By Shelley Seale
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.”
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. “He must have passed it on to me in his blood,” she says. “His belief in education, and his love of teaching.”
She used part of her government salary to create libraries with other teachers, 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 tourist customers, could escape Cambodia’s poverty and the thousands of children who weren’t going to school. Not when they saw them every day at the historic UNESCO temples, working and begging.
Although public education is free in the country, uniforms and books must still be purchased. Teacher salaries are so low and the student/teacher ratio so high that additional paid teachers are required for a quality education. In one of the poorest nations in the world, many families simply can’t afford that.
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. Tourist Lori Carlson – from Austin, Texas like myself – was so inspired by what Ly was doing that she helped her start a nonprofit foundation to support it. “Lori came only as a tourist,” Ly says, “but the children trapped her heart.”
Carlson agrees. “It was a life-altering event; I knew it the moment it happened. The experience moved something in my spirit I could not turn away from. I could not forget the hope that radiated from these disenfranchised children. It was one of those ‘why we are here’ moments.”
When the two women joined forces, the Ponheary Ly Foundation took off. Today it enables about 2,400 children to go to school, and Ly was named one of CNN’s Heroes of the Year. Visiting tourists are encouraged to get involved by donating items, sponsoring lunch at a rural school, or a field trip to the amazing world wonder of Angkor Wat that many locals have never even seen for themselves.
Longer-term volunteers are also 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.”
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. By this time, Carlson was living permanently in Siem Reap, having moved from Texas in 2007 to work full-time at the foundation.
“These accomplishments beat every single ‘important’ thing I ever got done at my desk in Austin, hands down,” she told me.
The next day, Ponheary Ly met us at our hotel to take us to Angkor Wat. She was a precise tour guide, inundating us with historic details and in no hurry, 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 clearly never gets tired of it.
And as we moved through the centuries-old history, some of Cambodia’s more recent, painful history crowded into what Ly shared with us. Gazing at the intricate stone carvings in the walls, one panel depicting heaven and hell showed a young man burning at the stake.
“I saw the same thing happen to a boy,” Ly reminisced sadly, but without rancor. “He was catching frogs to eat, and the soldiers called it stealing. They tied him to a tree and burned him alive.”
These are difficult things to hear, of course; but as my boyfriend pointed out, the atrocities are still a part of Cambodia’s history. Perhaps the worst thing for the country would be for tourists to pretend they never happened.
As we spent the day with her, I noticed that it was very difficult for Ly to look at any form of suffering or violence. She turned away from the carved visions of agony on the wall. When we came across a snake in the road that had been run over and crushed by a car, but still alive, she was sympathetic to its pain as it writhed around in its vain death struggle. The tour guide averted her face.
“It is too hard to see,” said Ly, who had already seen far too much killing in her lifetime.
Siem Reap Cultural 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, and visitors can watch the craftspeople at work. The showroom of finished goods for sale is amazing, and all profits a terrific cause!