Siem Reap has changed quite a bit in the two years since I was here last. There seem to be a lot more stores, more neon lights, a lot more hotels, and a lot more tourists. Another noticeable difference is that US dollars are accepted everywhere – there is no need to change currency. While sodas and snacks are priced at American prices in the hotels, if you go to the local 7-11, many things are dirt-cheap. One night I bought a bottle of iced-tea and two canned drinks for 85 cents. My canned drink of choice is Winter Melon Tea, which despite the name, tastes exactly like a butterscotch cookie. (The ingredients are winter melon tea, cane sugar and caramel – in case you want to make your own butterscotch cookie drink at home.)
Our local hero here is Venerable Somnieng, 2nd head monk at Wat Damnak and Exec. Dir. of the Life & Hope Association, with whom we have partnered on several projects. Somnieng currently studies at Harvard but he’s on break for the holidays and so we scheduled this trip around him. On Jan. 3 we had the official opening ceremony of 2 schools funded by GO Campaign (thanks to a generous donation from Sumner Redstone). I was seated on stage with Jill Goldman and her family, including her mother Lynne Silbert, and by Jamie and Michael Lynton and their children, and I think the community appreciated having so many visitors from so far away.
The Governor of Siem Reap Province spoke (and spoke and spoke) at the ceremony and presented GO Campaign with a special gold medal from the Prime Minister for our work in rebuilding Cambodia. The schools are beautiful and the community seemed genuinely happy. The Khmer Rouge destroyed the entire education system including schools, so even though the education system is not great, it’s better than no education at all and school-building is especially important for girls who might not otherwise be allowed to go outside their village if there were no school nearby.
Speaking of girls’ education, on Jan. 4th we had the official opening of the new home for Life & Hope’s PAGE program to advance girls’ education. This we funded thanks to Robert Pattinson, with whom we auctioned off a meet & greet on the set of Twilight: Breaking Dawn. I recited the African proverb about how if you educate a boy, you education one person, but if you educate a girl, you education a family, and if you educate a family, you educate a nation. These PAGE girls are selected based on both academics and need, but they all need to have demonstrated great commitment to their studies prior to being accepted into this life-changing program. After the official ceremony, which included a big feast, the girls’ parents or guardians sat in a circle and the girls went around on their knees, weeping in joy, thanking all the parents for allowing them to be part of this special program. Quite a memorable moment. And so rewarding we could help bring this about.
One night, Somnieng was invited to speak on the Cambodian Buddhist Radio station and he asked me to come along. It was a radio call-in show. He mentioned he brought along an American and so one of the listeners called in with a question for me. She wanted to know if American’s believe in cause & effect. I wasn’t sure what she meant. Is she asking if we believe in physics? Somnieng, who was translating, then explained that she was talking about karma. The question is: Do Americans believe in Karma?
Here I am in Siem Reap, home to the great temples of Angkor Wat, in a country that the USA pummeled with over 2 millions tons of bombs, where people sit with their families and listen to Buddhist radio. Meanwhile, our temples are those of Elvis, Mickey Mouse, and Wayne Newton, where families join together to watch Real Housewives and shows about Kardashians. When you look at it that way, how can you deny Karma?