Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Ponheary Ly Foundation

Ponheary Ly, the sister of our Siem Reap guide Dara, is a CNN hero for her work in educating the under-served and orphaned youth of Cambodia. We had the opportunity to visit one of the schools supported by her foundation, the Ponheary Ly Foundation, between temples during our tour of Siem Reap. This is an inspirational story of a woman overcoming her own losses, including the murder of several family members, and helping others do the same. Here is the CNN article by Allie Brown, CNN, Sept. 6, 2010:

Tour guide helps kids find way to school

Koh Ker, Cambodia (CNN) — Ponheary Ly has survived genocide, the murder of several family members — including her father — and life in poverty. Today, she’s working to build a brighter future for the children of Cambodia — by helping them go to school.

“Education is important for me,” says Ly, “because my father was a teacher.”

Primary schools are free to attend in Cambodia, but not all children go. With most of the population living in rural areas, children often lack transportation to get to school — and many families keep children home to help on the farm and earn money, said Ly.

Those able to go often must pay a small fee — around $20 a year — to buy uniforms and supplies, and many families can’t afford it.

Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world, where about 40 percent of the population of 14.7 million live off less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank.

“They don’t have enough to eat,” said Ly. “How can they have the money to buy uniforms and supplies?”

Ly, 47, is bridging that gap. She and her foundation are helping thousands of rural children attend school by providing them with uniforms, supplies and other services.

“I need them to have a good education, to build their own family as well as to build their own country,” Ly said.

Ly’s family was thrown into poverty during the Khmer Rouge regime. Their father was the main breadwinner, and when he was killed in 1977, along with 13 other family members, the family was left with nothing. After the regime dissolved, Ly, her six remaining siblings and their mother were forced to start over.

Education was Ly’s answer.

She became a teacher in 1982, struggling to get by on her government salary. But she used her meager earnings to work with other teachers to create libraries, and she offered free instruction to children who couldn’t afford lessons.

When Cambodia opened up to tourism in the 1990s, Ly — who speaks Khmer, Russian, French and English — became a licensed tour guide to earn more money.

As she guided tourists to the ancient Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, she saw children begging tourists for money at the temples. On her tours in the countryside, she noticed that many children didn’t go to school at all.

Ly began using tip money — and soliciting donations from tourists in lieu of tips — to support the children’s education. She started with one girl who was in school but lacked the resources to continue, and by the next year she was helping 40 children.

As Ly was slowly growing her program, one child at a time, she met an unlikely ally from Texas.

Lori Carlson was visiting Cambodia in December 2005 and ended up on one of Ly’s tours.

“She explained to me the work that she and her family were doing in the community,” Carlson said. “When I saw what she was doing and saw how incredibly effective it was and how important it was in the country, it became very compelling to me.”

Carlson was so moved that she returned to Texas and helped establish the Ponheary Ly Foundation.

Siem Reap, Night Market, and Pub Street

Siem Reap is a city easy to travel because of its many tourist amenities. Delicious restaurants full of both Khmer and Western foods, Tuk Tuks ready to take us anywhere for a dollar or two, and English spoken everywhere. But the best example of Siem Reap’s tourist-friendly atmosphere is its Night Market. When I first think of a night market in Southeast Asia, a very specific image comes to mind with crowded stalls, dim lighting, a mixture of smells that individually would be nice but together don’t blend, and people trying to sell you anything and everything. This market was anything but that to the point of there being a night market map, a bar/restaurant in the middle, friendly salespeople, great lighting, and surprising cleanliness.

Pub Street, located in the middle of town, was full of inexpensive and great restaurants.  For each dinner, Sangita, Nithya, and I would take turns reading about Khmer history from my Kindle’s Lonely Planet Cambodia so that we could start to understand the Indian, Hindu and French influences all around us.  In addition, up and down the street were small pools of cleaner fish. For a small fee, we put our feet in one pool and let the fish, both big and small, nibble at our heels and our toes with the promise that afterwards our feet would be clean and “soft as a baby’s bottom” (their words, not mine). After I moved pass the tickling phase, the sensation wasn’t too unusual and almost nice.

Siem Reap is a great city, even if a bit touristy, that offers opportunities to try traditional food, appreciate Khmer Art, and see temples that were significant in ages past and are still places of pilgrimage for many today.

Artistic rendition of Buddha

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Cambodian tourism is now synonymous with visiting Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, and that is where our Cambodian adventure properly began. Although Angkor was easily the most breathtaking, it is only one of hundreds of temples in Cambodia. The agenda for the two days that Nithya, Sangita and I stayed in Siem Reap was as follows:

  • Angkor Wat
  • Bonteay Kdei
  • Taprohm
  • Sunset on Prerup Temple
  • Sunrise at Angkor Wat
  • Banteay Srei
  • Banteay Samre
  • East Mebon
  • Angkor Thom
  • Bayon
  • Baphuon
  • Phimeanakas
  • Terrace of Elephant
  • Sunset on Phnom Bakheng

Monks in a Tuk Tuk

Luckily we had a very well-informed and nice guide, Dara Ly, to help us differentiate the above temples and ancient sites, which at first seem more “same, same” than “different”. In addition, Dara along with my travel partners, Nithya and Sangita, were all knowledgeable on the Hindu gods and goddesses that were carved throughout the temples. After my couple days in Siem Reap, I now know more about Shaivism, focusing on Shiva and the lingam, as well as Vaishnayism, focusing on Vishnu. And although most of Cambodia is Buddhist, many of the temples contain elements of both Hinduism and Buddhism as the control of the temples shifted throughout the years. At one temple, because I was wearing my Buddhist beaded bracelet and a red string around my wrist indicating that I had recently paid my respects to a Buddha statue, a monk came up to me, gently grabbed my wrist and said something although not in English seemingly kind and appreciative. Small experiences such as this help me better understand the importance of these historic Cambodian temples.

Temple reflection, Siem Reap

Our Boutique Hotel

Close to the Chaweng Noi Beach, Nithya, Sangita and I loved our small hotel, Chaweng Tara, run by a caring and fun family. One evening, we even played cards with the grandparents as everyone showed off some of their more impressive tricks. With the staff very friendly and the location convenient, this was a great choice; however, to get our super fancy Koh Samui boutique hotel experience, the three of us made friends with the wait staff at such a hotel just next door. The friendliest of the staff, Toom, let us use the vanishing edge pool, enjoy cocktails at happy hour, and simply lounge around the beach side of the hotel. They may have thought we stayed there because we were always asked for our room number to pay for the drinks; however, we would respond that we wanted to pay with credit card explaining that it was “more easy.” In short, we had the best of both worlds with the small friendly place to stay in the evenings and the exorbitant (from $250 to $800 per night) hotel to enjoy during the days.

Vanishing edge pool Koh Samui

Full Moon on Koh Pha Ngan

In an attempt to set the mood for these Thai Islands, I read “The Beach”, which in 2000 was adapted into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Although I do not plan to sneak to out-of-bounds islands with people I just met and join a self-sufficient community after dodging several obstacles including Thai guards surrounding a secret Marijuana field, I will go to the infamous Full Moon Party that takes places on Koh Pha Ngan every full moon. And in the meantime, “The Beach” spoke of Bangkok, Khaosan Road, Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan–all places that I have been or am going to visit.

Full Moon Designs

After taking a short boat ride hopping from Koh Samui to Kho Pha Ngan, Nithya, Sangita and I find some dinner all the while feeling like outsiders looking in on something about to happen. After a couple drinks, some bright clothing purchases, and some body paint, we feel more confident and ready to find the main attraction. The Full Moon Party is no longer a Thai party, and instead, on this island, it is an international party with people coming from all over the world mostly between 20 and 30 years old, all prepared to have an epic evening. The USA was underrepresented in all areas except for the music selection blasting out of speakers from competing waterfront clubs.

Getting ready for full moon party

With water on one side, clubs on another, and everywhere else a dense population of people probably numbering around 10,000, the three of us made our way up and down the beach absorbing the scene before picking a spot. On our way, we see buckets being sold everywhere, we see fire stunts ranging from a flaming jump ropes to to fire juggling, and we see platforms, on which this international crowd can groove. We eventually find a place with a little less trance and a little more hip hop, and we choose to split another bucket and practice some of our moves.

Full Moon Party dancers

Full Moon Party is a wild scene happening once a month attracting people from all over the world; therefore, although it may not have been an authentic Thai experience, it was an incredible traveler’s experience watching these different cultures and people interact and celebrate something as simple as the moon. Throughout the night I continue to remember that most years, I would’ve celebrated this full moon around the dinner table with extended family telling the Passover story. This evening was spent slightly differently, but the message of cultures coexisting, of peace, and of freedom, even if not in a traditional sense, was still on display.

Rest, Relaxation and Raging

Rest, relaxation, and raging are all highlights of Thailand’s Koh Samui Island, and during my several days here, that is exactly what is on the agenda. Between lying on the beach to getting massages to eating fabulous food, life is relatively easy along this turquoise coastline. For a small dose of adventure, Nithya, Sangita and I parasail one afternoon above said coastline and enjoy the postcard-like view from another perspective.

Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui

Curry in Koh Samui

Parasailing in Thailand

The nightlife of the islands is young, exciting and bucket-filled. In Thailand, a bucket refers to a plastic beach bucket filled with vodka, red bull, and coke. Drink substitutions are fair game such as whiskey instead of vodka or sprite instead of coke. Although not the most delicious cocktail, its goal is clear and is usually met. Trying these buckets only in an attempt to embrace our surroundings, the three of us had a month’s worth of excitement one night on a nearby island, Koh Phangan as many came out to celebrate April’s full moon.

Koh Samui, Thailand

Upon arriving at the “boutique” airport on the island, I soon meet up again with Nithya and Sangita, the same two with whom I had my quick yet full morning in Bangkok just a week ago. I arrive at our hotel, Chewang Tara, owned by the nicest family complete with grandparents and a 2-month year old, and then we have quick showers and enjoy a couple minutes of air-conditioning relief before heading out to to the beach to the find dinner. Although already dark, the beach is beautiful, the food delicious, and the mood just right. The next couple days are going to be some of the most relaxing of the trip.

Nithya, Sangita and me

The American War, Revisited

The two spots I wanted to visit while in Saigon were the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong guerrillas hid during combat, and the War Remnants Museum. Both sites left a strong impression. I felt guilty though I played no role, ignorant though the extent of the American atrocities were not taught in school, embarrassed though I did nothing wrong, confused though the photographs told a clear story, and depressed though grateful for the exposure. I recognized I was being shown only one side of the story provided by the victors in their own country; however, even when recognizing a strong bias with prejudiced language, many of the truths of the war were evident.

While visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, the tour began with an informational video. In the video I learned of the Vietnam “heros” and the American “angry white devils”. I learned of the Vietnamese struggle for independence, freedom and peace, and of their fearless sacrifices and hardships to achieve those goals. And although it was one-sided, I was able to filter truth out of what was being said. Crawling through these tunnels and realizing how much the Viet Cong suffered from the cramped spaces and high levels of malaria also reinforced their strong will to win the American War.

The American atrocities during the war, however, did not become frighteningly clear until my visit to the War Remnants Museum. Here, among other aspects of the war, I learned much about the American’s widespread use of chemicals including the infamous Agent Orange, which included dioxin. The American’s used Agent Orange as a defoliant to expose areas under the thick jungle canopy; however, the Dioxin has had horrendous effects up to the present time in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government claims overs 4,000,000 victims of this devastating toxin although the US still denies scientific evidence linking Agent Orange and the victims of dioxin poisoning. That said, the list of cancers, diseases, and birth defects caused by dioxin is too numerous to list. In addition, along with the use of Agent Orange, the Americans also used non-targeted bombs such as cluster bombs whose damage spread to both military personnel and civilians.

The War Remnants Museum powerfully told this story through photographs. Photos of children born with birth defects. Photos of people with limbs missing and with faces disfigured. Photos of women and children dead and lying on top of each other.

In addition, I visited the museum with Serhat from Australia who I met at the Cu Chi Tunnels, and with Hoa, my new Vietnamese friend studying in Saigon. An American together with a Vietnamese viewing the photographs throughout the museum heightened the impact of the experience. Hoa was so welcoming and so kind to me, and at the same time, we were both seeing images of how people from my country hurt those from hers. Knowing there was little I could do at the time, I focused on learning as much as I could from the photos and stories presented by the museum. This day forced me to see the American War from the victor’s perspective, and I felt obliged to do so considering it was the least I could do given what I learned.

From The Calm to The City

Getting into Saigon was a shock after my time in central Vietnam. The paddy fields were replaced with buildings and the rivers with roads. However, the bustle of the city was made more manageable as I toured around with my new friend, Hoa on her motorbike. She showed me the post office with its elaborate French architecture, we toured the South Vietnam wartime headquarters, and she helped me haggle my way through the night market of District 1. Saigon is a young vibrant city with parks full of activity and a busy nightlife. Unfortunately, part of the youngness of the city is the fault of the American War in that much of a generation died within those years.

Learning Hoa’s university student perspective on Saigon was a perfect way to end my Vietnam tour. Similar to the other Vietnamese I met, she was both proud of the culture and excited to share it. The perfect example of this was with traditional Vietnamese food. Hoa brought me a special dish along with some ca phe (Vietnamese coffee), which I had ordered at any and every opportunity. In short, the big city of Saigon felt smaller and friendlier thanks to Hoa.

Hoa and me

Later that evening, Hoa and I went to listen to Anh Tuyet sing Trinh Cong Son in a concert to remember this famous composer’s death 10 years ago. The concert was relaxing and I enjoyed listening to Hoa and the others around me sing along with some of the more famous tunes. As a change of pace from the last week, the culture I experienced in Saigon was less of the old traditional Vietnamese culture, and more of the current and live arts culture. Interestingly, at the end of the performance, everyone sang a song recognizing the unification and cooperation of the Vietnamese people. When trying to compare this experience to something in U.S., my first thought was that of my school’s fight song that plays after the performances leading up to our big rivalry football game, the only difference being that our fight song ironically has less of a marching feel.

Attempting to cross the street in Saigon

Again, I thank Hoa and all of the friendly Vietnamese I have met that made me feel so welcome. As I mentioned before, especially in situations such as these, I feel so fortunate to have had the experiences and to have met the people that I did.

Vietnamese Countryside Craft

While in Hoi An and in central Vietnam, I wanted to see what the goings-on are of the countryside. I found a bicycle tour that would take me around the islands adjacent to Hoi An and explain some of the local craft and handy skills. While on the tour, I saw wood steam-bending, shell cutting, wood carving, mat weaving, water freezing, brick manufacturing, peanut and rice picking, and basket boat making.

Boat Building

Wood and shell carving

Peanut picking

Brick making

In a basket boat

Boat scene along the bike ride