It has happened before when I have been in Thailand, but this time it happened pretty often: strangers came up to me and told me how beautiful I am. The manicurist in the beauty shop said the same thing, and the other beauty shop staff agreed with her: "Suwai," they said, which means beautiful.

This has been pretty puzzling, since I have never thought that even on my best days I could be described as beautiful. Since I have gotten older I have been described as "cute," but I have always discounted that. It never sounds flattering, just condescending. "Oh, isn't she cute?" sounds just like "Look at that old lady trying to _____," whatever it was I was engaged in at the time.

So, beautiful? And having it delivered very sincerely? Wow. I admit it feels kind of nice.

This is especially odd because I am officially old, and in our culture, age is considered incompatible with beauty. Our images of beauty are always young.

There I was, old, and in a country known for having the most beautiful women in the world found "on farms, in shops, in offices and all over Thailand, and all as beautiful as a sunrise," according to one source.

On one of my first trips to Thailand, I had the opportunity to travel, on a weekend, to an upcountry smaller city, which I was told is the home of the most beautiful women even in Thailand.

Wow, I thought. They must be really special. There, I had lunch one day at a restaurant that also had local entertainment during the lunch hour: a woman was singing traditional Thai songs. I was immediately struck by her beauty. She had that innocent aura of true beauty, no makeup and no fancy Vegas-style outfit. She was just drop-dead, naturally gorgeous.

Ever since, I consider her the model for real beauty. I know that one case does not make the norm, but I have seen and met enough Thai beauties to become a believer. And I've never been in the same category as them.

When I went searching for what might be considered standards of beauty, I found several websites. Most of them were lists of countries considered by someone to have the most beautiful women in the world. All of the countries included in the top 10, on every site, were Western with only one exception: one list included South Korea. None included or even mentioned Thailand.

However, when I looked at the examples from each of the top 10 countries, it was my impression that whoever was making the judgments had "sexy" as the primary criterion, not "beauty."

While many Thai women can look sexy, the poses of the models for the top 10 countries are not typical of Thai beauty. None of them looked natural! Most looked like advertisements for "houses of ill repute," as in "for a good time, call...."

I thought maybe people were calling me beautiful because I have lucky teeth: in Thai culture, eye teeth that sort of overlap like mine do are not considered crooked and in need of straightening. Long ago, I was informed they are lucky. So, I thought maybe being lucky also makes me beautiful to them.

Even more than the land of beautiful women, Thailand is world-known for being the Land of the Smiles. On average, Thai people always look happy. Their smiles are quick and genuine, there is a smile in their eyes and those ready smiles always look as if they start from the heart.

Then I had an "aha!" moment. Maybe I have figured out why strangers there are calling me beautiful.

Many years ago I was in New York City, riding an escalator. As I approached the end, I was faced with a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirror, and of course, unexpectedly, saw myself reflected in that mirror. I was shocked, because I did not look happy; in fact, I looked pretty crabby. I knew I was seeing myself as strangers saw me, and right then I decided to not intentionally look crabby ever again and especially not to strangers.

To some extent, I think I have succeeded. In my experience, most of the foreign tourists (farangs, in Thai) who Thai people see look tense, maybe a little worried and/or crabby, and certainly don't smile a lot. (Actually, that description fits tourists all over!) They certainly don't talk to, or smile at, strangers.

So, there I was, clearly a farang, but smiling?! At everyone?! No wonder they have decided that I am beautiful; it is all relative, isn't it?

I don't quit smiling at strangers when I am not traveling. I try to smile at everyone I meet and I try to make eye contact. Sometimes people actually smile back. But so far, none of them has told me I am beautiful.