Student News

Education in Cambodia: Peace House and Angkor Wat

Elven Shum – July 16, 2019

In addition to providing meals, housing, and schooling, the Program Advancing Girls’ Education (PAGE) brings together 36 underprivileged girls from villages near Siem Reap City. The LHA, a community of monks who runs PAGE, has a sister program entitled “Peace Houses,” where donors support a new house for a struggling family.

This year, thanks to the CSGC Cost Grant and the Shum Fund, we built a home for Retrey, a grade ten PAGE girl from Konjor Village in the Bakong District. Since her village was within the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, securing building permissions took extra time. During the rainy season, Cambodia is extremely prone to flooding, so houses are built on concrete stilts. Like before, I joined monks and neighbors in hammering, chiseling, and scaling up beams. While the house’s construction took only a miraculous two days, a third was required for blessings. With Retrey’s family and neighbors, monks from the LHA chanted three laps around the house. The following ceremony within the home included prayers, housewarming gifts, and short speeches. In my address to Retrey’s family, I spoke of Charles Piper Cost’s poignant story, his care about the world, and his commitment to help humankind. Via a customary plaque, I’m honored to dedicate the Peace House to the memory of Charles Piper Cost ’83, whose family’s generous grant has helped enable my teaching and building.

For a special Saturday lesson, I traveled with the PAGE girls to Angkor Wat Temple. Being the only one who hadn’t visited, I asked them to be my tour guides! Everyone researched beforehand and was asked to speak at least once. I learned that the 12th-century temple, originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, houses eight galleries depicting scenes such as Yama’s Judgement to Heaven and Hell and great battles of the Mahabharata. Taking our time, the girls described each scene, a task difficult for even native English speakers. As we ascended the steep steps, I was surprised to see Buddhist statues; As I learned, new Angkor monarchs gradually transformed Angkor Wat for Buddhism, but they kept the pre-existing Hindu elements. Before we retired for the day, we ate dinner at a local restaurant and I asked them to write a trip reflection. I had two firsts that day: first time seeing Angkor Wat, first time seeing students excited for homework!

Inspired by Deerfield courses, I taught my last class Harkness style. Following some confusion as to why the teacher was sitting with the students, they shared aloud their reflections. Along with my prewritten questions, I encouraged the girls to ask the speaker questions. Without my prompting and to my delight, the class ultimately shifted to a discussion on littering and park conservation. To conclude the day, the girls challenged me to a final series of Connect Four. They knew I had practiced between class-prep and construction and were curious about my progress. I managed to tie! As always, I learned a lot teaching the PAGE girls in Siem Reap; hopefully, they did as well. In my next post, I’ll share my Phnom Penh experience teaching at the People’s Improvement Organization (PIO) and meeting PAGE graduates.