Friday, September 24, 2010

Finding Mind Happiness in Siem Reap

I came to Siem Reap to avoid Bangkok and to see Angkor Archaeological Park, which can be done in a day or two. Somehow, I ended up staying close to two weeks.  Those nice plans to get into northern Thailand, where there's hiking and hills, went right out the window.  Oh well.  I like this corner of Cambodia.

Impressions of Siem Reap...  well, a few decades ago, the insane dictator Pol Pot was extremely effective in eliminating a large chunk of the population, something like a third of the population, including anyone literate.  The country has only been stable for the last twenty years.  Tourism is new--maybe ten years.  Perhaps due to this, there is noticeable desire here to have a good, stable life, and it's much stronger and more easily acknowledged here than anywhere else I've traveled.

At least two Cambodians have mentioned that they have problems sleeping at night due to the stress of their business, making money, providing for their families, and worrying about the future.  And this comes up in small talk!

The entire young generation desperately wants to learn English.  English proficiency is seen as an absolute prerequisite for securing a job, at least in the Siem Reap area.

One day, Dave and I wandered into a random temple compound outside the main tourist district.  A young monk waved us over, sat us down, and proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes talking to us about a project he's starting.  As a monk in the service of the community, Chea Yorn teaches English six days a week in both Siem Reap and the countryside.  Amazingly, he manages to do this with only an intermediate grasp of the language himself!  In his opinion, English is so crucial to the success of the youth in Cambodia that they simply must learn it, even if he has to teach every damn teenager himself.

In addition, Chea has hatched a plan to bring more income into rural areas by selecting two families to participate in a fruit and vegetable growing project.  Outside the rainy season, these rice-growing villages have no source of income.  If a few families could be taught how to grow fruits and vegetables, they could have income all year round, plus show other families these techniques.  The fruit trees could provide shade and fresh air in the hot, dusty villages.  He also has ideas for irrigation improvements.

Dave and I have visited Chea's evening classes a few times to help model native English pronunciations.  We're not in Siem Reap long enough to take over teaching any classes, but it seems our attendance and participation keeps the students engaged.  Every little bit helps, or so I tell myself.  I've noticed that other random people show up to watch the spectacle, so at least we're entertaining someone!  This temple isn't in the nicest part of town, but Dave and I walk back to our village after dark, and we feel safer walking out of the temple here than we'd feel in many parts of the United States.

The classes take place under the deck of the small building where Chea lives with three other monks and a few temple boys.  There's a dirty whiteboard, one marker, and a bunch of young Cambodians, ages 16 to 25.  One young woman adds the consonant "ssss" to the end of every word, which I find endearing.

Besides teaching English with only an intermediate grasp of the language himself, and hatching mad awesome plans to save Cambodia one family at a time, Chea gets up at 4 a.m, eats one meal a day, and participates in temple life as a monk.  He's 28 and has been a monk since age 15. 

But he's still part of this world.  An Australian gave him a laptop and a digital camera.  He's very quick to show off pictures of his students.  And, like everyone in my generation, he's on Facebook.

He was thinking of going to university, if he could get the money, or maybe just getting a job.  In this part of the world, it's common to become a monk for a few years in the teens or 20s to further education and to become a better member of society.  But maybe Chea will remain a monk.

In his words, "helping other people and we don't need to get anything back that is mind happiness. doing any good deed for each others it will make our mind peaceful. making our mind pure."

You said it, Chea.  This is 21st century Buddhism, and the answer to the questions of the retreat experience.


  1. hi, this is interesting!
    anyway I can contact Chea? in facebook, perhaps?

    i'll be in Siem Reap in July!

  2. WOW, it's great to know that people are still finding this post!

    Yes, Chea is on Facebook! He seems to be keen on technology and updates his profile often. He can be found at

    I have been following what he has been doing at Enkosa River School for the good of the community. If you are going to be in Siem Reap, please walk over to Enkosa River School to ask how you can help.