On a breezy tuk tuk ride along the lit river, with my now happily relaxed-yet- sore feet, there were moments of silence. When we were about to reach home, he broke the silence and asked, “What’s there not to smile about?”


The Walking Buddha

No, he is not bald. And no, he does not have long ears. He looks shy and quiet, especially among his peers. It’s like how a sound is drowned in a sea of noise and chattering.

I thought his name is Hey – this was what caught my ear when we were introducing ourselves on the first day.

“How interesting that one’s name always doesn’t quite match one’s personality,” I thought to myself, believing he deserved a more poetic and “subtle” name.

Heng, as I later learnt, was his name. I began to realize that many Cambodians tend to omit the ending sound when they speak English, and this made up something special and authentic about their accent.

Heng grew up in Siem Reap and moved to Phnom Penh for university in which he studied law. He is now living in the capital city with his sisters and goes home to visit his family in Siem Reap during important festivals, like the Khmer New Year in April. With the busy traffic and dense environment in Phnom Penh, the serenity and greenery back home was what he missed most. As much a touristy place as it is, there is nonetheless a stillness and simplicity to Siem Reap that is absent in the capital.

Heng was always on-the-go, either on bike, motorcycle, or more often his feet. On the first day we met, he brought me around the city – not to the to-go places on Lonely Planets or the attractions on Trip Advisor – but the everyday, local areas. I was on my feet, strolling the city for five long hours, from the glamorous and rich districts to the poor neighborhoods and littered alleys, which were, bizarrely, just a few miles apart.

He was literally the walking Buddha. When my feet had become so sore, Heng was still standing tall and calm – just like Buddha. During those intense five hours, everything came up, from something as random as food, passer-bys, school to as personal as love, memories and dreams. We had known each other for a few hours, but it felt like months.

“You have to control your desires,” he always says. Heng appeared to me like the living Buddha. Though he is not a very devoted Buddhist, the philosophy of Buddhism is seeded in his soul and mind, and reflected in his words and deeds in an unconscious way. Reminiscing about his childhood in the rural areas of Siem Reap, he felt that the loving, unconditional bonding between villagers was something that had disappeared or become impossible in the city of desires where it was all about competition.

“You come across many temptations and desires, and people don’t know how to control them. Today you want a motorbike, tomorrow a house. Your desire grows and your ego expands – you are never satisfied,” he told with a sigh. “In the village, money has no place. Without keen competition, people won’t feel so insecure. They just love and care for one another, out of nothing but love.”

Living a restrained life with a mindful heart, Heng had fallen in love but his affection did not always develop into something more. Something was holding him back – and I call it his Buddhist instinct.

“I wouldn’t, and I couldn’t do anything unless I’m really sure I love this girl. It is not just about how I think and how I feel. It’s about both my mind and heart – the two have to align.”

“Can love be that rational? And how could you ever be sure that you really love someone if you only imagine?” I wondered.

“Because the least I want is to see someone I care and love getting hurt,” his words disrupted my thoughts.

Shaved head, bright orange robe and a pair of sandals. Three young monks with tanned skin walked past us as we were feeding the fish near the pond inside the National Museum of Art

“You would look good in the Buddhist monk robe!” I teased him.

I handed him the sachet of fish foods, but he declined with that same bright smile. “You feed! You know, when I feed the fish, I feel happy because I am practicing kindness. But when I see you feeding, I feel even happier at heart, for I have spread kindness to others.”

To many, happiness is often about receiving and giving something, be it tangible as gifts or intangible as love. Yet to him it is beyond give and take. Happiness does not come from any external source, but is felt within and stemmed from one’s heart.

The red tinted, crooked teeth of the wrinkled granny; The yellowish, decayed teeth of the tuk tuk driver; and the tiny, white teeth of the naked baby boy. With the disturbing images of the Khmer Rouge regime still vivid in mind, I could hardly imagine how a land with so much sadness, pain and ineradicable memories had room to carry so many genuine smiles and big hearts.

When we were at the bookstore, I asked Heng what he was reading recently.

“Behind the Khmer Smile,” he answered. The book was an honest and telling portrait of the darkest fears and anxieties deep in many Cambodians’ hearts.

On a breezy tuk tuk ride along the lit river, with my now happily relaxed-yet-sore feet, there were moments of silence. When we were about to reach home, he broke the silence and asked, “What’s there not to smile about?”

Amid the humming motorbikes and the incessant car horns, it was a cool and tranquil night, like any other. The red plastic overhead cover of the tuk tuk shielded the sky, but I felt it was glittered with stars.

People say you can tell a lot about a person from the shoes they are wearing, but I often think their playlist tells you more. He scrolled his surprisingly trendy, red iPod and showed me a music video.

The rhythm was upbeat and energizing, with the tune carrying an air of optimism. The song is called Up in the Sky, and it’s his favorite. As I listened to the lyrics, I could immediately understand why he likes the song so much.

As he bikes around the hectic city, Heng always have his ears plugged to let the music drown out the hustle and bustle. Every time when he leaves home, he puts on Maroon 5’s Leaving California, while imagining and knowing it is Siem Reap and not California that he is waving goodbye to.

At the age of 22, Heng has a big dream. Unlike many of his peers, he does not aspire to be a successful lawyer, nor an inspiring teacher that changes life.

“I don’t need a lot. I just want the people around me to be happy. And that’s enough.”

Perhaps without himself knowing, he preaches happiness and kindness every day to strangers and friends around him, not through words but practice. Turned out I have been both wrong yet right about him. He was not at all shy and quiet. But he did deserve a more poetic and subtle name.

Before we go, we gave him a Chinese name – sin hang善行– which echoes his Cambodian name Seng Heng, and more importantly, his humble heart and benevolent deeds which I will always remember him for.

Up in the sky, there is a village
And the people there are blue, I believe it's true
Up in the sky, people are happy
They love to sing and there is no need for a king

Up in the sky, there's no religion
There are no cars and no phones and you can't not be controlled
Up in the sky, you just feel fine
There is no money making crime but a lot of good wine

“ Up in the Sky” – 77 Bombay Street