Cambodia the Land of Smiles? Gallup poll says yes

Every now and then we get visitors from Svay Rieng, Sophie’s native province, or the little village of Kmeng Wat, near Virh Rieng, where the family lived for a long time. Both of them are poor, rural areas. Our visitors stay for a few days or a few weeks, but they always end up missing their home villages and eventually leave.

Singin' in the rain - Khmeng Wat village

Singin’ in the rain – Khmeng Wat village

Sophie and her family, too, occasionally get fed up with the traffic and tourists in Sihanoukville and long to move back to the country. They get over it, though, because this is a better place to raise children in the new Cambodia, where having an education and knowledge of English are increasingly important.

We Westerners tend to equate happiness with wealth. If my experience and the results of a recent Gallup poll are anything to go by, we might be missing the point.

I first stumbled across the 2013 Positive Experience Index poll in the Cambodia daily. Poll Finds Cambodians Generally Happy With Life understandably focused more on Cambodia and other countries in SE Asia, but another article I found online, Poll: Syrians, Iraqis least positive, Latin Americans most positive was more global in scope. Here are some of the numbers I came up with after reading both articles. The percentages are the percentages of people who “experienced enjoyment a lot, felt respected, were well-rested, laughed and smiled a lot, and learned or did something interesting the previous day.”

  • Cambodia: 72%
  • Iraq: 47%
  • United States: 77%
  • Paraguay: 86%

In general, Cambodia scored slightly higher than Vietnam and Laos and slightly lower than Thailand and Malaysia, but all of Southeast Asia and China were in the same range as the United States. Paraguay topped the list, but South America in general also scored the highest, with every country in the 80 percent range.

The Cambodia Daily acknowledged that the accuracy of the poll could be called into question, but went on to say, “Gallup’s research follows a number of other surveys showing that Cambodians generally have a positive perception of their lives.” They also quoted 63 year old Ouch Sarin, who said, “I agree with the report because I always feel happy”. He qualified his statement slightly when he said that the recent dispute between the CPP and CNRP was making him feel “a little bit” less happy.

So why would one of the world’s poorest countries be a “land of smiles” alongside nearby Thailand and only 5 percentage points behind the world’s richest and most powerful country? It’s not that they don’t know they’re poor. In fact, in an earlier poll, 75% of Cambodians acknowledged they were “struggling” and 22% said they were “suffering,” yet the same poll came up with a 76% “positive experience” with life indicator.

Living the simple life in Svay Rieng

Living the simple life in Svay Rieng

Analysts came up with a variety of reasons why Cambodians could be struggling and happy at the same time. One said it was because of “lowered expectations” while another said it was because the country had been making so many positive economic gains. That was interesting because the two analysts contradicted each other. I’d like to offer another explanation.

When Sophie was just a girl, she spent over two years in the jungle alone. Sure she was going to die, she coped by telling herself, “Maybe I die today. Not dead yet, though” every morning when she set out to find food and “Maybe I die tonight” to allay her fears at night and allow herself to fall asleep. Although she was often lonely and sometimes went without food for days, she has a lot of fond memories of  the time she spent “inside tree” as she puts it. In fact, sometimes she wants to go back to the simplicity of that life and the magnificent beauty of the jungle.

Since Ram Dass published Be Here Now in the 60s, “living in the moment” has been a multi-million dollar industry in the United States. It’s such a radical concept to us Westerners, we’ve elevated it to the status of a religion or spiritual practice. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but perhaps Cambodia is the land of smiles because living in the moment is a way of life for Cambodians and they instinctively know what we have to learn from books and gurus — that happiness lies within.

About Rob Schneider

Rob Schneider is a writer based in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where he has lived since 2006.
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6 Responses to Cambodia the Land of Smiles? Gallup poll says yes

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  3. Graeme Butler says:

    Good day mate!,,
    I’ve enjoyed your newsletters for better part of 2 years?,,,I am coming back to Thailand first on Nov. 1st,,,,,and having lived there and owned operated a business in Phuket I am coming to Sihanoukville due to your letters.As I will only be there a week….I am coming to look for a business and I have seen the dozens of “expat needs money motivated to sell” businesses.I respect you as you have a footing there.Is there an expat “broker” a man in the know so to speak?…As I had a brit friend of mine in Phuket that was in the know about what was up and down…Any thoughts sir?
    Respectfully., Graeme

    • Hi, I’m not really able to help you, but I can say I’d be wary of buying an established business without thoroughly checking it out first. Every year, dozens of foreigners set up businesses on a shoestring during the high season and go broke during the low season. Foreigners scam each other as much as Cambodians take advantage of foreigners, so buying a business without going through the right channels is risky no matter who you buy from. That’s not to say it can’t work. There are some very successful businesses here, too, and if you go through the right channels and get a legitimate lease, you can be pretty secure. Beachfront leases may be more of a risk than others because the government owns the beach and has future plans for it – plans that don’t include small investors. You might last a year or you might last 5 years, but no matter how long your lease says it is, if a big investor wants the land, they’ll get it. My wife, Sophie, can help you with translation and lease negotiation, if you like.

  4. KCRidah says:

    Mr. Schneider,

    I read your article in the Sihanoukville Cambodia Journal about Khmers and their perceived happiness. I think that the Gallup poll results regarding Cambodia about happiness are severally flawed and basically inaccurate. I lived in Cambodia for approximately 2 years and it is 2 years of my life that I would like back. If you examine the habits of Khmers and observe their attitudes and actions, I would think that you would realize that the mantra of “saving face” prevails in all of their interactions. Thus, if things are bad, they will not admit it because they would be embarrassed. Another item to examine is to look at the pervasive consumption of alcohol that occurs in Cambodia. Alcohol is very cheap and readily available ANY HOUR OF THE DAY. The actions exhibited by high level professional types when they are drunk are not tolerated in Western countries but occur commonly in Cambodia (e.g. military or government official shootings when they are drunk). Another point, look at the ridiculous wealth disparity that exist there (e.g. abundant Range Rovers in Phnom Penh). That is why Sam Rainsy is gathering such a following because of the discontent amongst the ordinary Khmers. A major point: look at the country itself…yes, they had a horrible historical occurrence but so did many other countries and I would say that other countries had worse calamities. And has taken and it is taking Cambodia longer to rebound. That brings me to my next point: Khmers tend to have a hustle mentality in that they want to “get over” instead of doing the work themselves. Look at the development of infrastructure and “who” is actually doing the work. It is NOT the Khmer government. Lastly, I would say just look at the state of the country and compare it to its neighbors. Look at the difference in recovery after catastrophic historical events of Cambodia and it immediate neighbors (e.g. Vietnam–they were at war with the most powerful country in the world). Are Khmers so happy that they don’t like objects of material wealth? Or they do not like clean drinking water or electricity? I submit to you that being poor, dirty, ignorant, drunk, and not having much hope does NOT translate to being “happy”. I posit that it is a coping mechanism (e.g. saving face) to deal with a dreadful environment. “Happy” people traffic their children to try to economically cope? No, I don’t believe that translates to happiness in any other place on the planet.

    • I appreciate your well thought out reply, but we have some differences of opinion and on a subject like happiness, opinion is all we can have. You said you lived in Cambodia for 2 years and it’s 2 years you wish you could take back. I’ve lived here 7 years and wouldn’t take them back for anything. If you had asked me 5 years ago, I might have had another opinion, though. It took me about 3 years to adjust to life here.

      Even the article questioned the Gallup poll. That’s why I included quotes and figures from other polls the article cited.

      I do “examine the habits of Khmers” on a daily basis and one of my biggest criticisms in the early years was the drinking habits of the men. During the first couple of years, it seemed like a major problem because when they get drunk on the whiskey, they get pretty crazy. However, only 4 men in our village out of maybe 20 get together and drink whiskey and even they only do it a few times a year. I have no idea why you capitalised “any hour of the day.” Alcohol is available any hour of the day just about anywhere alcohol is available. You make it sound like military and government officials shoot each other regularly. They don’t, but they do seem to think getting drunk is a macho thing to do when they get together. One of my neighbours gets invited to some of their parties and always finds an excuse not to go, not because he’s afraid of getting killed, but because he doesn’t like to get drunk. That’s part of the reason I don’t have many friend here, by the way – too many expats here are heavy drinkers. As for it “not being tolerated” in Western countries, well, you must have a short memory, because a drunk VP Dick Cheney shot a campaign supporter while quail hunting in 2006 and that got swept under the carpet. And who knows what else goes on behind closed doors in the corridors of Western power?

      Of course there’s an enormous wealth disparity, but my point was that Cambodians seem happy in spite of it. I gave one example and chose photos from rural areas for a reason. My contention is that “stuff” doesn’t make people happy – attitude does. As for the argument that they say they’re happy to save face, that’s an assumption, not a valid argument. I originally wrote that I suspected Americans said they were happy because their cultural conditioning tells them they live in the greatest country in the world, so it’s almost a civic duty to claim to be happy. I deleted the line because that, too, was an unverifiable assumption.

      Some of your final points were way over the top. Very few Cambodians traffic children and they aren’t as a rule dirty, ignorant or drunk. They have clean drinking water and our relatives in Svay Rieng get along fine without electricity. Everybody here in Sihanoukville complained about power outages, but they are a thing of the past now that the new power station is operational.

      Finally, while I didn’t go into details, my real point was that “happiness lies within.” In my opinion, young Cambodians are getting suckered into a consumerist mentality. I can’t dictate how people should think, but that’s how I personally feel.

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