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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Newlyweds lend a hand in Cambodia's struggle against war, poverty

By Chris Gray, The Philadelphia Inquirer

SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- Let's be honest: It was the specter of tigers, temples and tom yam soup that led my husband and me to honeymoon in Southeast Asia. We wanted an adventure to remember, on a continent where neither of us had been.

But as I researched our trip, I realized that we should spend at least a little time practicing "voluntourism," giving back to people who are still struggling for the basics after decades of war and poverty.

We found a way to have it all in Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the ancient temple complex Angkor Wat -- and Ponheary Ly, a tour guide who considers it her mission to help educate as many Cambodian children as possible.

found Ly, a Siem Reap native and survivor of dictator Pol Pot's labor camps, through the Asia message board on Fodors.com. Ly, 44, is a veteran guide who has arranged private tours of Angkor Wat and other Siem Reap attractions in both English and French -- languages she learned in secret during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia -- since 2000.

A former English teacher, Ly has also worked for seven years to enroll children in Cambodian schools. While public school in the country is ostensibly free for the first three years, many rural children do not have the $12 necessary for shoes, school supplies or uniforms, she said.

"As a teacher, I knew about the difficulties of the kids and families who couldn't send the kids to schools. Also, I found that the kids are smart, but they don't have any occasion to show how smart they are. To build the country, we have to build the education for all people, especially the kids."

It's a message that Ly's clients -- mostly Americans who prefer independent travel with native guides to packaged tours -- could support. In addition to touring the temples, more and more visitors asked Ly whether they could visit the schools and donate money for bicycles, supplies and uniforms.

Lori Carlson, formerly of Austin, Texas, was one such convert. When she visited here in 2005, Carlson was struck by Ly's background and dedication. On her return to the States, she founded the Ponheary Ly Foundation (www.theplf.org), a registered nonprofit that channels money directly to the schools.

As of December, Carlson, 48, had raised $90,000 for five schools -- and quit her job to move here to work fulltime with Ly. She formed a board of directors for the PLF, which distributed school supplies to 1,955 children last fall.

"I believe the travelers who go to visit the temples at Angkor Wat understand they bear at least some of the responsibility to gently nudge these children toward school rather than reinforce the idea that it's good to stand on the corner and beg dollars from tourists," she said.

With such strong advocates, Don and I were excited to meet Ly and do our part. We arrived here to find a city undergoing massive change. The number of tourists visiting Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, has exploded in recent years, spurring an increase in hotels, shops, restaurants and other businesses.

While the influx of dollars has been good for many Cambodians (merchants prefer U.S. dollars to the Cambodian rial), it's disconcerting to see barefoot bicyclists ride past $800-a-night hotels. Young children hawk maps, books and trinkets near the temple grounds; tuk-tuk drivers fight over $1 fares.

That's not to say that Don and I eschew luxury (it was our honeymoon, after all). We turned down a $20 room at Ly's simple guesthouse, primarily because it didn't have a pool, which we considered essential to deal with the area's crushing humidity. At $95, our poolside room at Bopha Angkor was spacious yet not ostentatious, and the package included daily breakfast, a traditional Khmer dinner, and a massage.

Just a few hours after we landed, we went to Angkor Wat with Ly's brother Dara as our guide. There are more than 300 temples in the complex, but Dara steered us to the ones that would provide the most interesting backdrops for my husband, the photographer.

As we sweated in the 90-degree heat, I asked Dara about his family's experience under the Khmer Rouge. He told us that his father, a teacher in Siem Reap, was among the first wave of educated people to be killed under Pol Pot's regime. As a result, Dara and his siblings were sent with their mother to the countryside to work.

It's a sobering tale, and we heard more from Ly over the next few days. Ly, who was 13 when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and her siblings survived, mainly because villagers would leave food for them at night.

"We were given this much rice," Ly told us, holding up the tip of her finger. Dara would "crawl out on all fours, like a cat" to get extra food; sometimes, actual cats or monkeys would have gotten to the rations instead, she said.

Still, the extra nourishment kept the family alive -- and the Khmer Rouge noticed. Officials asked her mother why her children were still alive when so many other youngsters had died, Ly said. When her mother refused to answer, she was horribly beaten.

Such atrocities were common in the Pol Pot years. Yet most Cambodians don't like to talk about the time under the Khmer Rouge, Carlson said. It's rare to find it discussed in schools, primarily due to the country's Buddhist beliefs, which hold that people -- even war criminals -- are responsible for their own karma.

Ly is different, Carlson said. She understands that it's important to talk about the past so it doesn't happen again. We were talking in Ly's van, on our way to deliver lunch to the 476 children at Knar school, out in the Cambodian countryside. On the road, we saw men on bikes toting crates filled with piglets and open huts with children playing in the dirt.

Cambodian families expect all children, no matter how young, to contribute economically, Ly told us. Which is why even the kids who are lucky enough to go to school attend for a half day; at home, they are needed for chores, farm work, or other ways to make money.

In addition to a donation made before our trip, we gave Ly $40 for lunch, which buys two noodle packets for each child. That's essential, Carlson said, because if the child received only one packet, he or she would take it home to the family instead of eating it. The school tries to feed the children at least once a day to make sure they have enough energy to learn, Carlson said.

We arrived at Knar School, which consists of several one-story classrooms. As Don carried the boxes of noodle packets into the rooms, the children's eyes grew wide. They straightened in their seats and thanked us by pressing their hands together and bowing.

Carlson and Ly showed us around the school and talked about the improvements that have been made. Incentives such as bicycles, uniforms, and extra noodle packets show the families that there are tangible benefits to their children attending school, Carlson said.

"I would like to have my country be the same as the other countries," Ly said, with Cambodian children able "to have good education to work well to get out from the poor life."

The children seemed to love school, showing off their uniforms and books. An impromptu game of soccer ensued, with Don in the thick of it. It was an emotional sight for me, which sparked later discussion: Although we had been together several years, Don and I had never talked about the greater good we could accomplish as a couple.

It's a conversation that all newlyweds should have, wherever their honeymoon takes them. For us, road-testing our fledgling marriage in an underdeveloped country not only gave us the adventures we sought, but also set the course for a more permanent path. And that's definitely a trip worth taking.

TWO SIDES OF CAMBODIA

There are no direct flights to Siem Reap from the United States. You can fly there from various Asian cities, including Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi.

We stayed at Bopha Angkor (www.bopha-angkor.com), booking the "Poolside Evasion package." The cost was $285 for both of us for three nights, including airport transfers, breakfast, a dinner, and a massage for two.

We booked Ponheary Ly as a guide by e-mail (ponhearyyahoo.com). Ly charged us $145 for 21/2 days of touring, which included three half-day sessions at Angkor Wat, the visit to Knar School, and a visit to the floating village on Tonle Sap lake.

MORE INFORMATION: To donate or read more about the Ponheary Ly Foundation, go to www.theplf.org. Or e-mail Lori Carlson at donatetheplf.org.

CAMBODIA TOURISM: www.tourismcambodia.com

ANGKOR WAT: www.angkorwat.org
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