As I learned about all the horrible things that have happened here in Cambodia over the years, and fresh off the horrible things I learned in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’m in the wrong country.
Cambodia is very poor. It ranks 147 out of 183 measured countries on the IMF’s GDP per capita scale coming in at $2216/year.
On this list of the happiest countries in the world, Cambodia comes in almost exactly at the bottom.
Yet while I’ve been here, I’ve seen nothing but smiles. Seriously. Are Cambodians the happiest people on earth?
Admittedly, I haven’t ventured far out beyond the cities. I haven’t gone off the grid like I did in Latin America. I’m still getting a handle on things here and the opportunity to go off the grid didn’t present itself.
But still. I never saw Cambodians arguing. I never saw one lose his or her cool. They seemed to be the most laid back people I’ve ever met in my life, actually.
When I first got to Cambodia and was extolling how wonderful Vietnam was, everyone kept telling me how aggressive the Vietnamese are. By comparison, yes, the Vietnamese are much more aggressive than the Cambodians.
And I don’t know, there’s something about the way people smile here. In many developing countries people have very bad teeth since dental care is very expensive. When I volunteered with Cape Cares in Honduras, for example, they just pulled teeth because it was what was normal and what was practical. Still, the people waited for the dentists to do it since they had anesthesia.
But here, people have amazingly straight and perfect teeth. I’m not sure how, but they do.
But the teeth don’t make a smile. If you fake a smile it’s obvious. Everyone here smiles all the time and my fakeness detector doesn’t go off. They all seem genuine, even when I turn down the tuk-tuks that wait on every corner for customers. They just keep on smiling.
So I don’t know what it is. My hypothesis at the start of this trip was that people are often happier in poorer countries. About a year into my trip I still have a hard time explaining it.
I don’t know what it is here in Cambodia, but I suppose the history has something to do with it. Any Cambodian my age probably grew up hearing the horror stories from the Khmer Rouge genocide and forced slavery. And those who are older lived through it.
Given that context, times are probably relatively good, though by comparison to other places it’s not so good. But when you live through a genocide, life is kind of like a miracle. And maybe the people here live each day like it’s a miracle.
I suppose when every day is a miracle, you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see – things that make you smile.