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Angkor Wat and a Few Hundred Children

by Ken Stimson

July 2, 2006

While this report does not contain any travel tips, it does describe how a great vacation to Angkor Wat can be transformed into an even more wonderful and rewarding adventure. I hope you enjoy it.

In 2005 I took a business trip to Bangkok for two weeks. It was during this trip that I learned about Angkor Wat, so it became a goal of mine to visit Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the temples.

Based upon several on-line trip reports, I decided to contact Ponheary Ly to be my tour guide. I reserved her as my guide for 5 days in April 2006. I also decided to stay at her guesthouse for $25 a night. Ponheary has an excellent reputation as a tour guide. Deservingly so too. Ponheary is not a superhero, she is simply a very decent person and a thoughtful tour guide. In person she is quite a lovely woman, soft-spoken, friendly and intelligent.

In my research leading up to my trip, I read a trip report written by Lori Carlson of Austin, Texas that described a visit to an elementary school in the Siem Reap area to deliver school supplies. Their smiling faces, their desire to go to school, their appreciation of the new uniforms – these things all impressed me.

Thus I began another thread of research into helping the school children in the Siem Reap area as a part of this vacation. I contacted Lori directly. Lori was very generous with the details regarding opportunities to help, and her work with Ponheary. She described her idea of “voluntourism”. Lori also told me about the Ponheary Ly Foundation that she and her friend Monika set up after their trip to Siem Reap in January 2006.

The Ponheary Ly Foundation is simply a device to put money into Ponheary’s hands so she can purchase and deliver X number of uniforms and Y number of pens, pencils and notebooks. An over-simplification of course, but since 100% of all money donated to the PLF goes directly to Ponheary – it is not too far from the truth.

I was duly impressed with Lori as well as her endorsement of Ponheary’s humanitarian work with the school children. Thus I decided to ask Ponheary if we could spend one afternoon visiting a school. I wanted to make a donation worthy of the interruption in their classwork.

Well I soon became very excited about the afternoon visit that we were planning. Thus I decided to make a donation to the Ponheary Ly Foundation. In this way, Ponheary would have the funds to work with prior to my arrival. This is really necessary to purchase the school uniforms as the child needs to be sized in advance, and the uniforms ordered.

When the uniforms arrive, they are combined with the pens, pencils and notebooks to comprise a “bundle”. This bundle only costs $12. That means you can send a child to school for one year for only $12. Think about that. Only $12! These $12 bundles are the cornerstone of the Ponheary Ly Foundation. Other foundations ask for $25 to send a child to school for one year. Ponheary can do it for just $12.

Ponheary is a One Woman Cambodian Army of Love.

Ponheary does more than just support these kids with these essential $12 bundles. Much more. In addition to identifying the poorest of the poor that need help, she also identifies those students who will be good candidates for English Tutoring. She can send a student to after-school English Tutoring for $24 a year. That is only $2 a month. Speaking English is a real advantage in this tourist-driven economy.

She does other things too. Most classrooms in Cambodia start out as just four poles and a roof. If a classroom needs a thatch wall, she will purchase one for $10. She will also help in the construction of a new classroom, as she has done at her local village school of Vat Bo.

Ponheary also follows up with the children she helps to make sure that they return to class the following year. This often requires speaking to the parents to encourage them to allow their children to go to school. This is not always easy as these people are very poor. The father often needs an extra pair of hands to help with the rice farming or fishing. The temples always have a few dozen children begging for dollars to help their families. Ponheary cares about all these children, so she will do whatever it takes to keep them in school.

Ponheary speaks Russian, French and English in addition to her native Khmer. She worked as school teacher herself before becoming a tour guide. She knows the area very well. She knows the people even better. She hates to see the school children begging at the temples, because she knows they should be in school.

She speaks of the Khmer Rouge rising to power because the country (at that time) had so many uneducated people who could not think for themselves. The first thing the Khmer Rouge did was to execute the teachers and all similar intellectuals. Does anyone wonder why? The genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge really did happen, and not that long ago either. Not only is Education the key out of poverty, and it is also the key to life. History does have a habit of repeating itself, unless educated people intervene. Ponheary has a real stake in helping her country raise generation after generation of educated young people.

Ponheary wrote to me of a poor school that she had not been able to help yet. This is the Primary School at Khna, which is about 45 minutes out of town on the way to the temple at Banteay Srei. This school has many needs. It has no running water so it needs a well dug . They would also benefit from four water purification systems to make drinking water, one for each classroom. The classrooms have no cabinets for the teachers to keep their papers or teaching materials. Each morning the school prepares rice for the children to eat. The school gets the rice from the World Heath Organization, but they need some larger pots to cook the rice in. The rice is prepared by some local villagers in a small makeshift kitchen (four poles and a thatch roof) away from the classrooms on the other side of the courtyard. The Headmaster has no office. On days that it does not rain, he uses a small table under a tree in the courtyard. This school has no volleyball for the students to play with. So you see, this school Khna has many needs.

Things began to fall into place. I knew that I wanted to help. I had just finished my taxes for 2005 and saw quite clearly that I had very little to put into the column for charitable contributions. This is not true for most people, but for me it was. I decided it was finally time to step up and try to make a difference.

One thing lead to another and it became very easy to write a check to the Ponheary Ly Foundation. Well that felt pretty darn good so I wrote another! I decided that my donation would be made on the behalf of my family. After all, I would be giving them a full debriefing of my trip anyway. So I may as well bring them into the fold with the details before I leave. This also gave me the opportunity to invite my family members to also contribute to this cause. Our donation to the PLF grew further still. This is how our family (The Stimson, Cotter-Stimson and Hanson Families) became sponsors of the Primary School at Khna.

Our family will not sponsor this school exclusively. But we can give it a much needed boost. The school has many needs and many, many children! There are dozens of children in who are not attending school yet, but need to be. I invite anyone who would like to continue to help the Primary School at Khna to make your donation to the Ponheary Ly Foundation and designate “Khna” on your check. We need your help.

In a lot of ways, the monetary amount one donates is secondary to your actual involvement. I have heard notions like this before and never really understood it until now. Awareness is the key. Educating ourselves to the need and to the solution is critical.

For example, at work I have told a few friends of my plans to help this school. They saw this as being a good teaching exercise for their own children to donate $12 from their piggy banks. Instead of buying a $50 video game, perhaps they could make a donation of $48. I feel that it is better for more people to give multiple small donations, than a single person to give one large donation. It just makes better sense to educate our children to the value of the dollar, and the strong desire these Cambodian children have to go to school.

You see these children are not dragged to school kicking and screaming. In fact I doubt that there is any place else they would rather be most of the time. Going to the mall to play video games is not an option. There is no mall, no corner 7-11. The other options they have are begging at the temples in 100 degree heat, or standing waist deep in a rice field swatting at mosquitoes. For them school is a joy!

The clock ticked away pretty slowly prior to my departure. I spent my time filling a suitcase up with small toys that I wanted to hand out to the children. Our little get-together would be during a school break for their New Year. Since this was not an official school day, I wanted the children to have fun and play with toys.

Ponheary had her own ideas on how to make this day extra special. She wanted to feed these children a really good meal that had some meat in it. These children rarely get a well-cooked meal with meat. So she quite aggressively decided to feed these 350 children Cambodian Curry!

The Recipe: Spices, garlic; 45 pounds of beef; and a few dozen pounds of vegetables and potatoes; several gallons of coconut milk.

The Result: Let me tell you it was delicious! We would serve it with small loaves of wonderful French bread. What a real treat this meal will be for the children and for me too!

On the morning of our party, we loaded up the van with the curry, French bread, soft drinks, water, toys and of course the school supplies and uniforms. We had too much stuff to fit into the van, so we took two trips! After the first trip, the cooks at the school reheated the curry in the kitchen, adding the final ingredients of coconut milk and extra vegetables. Those new cooking pots came in real handy as it takes a lot of curry to feed 350 children!

When we arrived for the main event the spicy smell of the curry enveloped the entire courtyard. The sounds of locusts and laughter drifted through the trees on a layer of warm dusty air. There was Cambodian music playing and people dancing in a large circle, slowly and rhythmically. Sunshine, balloons, green trees and children everywhere. This day was destined to be far richer than I ever imagined. I felt like I had stepped into a dream.

For the more information, please follow this link: http://www.theplf.org

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