Muddy Cambodian rivers and other unexpected pleasures

By Steve Fisher  Earlier this year while cycling between the breathtaking temples of Angkor I came accross a site that made me forget my next destination. Below the hot, dusty road was a muddy, slow moving river. The water was full of young children playing, many without swimming suits and some completely naked. One young boy floated under the bridge on a piece of styrofoam packing material. Families picnicked beside the river on plastic sheets. The water was quite dirty and the riverbank and surroundings were far from the most beautiful spots in Angkor. Yet the children and families looked so happy and I stopped for more than an hour on the bridge reflecting on the scene below, deeply moved that people could find such joy and happiness from such a simple pleasure.

Outside the south gate of Angkor Thom at sunset

Again and again, in my travels through the world, I’ve encountered people finding happiness in similar ways. Barefoot young Brazilian boys kicking a cheap ball or even a plastic bottle around a dusty square. A young child joyfully splashing around a tub of water on the dirty floor of a Balinese market. In a Grecian village on the Aegean Sea, teenage boys and girls flirting easily with each other in the town square every night. In a beach town in southern Cambodia, a crowd of villagers watching a local soap opera on a communal television (because they can’t afford their own) in a simple roadside restaurant, a large pig wandering lazily among the plastic chairs.

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Local family going home after a day at the Angkor river mentioned in the intro

In fact, this is one of my big impressions from traveling the world. Even in the poorest places…No, especially in those places, people find ways to be happy with the everyday pleasures available around them. I wonder if people who have less are sometimes better at finding happiness in simple things because simple things are all they have.

Monk praying at Angkor Wat

And, in more materially rich countries and as people acquire more wealth, it’s curious how ever more advanced pleasures are sought, an escalating spiral of want > get > want more. At the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo’s Kabuki-cho you can watch colorfully lit robots battle over dinner and drinks. In case that’s not stimulating enough, it’s all choreographed to an eclectic mix of Taiko drum and EDM music. At a 500 year old Buddhist temple north of Beijing, there’s now a robot monk who dispenses wisdom and advice to visitors. Perhaps closer to home, lots of us are coveting the newest iPhone. Or video game console. Or 3 D blockbuster. Or planning the next weekend getaway.

Young craftsman outside an Angkor temple

I wonder though, if everyday life is something we frequently want to augment or escape from, is it possible we need to re-examine everyday life? Perhaps to make some changes. Or maybe to find some simpler ways to be happy, in the world of everyday pleasures everywhere around us. A walk in the park with our partner. A good book. Coffee with a good friend we’ve let ourselves get too busy to meet for a while.

Apprentice monk at Angkor Wat selling bracelets

I’m not at all saying we should discard modern conveniences or avoid higher pleasures. And no, not all poor people are happy (neither are all rich people). And I hasten to add that I’m not at all a good example of the joys of the simple life. In my daily life in Saigon and in my travels, my iPhone and MacBook Pro rarely leave my side. Within an hour of touchdown in a new country, I generally have a local SIM card and mobile internet on my phone. These are the practical tools of a digital nomad, but of course they are also pleasurable to use. I’m addicted to Spotify and its instant access to seemingly every song ever created.

Increasingly though, I’ve come to feel there is great value in trying to be happy with simple things. With what we have, rather than what we want. And, while I’m an extremely imperfect example of this, I have actively tried to cultivate this ability. For the last year and a half, I’ve been living in South East Asia with the belongings I could fit into one suitcase (at first in Hua Hin and Bangkok, Thailand and now Saigon). The rest of my belongings are in my apartment in Barcelona, Spain, and one of the big impressions from this chapter in my life has been how little I miss it all. How often I’ve felt how nice it would be (and maybe will be) to give almost all of it away.

Since moving to this part of the world, and leaving almost all my material possessions behind, I have tried to cultivate my own simple pleasures. And have gently sought to quiet the insistent inner voice that in the past always cried out for more. On a typical day, after finishing my work, I’ll go for a long swim in the public outdoor pool near my apartment in Saigon (Olympic size and $ .70 with locker!). Or, do meditation at the community yoga center (free!). In the evening, I’ll read in the nearby park or meet a friend for coffee or dinner. If we quiet our mind and look around, with a bit of reflection and creativity, I think these sorts of simple pleasures are waiting everywhere, in all of our lives.

The next time I’m in Tokyo, I’m not going to miss that robot battle. But tonight I’m going for a walk in the park and a bowl of Vietnamese noodles with a friend.

Visitor posing at Angkor Wat

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More photos from the Angkor river


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