Hidden Treasures: Stunned by Laughter at a Cambodian Rest Stop

Joel Carillet's picture

There are times when I still hear their giggles. I suppose I’ll never know if they were sisters or friends, but they laughed with a harmony that suggested a bond, a lifetime of knowing each other. They laughed with a sort of purity too, which I think is why five years later I sometimes still hear their laughter, clear as can be, as if it were happening now. I hear their distinct sounds twirling in the air. I see their faces tilt upward and their eyes close to let loose the sounds they couldn’t keep inside. I see their tiny torsos shake, their hands slap together. I see a kind of audible dance, moving up and down and all around, landing in my ears, spreading across a dusty Cambodian road, reaching the palm fronds above us.


And now, for some reason, the show “So You Think You Can Dance” comes to mind and I want to say, “Who cares if our bodies can dance. Can our laughter?”

Cambodia isn't the most convenient place to travel through, but it's worth the effort


I had met these two girls at a rest stop between the Cambodian cities of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. I wasn’t in the best mood that day, as I indicate in my story “Entering Cambodia with a Book”:

At the rest stop halfway there, I walked to the edge of the road and looked down the curving stretch of highway. Sugar palms dotted the uncultivated land on either side and the terrain was an ugly brown, the color of dry season. Two young girls with baskets of food on their heads came over to sell me something. I smiled and shook my head no. When they smiled back and then began to giggle at something one said in Khmer, they showed me once again that I am slow to understand what a joyful life really is. I stretched out over the Cambodian dirt and looked at the sky. Everything felt so dry and I wished it would rain.


The rest stop.


The two girls who laughed


I am an ardent proponent of simplicity, a trait that isn’t particularly prized in American culture (though the recent economic downturn has given it a modest boost). The quest for “stuff”—bigger homes, newer gadgets, etc—doesn’t seem particularly uplifting to the human spirit, and you seldom see it bringing lasting joy.  This race for material things is one I’ve generally been content to watch from the sidelines, but harder for me to attain, given my personality (and I suspect my profession), is a simplicity of mind and spirit. While I don't buy many things, my inner world is often a cluttered, weighted down mess, feeling about as light as a new dining room set.


This, then, is part of what I love about travel:  When you take your baggage-laden brain on the road, it will sometimes find itself at a rest stop, confronted by two kids who determine that there is something funny about you. And then they will laugh and laugh and laugh—holding a figurative mirror up to you in the process—and then leave you lying in the dirt. And as you’re lying in the dirt, you’ll not be wishing for a suspiciously large house, a yacht, or even surround sound in your living room. All you’ll be wishing for is to one day know how to laugh more like these Cambodian children.


A Cambodian family waits at a ferry crossing in the country's southwest



Joel Carillet, chief editor of Wandering Educators, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, or to follow his weekly photoblog, visit www.joelcarillet.com.





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