I glance at a stranger tucked in a shop doorway and see a face smiling from ear to ear. An unconditional, unreserved grin that’s warm and heartfelt. The same response is played out over and over again during our time in Cambodia.
A country devastated by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s (a third of its population was slaughtered) now tops my podium as the friendliest and most welcoming of all the countries I’ve visited. But how does a country like Cambodia, whose recent history is torrid and destructive, appear so warm and welcoming to outsiders?
Throughout our travels in South East Asia we’ve been openly welcomed by the locals. Arriving in Colonel Mustard certainly helps, drawing inquisitive glances that quickly turn to handshakes and questions.
We’ve spent the last two months winding our way up the Asian peninsula from the island of Singapore to the chaos of Bangkok and witnessed wonderful hospitality along the way.
So often in the western world eking a smile from the face of a stranger is hard to do, almost rude, invasive and unnatural. The art of the non-verbal introduction lost to a lifestyle that’s too busy and insular, focused around money and work not human contact and instant relationships.
When I run anywhere in the world at sunrise I play the ‘I say hello you just reply game’ – seeing how many people out of ten actually respond. It keeps me amused and gives me a great indication of the state of the people I meet. More often than not the western lifestyles of Australia and the UK result in a furrowed brow or look away with the average score around a 5 or 6.
But every time I’ve played it here in SE Asia it’s been met with enthusiastic responses, smiles and even laughter. It kick-starts my day in the best possible way and I get a 9 or 10 almost every time!
Linking up with the network of Land Rover Owners Clubs along the way has been great example of how Facebook and social networks don’t have to be anti-social networks that leave people staring blankly at phone screens. The groups are ridiculously active and meet up every week IN PERSON – what a bizarre concept!
In Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand the clubs have turned out en masse to meet us, share stories and help out when the Colonel needs a little tender loving care to keep him ticking along sweetly.
As we prepare to depart from SE Asia and enter Myanmar, the last two months have left me with a feeling of contentment and a smile that comes from deep within. It also reinforces a theory I had when circumnavigating Africa in 2008.
The people who have the least material possessions and have suffered the most are also the ones who have the most to give with their smiles, friendship and hospitality.
What will Myanmar and Bhutan bring?