From the Killing Fields to a Future

Shelley Seale writes about a foundation in Siem Reap, Cambodia where tourism and education come together to offer a brighter future to local children.At the age of 14, Ponheary Ly died and came back to life. At least, that’s how she describes it. The year was 1977, and the Khmer Rouge was on its deadly rampage in Cambodia. After seeing her father killed, along with 13 other family members, Ly was on the run and in hiding when some soldiers accused her of stealing food. They marched her deep into the woods and forced her to dig her own grave.

“The ground was very hard,” Ly recalls. “I only got a few inches down, and then I don’t remember what happened.” The next thing she was aware of was waking up in the shallow pit, covered with dirt. “I must have fallen unconscious, I must have stopped breathing. The soldiers thought I died, and they buried me.”

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This was only one of many horrors that Ly survived during the brutal period in her country’s history. After she reunited with her mother and six remaining siblings, the family was forced to start over. Education became her answer.

Ly became a teacher, following in her father’s footsteps. She used part of her government salary to create libraries  and gave free instruction to children who couldn’t afford to go to school. Eventually Ly had to admit that she could not support her family on the meager earnings. When Cambodia opened to tourism in the early 1990s, Ly– who speaks English, Russian and French in addition to Khmer– became a tour guide to earn more money.

But neither she, nor her visitors, could ignore Cambodia’s impoverished children, not when they saw them every day at the historic UNESCO temples, working and begging. That’s when Ly began using her tips to sponsor a child to go to school. That child turned into a few, and then her tourists began giving extra donations as well. Within a year she was helping 40 children get an education.

In 2005, things began to get bigger fast. When Lori Carlson from Austin, Texas came to Siem Reap, she was so inspired by what Ly was doing that she helped her start a nonprofit foundation to support her efforts. “Lori came only as a tourist,” Ly says, “but the children trapped her heart.”

When the two women joined forces, the Ponheary Ly Foundation took off. Today it enables about 2,400 children to go to school. In addition, the foundation encourages tourists to get involved by donating needed items and sponsoring lunch at a rural school or a field trip to Angkor Wat, a site many locals have never had to opportunity to visit. Long-term volunteers are invited to teach English, computer skills and art, as well as provide medical services. “People wanted to help,” Carlson says. “They just didn’t know how. All I did by starting the nonprofit was create a way to connect the help that was out there directly to the need.”

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When I visited Siem Reap with my boyfriend in October 2010, Carlson invited us to accompany her to a local children’s shelter, where donations of food, books and Tom’s Shoes were distributed. Ponheary Ly met us at our hotel to take us to Angkor Wat. She was a precise tour guide, delivering historic details at a relaxed pace, allowing us to soak up the magical feel of the temples instead of rushing through. Her own personal love of the place showed through; she came there as a child to play, and she still finds joy here despite its ties to a painful history. There is peace in knowing that tourism is helping to build futures for the children of Siem Reap.

Siem Reap Sustainable Tourism Travel Tips

See more of the real Cambodia and its incredible, though often tragic, history and culture

  • Budget travelers can stay at Seven Candles, a guest house run by the Ponheary Ly Foundation. A tastefully appointed home away from home, Seven Candles is where many volunteers with the organization stay. The Ly family rebuilt their lives here after the Khmer Rouge, and the house is a testament to their struggle and the resilience of the human spirit.
  • For a splurge, check out Hotel de la Paix, an oasis of modern elegance that supports many community projects, including an orphanage, a sewing school for disadvantaged women, and centers for street children.
  • Don’t miss the Cambodian Land Mine Museum, where you can see the work of another CNN Hero, Aki Ra– a former soldier who has dedicated his life to finding and clearing land mines. So far, Ra and his organization have cleared around 50,000 mines.
  • For shopping and souvenirs, visit the Artisans d’Angkor workshop. Here, young Cambodians are taught traditional handicrafts and provided a new livelihood. Visitors can watch the craftspeople at work and purchase finished goods in the showroom with all profits going towards a terrific cause.

Photos: Above, Angkor Wat by Caringo Photografix/My Shot; Center, Ponheary Ly courtesy of The Ponheary Ly Foundation; Below, Lori Carlson hands out donations at a Siem Reap children’s shelter by Shelley Seale

Shelley Seale is a freelance writer and author or contributor of six books, most recently How To Travel for Free (or pretty damn near it!) with Keith Hajovsky; her mantra is “travel with a purpose.”