1-dollar purchase.
It’s the ever-helpful waiter who is always ready to bring another beer or some pizza even though he’s trying to enjoy a meal with his wife and child at the back of the restaurant.
It’s the fact that even though tens of tourists are enjoying expensive dishes and cocktails and the restaurant owners are quietly eating rice for dinner, they never show even a hint of resentment or antipathy.
It’s the silent interactions between locals and tourists, inspired by a child’s laugh or some kittens playing, where nothing is said but everything is understood.
This is Cambodia. The Land of Smiles.