Last week Siem Reap played host to one of its more glamorous visitors – Miss Cambodia, aka Phanith Rama Sovann, who was in town as part of an annual humanitarian effort organised through the University of California, Irvine.
Sovann, a Khmer Rouge refugee who moved to California when she was two years old was crowned Miss Cambodia 2013 in the Los Angeles international beauty pageant Queen of the Universe, which promotes humanitarian work and education. Sovann, fluent in both English and Khmer, is also a singer-songwriter, and founded the Cambodian Awareness Organisation four years ago at her university.
This is a student club she founded on the campus of the University of California, Irvine.
Sovann says, ““Our club makes an effort to come to Cambodia every year to work on a humanitarian project for two reasons: one, we want to help those who are in need especially in the poorer provinces of Cambodia; and two, I wanted Cambodian Americans living in America to be exposed to life in our homeland and to be immersed in our culture. It is a learning experience that goes both ways.” Sovann and students from the campus arrived in Cambodia on June 18 for two weeks, taking in Battambang, Siem Reap, Kep and Phnom Penh.
“This year our project was to distribute school supplies to two schools,” says Sovann. “One near Battambang, and another in Kep. We were also able to donate much-needed medical supplies and medicine to a small clinic in Koh Kralaw. We were in Siem Reap because it was some of our team members' first time seeing Angkor Wat. We were able to create conversation about our rich Cambodian culture through the many sites we visited.” Siem Reap also holds a particular significance for Sovann, as this is where her father’s family comes from. Sovann was able to visit two of her aunts and an uncle during her trip.
“My father is one of ten siblings,” she says. “During the Khmer Rouge his parents and all his siblings died except the three that I visited. It brings them to tears to reflect on their losses and hardships during the Khmer Rouge regime, so it meant a lot to visit them and present my crown and sash as a symbol of my pride as a Khmer woman.
“Anyone can wear a crown and a sash, but I would like to use my platform to bring Cambodia to the forefront of public thought, as well as help those that are less fortunate.”
Sovann is based in Long Beach, California (also known as ‘Cambodia Town, ’) and is heavily involved with the local Cambodian community. She works as a program specialist in the Substance Abuse Prevention Program at NGO Cambodian Association of America, and is a graduate student in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.