Travel Destinations

Cambodia – Khmer Smiles

Written by Carl Hedinger

I wrote this post in between two visits to Cambodia. The first was during our first trip away from Korea and after a couple of days in Vietnam’s hectic Ho Chi Minh City, the vibe we encountered in Siem Reap and Angkor was a wonderful and stark contrast. So much so that I took some time right after the hot Korean summer to write down my longing for those bright and boisterous faces that we found during those days in Cambodia.

This is my testament to the Khmer people and their smiling faces. I wish I’d captured more than the blurry photo of Mr. Jim but hopefully my words can begin to capture their smiling faces in a way that my slow camera skills couldn’t. This is my story about Khmer Smiles. I hope you enjoy and will think about the words with the warmth that I tried to present them to you. Take care. – Duke

Years have passed since we visited Siem Reap and Angkor. The beauty of that world wonder has impressed millions of visitors yet to this day, my fascination lies more with the people. Cambodian locals never ceased to charm. One word that will always spring to mind is “genuine” when thinking back to those friendly and smiling faces. Living in Korea presents many chances to meet some great people who possess the largest and warmest smiles but strangers here should be greeted with more of a poker face. An understandable dearth of cultural factors play into this but the occasionally grin or smirk might improve upon an uncomfortable or even difficult situation.

Coming from a small town, the idea of nodding one’s head or even saying “Hello” to a passerby is quite common. Yet in Korea, eye contact is avoided and even frowned upon with age differences being a major factor. It’s tough for a person like me who’s more comfortable dealing with strangers than with those I’ve known and loved forever.

Maybe that’s why I’m complaining here and longing for another place’s customs at the moment. I keep coming back to the that trip to Cambodia and how it was a rescue from the hectic life that everyone knows and begrudgingly accepts in Korea. Vietnam wasn’t much of a help either and had we spent more time in Ho Chi Minh, my nerves might have gone through the roof. Thankfully those days in Siem Reap saved our souls and gave us something very simple. Those friendly faces and Khmer smiles brought us back to a peaceful state of mind and right now, I’m starting to smile just thinking about them.

Mr. Jim, the best.

It all started at the airport when Mr. Jim picked us up and took us around various parts of Angkor. We had come from a place (Vietnam) where taxis literally grab your arm to get you in their car. Scams are a common thing there so seeing a friendly face like Mr. Jim’s calmed and relaxed my already tense nerves. He took us to our hotel and asked if we’d want to see something that day. Our hotelier mentioned the floating villages as something we must see and Mr. Jim could take care of it all for us. We drove out to the floating villages and got caught in a rainstorm to the point where the tuk tuk got stuck in some mud. I jumped out to help Mr. Jim push it towards more stable ground and after a few grunts and heaves, we got out and were back on a stronger patch of clay.

Mr. Jim threw his helmet back on but before he started his motorbike, looked back and smiled at me as a way of saying thanks for the help. I’ll never forget that moment and will always look back on Mr. Jim with a smile. That’s the only way I can really think about him and Siem Reap because without a smile, the memory would be a pointless exercise. Looking back on our time there, I couldn’t find any worthwhile shots of Mr. Jim other than the one of him against the boiling hot sun. I had no idea about how the sun could ruin a great person’s face when it’s directly above you and unknowingly took the shot. I couldn’t capture Mr. Jim’s pearly whites shining there but can attest to the fact that he constantly showed them to us. His kind and caring nature are something that I’ll never forget.

Of course he’s not the only person that showed us a good time in Cambodia. The man at our hotel (Siem Reap Rooms) was always eager to point things out and guide us in the right direction. Kids everywhere would greet us with a smile and the people who eagerly tried to sell us something would still wave goodbye with a big grin and nod. Cambodia is far from perfect and there were many people we met that were old enough to remember the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. I know that life there is tough and that the problems today in Cambodia will be difficult to overcome. My goal here is not to block them out but to shed light on the people who still go through life spreading brightness and cheer through friendship and kindness.

The system in Cambodia might be letting its citizens down and that’s a  shame that’s beyond a pointed finger from someone like me. I’m only capable of shedding light on the lovely Khmer smiles that I found each day when traveling around that beautiful country. They are proof that there’s life beyond this tough and troublesome present. Today’s Cambodia is known for many things but those Khmer smiles stand out amongst the rest.

Have you ever had similar experiences with people? 

Ever visited Cambodia? What did you make of the people and the place? 

About the author

Carl Hedinger

I'm a writer and recovering American expat who shares my family's travels through life. Follow our adventures here and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


  • It’s so true what you say about how a class is greeted at the start of the period can set the tone. In all my travels, I’d say more often than not people have struck me as on the friendly side, but I’ve yet to travel to the East.

    • I haven’t really traveled enough in the U.S. or North America so it’s hard to remember what I’ve experienced. Hopefully I’ll get another shot at that in the future. Any recommended routes?

  • Sounds like quite the contrast between Cambodia and Korea. I know Cambodia is becoming more of a travel destination – no doubt the smiling people play a great role!

  • That is also the way I felt (and feel) about Cambodia and its people. In fact I cannot wait to return. So incredibly friendly and completely void of ill-will which is a magical thing in itself given their recent history. Anyway, I am glad you enjoyed it Carl.

    • Cambodian people are basically the standard bearers of friendliness when I think back on the places we’ve visited. So many friendly folks. I hope that attitude remains even as tourism increases.