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Faces of Cambodia

Faces of Cambodia

by Emiel Van Den Boomen

Faces of Cambodia

This post is a tribute to the people of Cambodia, young and old. Wherever we went we encountered smiling faces. Some we photographed and I am happy to share them in this post. Just scroll down, pick any of the faces of Cambodia that trigger you and read their stories.

Who are the people of Cambodia: Faces of Cambodia

With such an intense history, we were curious to find out more about the people of Cambodia. These are 15 random examples, each one with their own story. We fell in love with Cambodia. We adored the friendliness of people, the curiosity of street children and the overall willingness of many to just sit down and talk.

We have been to Thailand a couple of times and thought Cambodia would be kind of the same. We were wrong.

The differences are evident. There is a sharp contrast between rich and poor and many still live below the official poverty line. Luckily their smile and generosity does not seem to be affected by that.

In the coming months you will be reading multiple stories about Cambodia on this blog. But first an introduction to the people of this fascinating country. Here are some of our Cambodian friends! Let me start with the oldest one….

The old man with the Cambodia cap

Faces of Cambodia

Phnom Penh, our last day. We sat down on the sidewalk (like we often do), watching traffic and people. This friendly old man slowly approached us and kept staring at our family. He hardly spoke any English, but it was clear he wanted to know how old our son was. “Nine years” I answered while I put up nine fingers. “And you?” I pointed at him. He showed us nine fingers and after that one more. “91! Wow!”. We applauded for him having reached such an admirable age.
Then he looked at this watch and made clear he had to leave. Reaching the other side of the road he looked back one more time and waved.

Street kids in the back of a Tuk Tuk

Faces of Cambodia

You will see many street children in Cambodia. Children trying to sell you postcards or bracelets, or children that are just walking around. These two kids we found in the back of a Tuk Tuk opposite our guesthouse. The boy was actually weaving baskets! Maybe they also went to school, I don’t know (school in Cambodia is a couple of hours in the morning and same in the late afternoon). He did show us his big smile while his little sister was safely hiding behind his back.

The lady selling lotus flowers

Faces of Cambodia

I immediately felt connected with this adorable woman. She was selling lotus flowers close to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. I introduced myself and we talked a bit about her work and the weather. Then she hopped on the back of a motorbike with some of her flowers and left. I forgot to take her picture.

After walking for 500 meters we came to a small temple with lots of ceremonial activity. I looked around and quickly spotted the little bold head. Of course she was selling her lotus flowers. I quickly went to see her. I shot her portrait and we also took a picture together (she was so small!). By the time we left she gave us some lotus flowers for good luck…

88 and still working

Faces of Cambodia

While strolling the rural city of Battambang I noticed an old lady sitting on a chair in front of what seemed to be some kind of factory. Indeed they were washing and repairing clothes and the lady sat out in front….working, helping out with some sewing work. I stopped, sat down and asked about her age: 88!
I asked if I could take her picture. She moved her chair in the right direction and sat straight. Very proud of herself she had no problems with me taking her portrait.

A smile through the fence

Faces of Cambodia

This is my favorite portrait. She was selling water but from the other side of the fence.

We were visiting the Killing Fields, an terrifying piece of Cambodia’s history. Visitors move silently through the Fields, listening to the unbelievable stories of this camp on their audio guide. So did we. We are impressed, it was kind of overwhelming.

Suddenly the girl was there, calling us, smiling and laughing. A total contradiction. Selling water from her little shop on the other side of the fence surrounding the Killing Fields.

The woman with the Khmer scarf

Faces of Cambodia

Visiting markets in Asia is an adventure itself and we love it! Beautiful piles of fruit and vegetables but also live chickens and fish. To smell a country is still a very underrated travel-sense. When you visit a market in Asia you will agree with me that ‘To smell is to experience’!

We saw chickens being slaughtered on the market itself, next to a stall selling coconuts and herbs. Pig heads look at you with dead eyes, fried insects are available to try on almost each corner. From early morning to late evening Asian markets are alive. This woman came carrying baskets full of vegetables. She is wearing the traditional Khmer scarf. You can see from her eyes that it’s hard work.

The oldest rickshaw driver in Phnom Penh

Faces of Cambodia

This was such a fun moment! Our family of four were sitting in a Tuk Tuk, driving the streets of the Cambodian capital. We passed one of those traditional rickshaws, looked back to discover the man on the pedals who, when living in Europe, would for sure be already celebrating his retirement! But not this man. He looked at us and smiled….and smiled….without any teeth.

Faces of the Bayon temple in Angkor

Faces of Cambodia

It’s a pity that so many people visit Cambodia only to go and see the Angkor Wat temples. Angkor Wat is fabulous, no doubt about that. But Cambodia has so much more to offer. But a post about the faces of Cambodia cannot exist without the famous faces of the Bayon temple. More about Angkor Wat elsewhere on this blog!

One of the 7 survivors….

Faces of Cambodia

The Tuol Sleng prison is a place you will certainly visit in combination with the Killing Fields. The building used to be a school but the Khmer Rouge transformed it into an atrocious prison. People were tortured, interrogated and sent off to the Killing Fields…. When Tuol Sleng was liberated only 7 people were found alive. The man on the picture is one of the 7 survivors. A special moment for our daughter as you can imagine.

Female monk at Angkor Wat

Faces of Cambodia

Well, actually these women are not monks. Woman are not ordained in the Buddhist religion, but older women, especially widows, can become nuns. Nuns shave their heads and kind of follow the same regulations as monks. They do play an important role in everyday life at a temple. We found this nun at a temple in the Angkor Wat area. She offered our children bracelets and blessings.

Group of female monks

Faces of Cambodia

After our children received their bracelets we sat down and noticed more female nuns. Slowly one after the other came to watch us. We didn’t actually have a conversation. We were looking at them and they were looking at us. When the third woman in the back decided to also have a look, I pushed the button on my camera.

The youngest street kid

Faces of Cambodia

This little boy was playing with his sister inside one of the temples at Angkor. No sign of parents. The boy was climbing the ancient stones on hands and feet, gazing at our own kids. He was certainly not intimidated by the camera. Such a sweetie!

The girl that took care of her younger brother

Faces of Cambodia

This girl was taking care of her little brother. No parents in sight. I would not be surprised that they wander around by themselves all day long, waiting for the end of the day in order to return home. You could clearly see she had lots of experience in taking care of her brother: without any problem she lifted him with one arm, holding him tightly.

The poor man who invited us into his house

Faces of Cambodia

In Battambang we left the hotel and just turned right. We ended up alongside an abandoned railway track. Chickens were running around, children were playing. This was a very poor part of the city. We walked towards a small lake with some small wooden houses. This man and his family were living in one of these houses. He invited us in for a bit of small talk.

His wife was breastfeeding her child, but she didn’t mind us sitting down. She was a teacher and urged us to check out the rest of the house as well. It was partly built upon the water, so we thought the views were beautiful. We entered the combined kitchen/living room/bedroom and found two people sleeping. We spoke silently while going through the house and even watched their Cambodian wedding picture on the wall. I tried to remember when was the last time I invited complete strangers into my house?

The lady who spoke French

Faces of Cambodia

You might know that Cambodia used to be a French colony. Next to the fact that you can buy baguettes everywhere there are also other things that remind us of this part of history.

In a small village called Wat Atkor (near Battambang) we visited an ancient house: a 100year old wooden house full of old relics from French colonical Cambodia. The woman living there talked to us in French and explained that her grandfather built the house. The lady was really proud of her past and her family. The relics (old pictures, books and furniture) were dusty, like they were desperately trying to hold on to a soon to be forgotten past….


Here the list ends. Meeting random people while traveling can be so surprising, educative and inspring, don’t you agree?

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Rachel July 13, 2017 - 12:28

Hi, I know this post was made a while ago; but I just wanted to let you know how cool it was for me to go through these pictures. I am 18 and was adopted from Cambodia when I was only 11 months old. I don’t know much about the country and the people so it was really interesting to see what the people are like where I was born!

Emiel Van Den Boomen July 13, 2017 - 18:22

Dear Rachel, I am so happy to know how this post made you feel. I am honored. Thanks for leaving a comment. I really hope you will be able to travel to Cambodia one day.

Cambodja bouwsteen - Better Places - Unieke Reiservaringen November 14, 2014 - 15:45

[…] De mensen die je tijdens je reizen tegenkomt kunnen het verschil maken. In Cambodja kwam Emiel van den Boomen alleen maar lachende mensen tegen, en maakte een pagina speciaal met deze lachende gezichten en de verhalen erachter. Bekijk ze op Act of Traveling. […]

Ryan Speck November 21, 2013 - 09:35

There’s quite a high chance, statistically, that those kids had neither a home nor parents to return to. The girl kinda looks like she has glue crust on her nose. Anyway, your daughter’s gonna be a fox in a few years

Michelle August 31, 2013 - 20:16

Portraits of people are my favorite! You wonderfully captured the individuals’ faces and expressions – it’s very touching.

Emiel van den Boomen September 1, 2013 - 21:18

Gracias Michelle, much appreciated.

monique August 26, 2013 - 17:28

emiel, your photography and what it captures is stunning!

Emiel van den Boomen August 26, 2013 - 17:33

Thank you so much Monique!

Bama August 25, 2013 - 14:31

I love Cambodia and the people are one of the friendliest in Southeast Asia. I remember crossing the Thai-Cambodian border and sitting on a taxi stand to wait for other passengers to share a taxi. Suddenly a man approached me with a big smile. Alarmed, I was very cautious at first, partly because a few days earlier I was scammed in Bangkok. But then he started having conversation with me and asked a lot about Indonesia. A few minutes later I found out that he’s genuinely interested in me, a fellow Southeast Asian who traveled to his country, not in my money. That left a very deep and positive impression to me.

Emiel van den Boomen August 26, 2013 - 17:34

Thanks for sharing that nice story! We are always alarmed, as you were. But in Cambodia, honestly, this is totally different. After a while we knew we didn’t have to be so alarmed and cautious.. great country.

Andrew Wyatt August 25, 2013 - 08:54

These pictures are great, even without your descriptions I think they would tell their own stories. I can’t wait to visit Cambodia over the next few months.

Emiel van den Boomen August 26, 2013 - 17:36

You will have a great time. Just travel slowly….

Angela August 23, 2013 - 13:22

The lotus lady looks so adorable! There are so many friendly people all over the world, you just need to reach out to them.
Battambang was my favorite Cambodian city, I had a great time there.

Emiel van den Boomen August 24, 2013 - 17:34

Thanks Angela.
Battambang….such a difference after spending time in Bangkok and Phnom Penh. I am sure to write a post about Battambang (Bamboo train!) somewhere in the coming month or so….

capturinglavita August 21, 2013 - 04:13

As usual Emiel, your post is both moving and inspiring. This has to be
one of your best collections of photos. What a life growing experience
for you and your beautiful family.

Emiel van den Boomen August 21, 2013 - 23:43

Thank you so much Laurel! We meet so many interesting people while we travel, but you don’t know how special that is only when you see them in a collection like this.

Mytanfeet August 20, 2013 - 05:22

Beautiful pictures, I love seeing photos of people and the one with the old rickshaw driver made me smile. His happiness just shines through the photo. Thanks for sharing and keep posting pictures like these 🙂

Emiel van den Boomen August 21, 2013 - 23:41

Nice to hear you picked that particular picture. It was such a fun moment for us! He just kept on smiling…it was a pity the four of us didn’t fit in his rickshaw!

World Travel Family August 19, 2013 - 12:54

Beautiful pictures. The survivor guy really struck a chord with me. I’ve been there, that place made me feel physically sick in a way no other place ever has. Despite everything, Cambodia is a fabulous country, we’ll be back there next year.

Emiel van den Boomen August 21, 2013 - 23:39

Thank you. That prison was indeed a place you will never forget. To us, the killing cave in Battambang was an even more terrifying place…

Heidi Wagoner August 19, 2013 - 10:58

What beautiful people and photos. Thanks for sharing. We are toying with the idea of Asia next and Cambodia keeps popping up on the list too. hmmm….. We too have been collecting photos of interesting people/locals in our town in Spain.. We will likely have it ready next month.

Emiel van den Boomen August 21, 2013 - 23:36

You will love Asia! Please let me know when you have published your collection of people in Spain, looking forward to seeing your circle of people…

Jenna Francisco August 19, 2013 - 06:24

This is a beautiful post, Emiel. The greatest intangible benefit of my work is meeting and befriending ordinary people from all over the world. A few of them have been Cambodian, very friendly people with big smiles who had been through such struggles both in their homeland and in the U.S. while assimilating here. This trip must have touched you and your family in many ways.

Emiel van den Boomen August 21, 2013 - 22:22

Thank you Jenna. I agree it’s one of the most valuable benefits from traveling: meeting local people. It’s not always easy to make contact, but in Cambodia it was very easy! That says a lot about the Cambodian people…


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