Day 9

Leaders, entrepreneurs, fireworks on the Tonle Sap

By Marianna Edmunds | Mar 23, 2011
Lunch at Harpswell Leadership Dormitory for Women.

It’s Memorial Day in Cambodia, a national holiday, the day the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot was deposed by a coalition led by the Vietnamese. Cambodian flags lined the streets of Phnom Penh and the countryside.

We celebrated it by a second visit to the Teuk Thla Dormitory Leadership Center for university women, also known as the Harpswell program. The Center was the inspiration of Alan Lightman (Einstein’s Dreams), built to enable young Cambodian women from the countryside to attend university since Cambodian universities do not provide housing for women. (Men are able to stay in the pagodas).

We spoke with a 19-year-old sophomore, Satya, who recounted the impact of the Khmer Rouge reign on her parents’ lives and marriage. She said her parents put all their resources into making sure their three children got an education in the hopes that such a dark period would never happen again. Satya excelled in high school and qualified for a university scholarship and the Harpswell program. Today she’s one of the top students in her university and says she interested in a career in international affairs.

We were invited to share lunch with the 46 young women of the center, along with staff and visiting dignitary, Alan Lightman. Within minutes, a feast of vegetable, pork, chicken, and rice dishes, along with a wide choice of local Cambodian fruits, was laid out on straw mats on the patio floor. Many of the Harpswell students spoke to us with questions about how could they pursue their career interests after university in Cambodia. They were among the most focused and directed undergraduates I’ve ever met.

Our evening finished up in Phnom Penh in a spirited discussion over dinner at a Spanish Tapas restaurant overlooking the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers with an enterprising 26-year old Cambodian, Hengley, and his colleague, Lyn McLennan, a veteran Australian aid worker, here for 13 years, who experienced a world of change. The topics we covered ranged from the politics of clean water, public health, and development strategies to Cambodia’s long and tangled history – while Memorial Day fireworks lit up the sky and reflected in the Tonle Sap river below.


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