Offwego's Trip Report August 2006

Sep 10th, 2006, 08:58 AM
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Picures of Pak Ou Caves
offwego is offline  
Sep 10th, 2006, 09:36 AM
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lori....the site asks me for a password when i try to look at other pics....can you supply me with one??
rhkkmk is offline  
Sep 10th, 2006, 12:02 PM
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You are one of the few people to write a report and be interested in the orphanges in a foreign country. I went to one in Saigon,finding my way by taxi,that an Australian lady started who has written a book.
I saw things that were very positive as well as the heartbreaking children that would never be adopted. Thanks for showing another aspect of travel and experience that many travelers forget.
maryanne1 is offline  
Sep 10th, 2006, 01:45 PM
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Wonderful report and fabulous photos! Thanks. So glad you enjoyed LP - I think it's my favorite place in Asia. (Why am I sweltering in N.C when I could be sweltering in LP???) Impressed by your monastery visit - I could handle the no talking, but I'm not so sure about the food.
thursdaysd is offline  
Sep 10th, 2006, 05:09 PM
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Offwego, I'm so glad you loved the Pak Ou caves. We, too, found them to be absolutely magical. People either resonate to them or are left cold by them. And I loved your description of the meditation... so true.

For me, traveling is always healing. It is a time to step outside my day to day assumptions about the world and to get a new perspective. It is a time to be fully in the here and now in a way that is so much more difficult to do in our daily lives.
Kathie is offline  
Sep 10th, 2006, 07:09 PM
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Wow! Again beautiful writing and what a journey! Loved every minute reading your report. Such beautiful and intimate descriptions!

And throwing the ring into the river post mediation retreat, now that is absolutely classic! Seems to truly capture the moment letting go, non~atatchemnt, and being in the now. Wow!

Thanx again for sharing this. Really takes u there. One can feel the beauty and fragility of life and the wonders of travel thru your words..I look forward to your next addition! Namaste.
Bonita is offline  
Sep 11th, 2006, 05:02 AM
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Thank you for an inspiring report and captivating photos. Now I look forward to reading the Siem Reap report...
marya_ is offline  
Sep 11th, 2006, 07:30 PM
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Hi Lori,

Your travel reports are like no open our eyes to the beautiful and to the bleak, to the profound and to the wonder of the sights and sounds all around when traveling. I hope that this journey was a healing one for you.

Looking forward to hearing about your time in Siem Reap, with the schoolchildren, and with Ponheary and the Ly family. I can see how your trip so far enabled you to find yourself ankle deep in mud and rain in a crop field in SR!! Can't wait to hear the details of that situation and more. And whatever happened to your bag of toys for the Cambodian children?? We are all staying tuned in...

terryr is offline  
Sep 11th, 2006, 09:47 PM
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Siem Reap
Khna School

My gross thinking error:

When I arrived in Bangkok from the US I had a suitcase full of yard toys for the schools and 30 rolls of polaroid film and polaroid camera. I also had my other suitcase with my stuff. I thought that if I traveled to Luang Prabang and then on to Siem Reap with all this luggage I was going to be over the weight requirement, especially after the inevitable shopping that must be done along the way...

So I thought I was so smart and dropped the suitcase full of toys at the left luggage on my way out of the BKK airport. I had done this before when we went from BKK to Chiang Mai and it was great but I didn't consider the fact that these inter-asia flights would be international this time! Stupid!

When I arrived at BKK from LP it would have been nothing to transfer inside the international terminal to the flight to SR, but the damn luggage was OUTSIDE IMMIGRATION! Aaarrrgh!

Now I had to clear immigration, and get to the left luggage place and stand in line again then check the bag at the ticket counter, then pay the tax, go through immigration again and then security and get to the gate. needless to say I was RUNNING through that airport. There was a moment when I thought "well I'm just going to have to leave all that stuff here" but then I remembered to just breathe and somehow it all worked out. What an idiot!

Ok enough of that.

I'll start by suggesting that if you don't know anything about the Ponheary Ly Foundation or have never met the Ly family by way of touring with Ponheary, Dara or Marina Ly, please go to and get a little background so this story makes sense.

I was surprised to arrive at the brand new Siem Reap airport. So civilized! Air conditioning! Pleasant immigration officers! No bugs! I used the e-visa without a hitch but did miss having the beautiful visa in my passport. Just a lowly stamp in it's place. There is a separate line for the e-visa and I was the only one in it. I don't think it's caught on yet, but there was no problem using it.
You can apply here

Dara Ly was there to pick me up and Ponheary was at the house to greet me. Ponheary's Guesthouse (Marina Villa Guesthouse) had many benefits besides the $20 a night cost. The best part was spending time with the family. The other great part was being in a neighborhood virtually devoid of tourists. No being accosted while walking down the street. Lots of local restaurants, internet cafés, laundry services, etc. but not at all touristy.

So good to see Ponheary again, this time no fooling around with temples. We had work to do. She settled me into my room which was clean and cool with a private bath and balcony. I met some of the family. There are 17 members of Ponheary's family and they all live there together at the guesthouse. I have heard much about this family from Ponheary over the last several months and was happy to meet them all at last.

The only tolerable weather in Siem Reap is from about 5:30 am until 7 or so. The rest of the time it's ungodly hot and this time of year, full of more of that hot rain and heaps of mud. Hotter than Bangkok, hotter than Luang Prabang. Hotter than hell. So I made a point of always going out for some breakfast at about 5:30. There is a local dive just across and down a bit from Ponheary's place so I made it my morning ritual to go there for some noodles or rice and some coffee first thing (80 cents) and then back across the street to the internet café ($1 an hour) then back to the guesthouse by about 8.

Ponheary seemed really relaxed; much more so than the first time I met her and she was in her "temple mode". She is one of those rare, truly authentic humans and it was so good to just be there with her and the rest of the family, doing "regular life stuff" and working out logistics for the donations.

The first day we spent at Khna Primary School and surrounds. The Khna school is the first school the Ponheary Ly Foundation "adopted" last year. It sits a little off the road on the right, just before you get to the Bantey Srei temples. Last year we were able to get a water well and purifiers installed at the school and negotiate with the World Food Organization to deliver rice to the school each month so that a breakfast of rice and morning glories can be served to the kids. There are some elderly ladies in the village who come each morning to cook the rice. Some ground stoves have been put in under a thatched shelter to accommodate this.

A new building was funded and built by a Japanese company on the premises and this has gotten the kids out of the thatched classroom they were previously in. The school has been equipped with some locking cabinets so there's a place to keep supplies on site now. A flower garden has been planted. These improvements have made a HUGE difference in getting these kids (and teachers) to get interested in school. School is now a nice place to go and there is some community pride rubbing off on the place. I noticed the grounds looked better; everything tidier.

School is not in session yet. We are there 2 weeks before school preparing. We met with the headmaster, Mr. Nam Mek who had done his homework. We had put 461 students in the school last year. Of those, 431 went to the end of the year. Out of those 431, only 62% passed the exam for the next grade. The good news was that all 431 students were returning for school this year, either for the next grade or to repeat the last one. This is a very big improvement. There is usually a 50% drop-out rate between the 1st and 2nd grade in the rural schools.

He had their names in a roster and all their scores for the year and naded them over to serve as benchmarks for this year. We committed to funding 361 of those kids (there were some who could afford to come on their own) as well as fund 130 new students for the first grade. In addition there were 50 students who had graduated from the 6th grade. Of these, the headmaster had identified 20 that he thought had good enough grades and the dedication and desire to finish secondary school. He was hoping there was a way.

So we all did our math and came up with some numbers. Hands were shaken. Lists were made. Uniforms were ordered. Shoes were purchased. Supplies got delivered later that day to Ponheary's house and the mayhem began.

We went through the village a bit and the headmaster took us to his house where we met another teacher who was there hand drawing some flashcards and laminating them with clear packaging tape; getting ready for the upcoming year. The headmaster also had some oxen there he wanted to show us and I learned the differences between oxcarts with car wheels vs. oxcarts with traditional wooden wheels. He showed us what features to look for in an oxcart. Was very enlightening for a woman from Texas who rarely leaves the car.

I should note here that Ponheary and I were on the lookout for a nice set of oxen and an oxcart for the village at Banteay Srei where the Khna school is. It seems the one drawback to letting the little kids (age 4-7) start school is that it is their job to collect coconuts and firewood all day while the older kids either go to school, work in the rice fields or both. These little ones schlep coconuts, one at a time,and sticks of firewood, 5 or 6 at a time, back and forth from the jungle to the village all day. The next best thing it seemed to us would be for the village to have some transportation device that they could not only use to replace the labor of these little ones, but for many other tasks as well. Of course the village elders agreed. So more hands were shaken. More deals cut.

We tried to make arrangements with Mr. Mek to meet these 20 secondary school candidates the next day. He told us he thought that would be impossible since these kids have to work in the fields. They can't miss work. We kept negotiating and went to meet two of the village elders who I assume finally gave the consent. But we had to meet them at 7am and be done by 8am. No later. More deals.

That afternoon, there was much time spent by the entire family to prepare the bundles for the kids at Khna. That evening I had my first meal with the family. Rice and some grilled snakehead fish with some SPICY ass sauce. It was heavenly. No utensils. Eating with the hands. Back in the original wooden house, back behind the guesthouse, where the remaining family regrouped after the camps. Here is where they still gather in the evenings, eat, laugh, be together. Time spent back here with this family was the absolute highlight of being in Seim Reap this time. Forget about the temples. Here was a family, like any other, except that they had lived through and endured a tragedy none of us can even comprehend. Yet they still tease each other, play scrabble, eat, play with the babies and bitch. Some things just endure.

Mr. Mek and the elders got the word to the 20 graduating kids and the next morning most of them were assembled in the school yard. I wanted to take some photos of them, and Ponheary wrote their names and ages in our book. They seemed very nervous and I asked Ponheary if they knew what was going on. She said "probably not". I said "well, why don't you have a little talk with them".

Well she sat down with them in the dirt and got herself a stick and proceeded to "read it from the book". The stick translated the story for me, She really knows how to drive a point home. She let them know that life is hard and if you want something you have to work for it and now we are going to put some of them into secondary school and it costs $150 a year to go. That's about 4 months salary for their families...on and on and on. She threatened them with their lives if they did not do well. We were going to have to buy bikes for them since the school is so far away (about 9km) and she warned that if their grades started slipping, she would personally appear to repossess the bike.

Furhter, she would personally be reviewing their progress and would be out to see their families if anything started going wrong. On and on. Laying it on thick. I've never seen a more enraptured group of teenagers in my life. I don't think anyone had every spoken to them in this way. She was challenging them and letting them know in no uncertain terms how it was going to be. At the end she stood up and asked "Now who among you absolutely knows they will get the baccalaureate?" Only 5 of these startled kids raised their hands. She turned to me and said, "put a check mark next to their names" and then she walked off still holding that stick. When she left, I was convinced I too could do better! For Ponheary! But mainly I was scared of that stick!

When we left, we had the discussion that really we weren't going to have enough money in our budget to send so many to secondary school. If there are 20 at this one school, there certainly are that many at the other 3. How would we send so many? She very cooly let me think on the idea that we only need send the ones who raised their hands. We had a discussion about what happens to societies when only the wealthy are allowed access to education, especially in societies that lost all their BRAIN POWER a generation ago.

We also had the discussion about how hard it is for these kids to finish school when their parents need them to work and there is the pressure to marry and start families. The average age of the kids we met with was about 16. Some of them were as old as 18, trying to get into the 7th grade. They were running out of time. There would have to be a very strong commitment on the part of these students to go to school and finish. A very strong drive, she said, to "change their lives and the life of their family they do not have yet".

All this is making my head swim by now. I remember myself going to the 7th grade. A dork in brand new school clothes, my biggest concern being whether other dorky kids would like me. It's weird to compare the vast differences, but then turn right around and see people are people no matter what their circumstances. They love, they hurt, they tell jokes, they struggle, they live, they die. They try to get through the 7th grade.

I'm sorry this is getting so long. If you're reading this to hear about temples and restaurants, you should probably skip to the next report. The rest of the Cambodia trip will be about going to the other schools and visiting these rural villages, which I will finish up tomorrow.

Tomorrow: Kong Meuch School (Craig's school!) and Wat Bo.

I will also post the pictures to this section tomorrow.
offwego is offline  
Sep 11th, 2006, 11:44 PM
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Excellent. Excellent. Excellent.
KimJapan is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 03:49 AM
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I don't post very often, but your trip reports are making me feel that my return trip to cambodia can't come soon enough! I'm off back in january, and am now embarking on the fundraising efforts, and getting as many other people involved as I can; friends, family, local schools, a school in dubai that my friend teaches at etc.
And, now, I'm adding a side visit to Laos thanks to you too!
alr837 is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 07:08 AM
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I can't wait for the next chapter -Ponheary's way of cooly choosing those that receive help and those that do not has been the subject of much debate between Jeane and I - I think you are on the same page as we are.
Craig is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 07:15 AM
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Air837 if you want to see Luang Prabang before it looks like Siem Reap, go now!

Craig-tell me more about the debate because when there has to be choosing, it's hard and I often don't know what to use to measure. The one with the best grades isn't always the one that will just scopping up the top 10 in the class isn't necessarily the most productive thing to do.
offwego is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 07:50 AM
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I'm loving your report and anxiously awaiting the next chapter!
Kathie is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 07:56 AM
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In our case Lori, the debate was about picking the "poorest" kids for uniforms and supplies. When we went to Kong Moch school, Ponheary had asked the principal to pick out the 130 neediest kids which means that when we were there, many did not receive anything - We noticed some sad faces on those that were not on the list. The discussion that ensued was along the lines of "shouldn't the best students be getting the uniforms?" - I don't think Ponheary saw much practicality in that argument and neither did I for the most part. The good news is that Don and Joyce came along and 135 more kids received uniforms and supplies.

It is easy to picture Ponheary saying ok, we're going to give the money to those 5 students that raised their hands...And, its as good a way as any to determine chances of these teenagers success in secondary school - after all, all 20 had decent grades. If I may use a job interview as an analogy - would you hire someone that expresses doubts that they will succeed at the job even though they had excellent grades in school? So, no screening process is perfect for sure but with limited funds, tough decisions have to be made.

I don't know if this answers your question directly. I do know that my wife Jeane likes the idea of funding the kids secondary education more than just handing out uniforms as the decision on who gets rewarded is based more on merit than need.
Craig is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 08:30 AM
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I understand Craig.

Supporting the primary schools means casting a very wide net. Including everybody. Getting as many of the kids as possible from a village into primary school. That part is a no-brainer. Just cast the net.

Supporting the secondary school students is a bit trickier in terms of selecting the kids. Who will finish? Who will do well? Who will grow up and use their education to help rebuild their country? This is all a crap shoot at best.

I look forward to the day when we have sufficient funds to send everyone who has the good grades and can cast a wider net over the secondary schools as well. Picking kids is tough.
offwego is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 12:32 PM
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Pictures of Khna Primary School graduates:

Pictures of Ponheary's Family and Guesthouse:
offwego is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 05:00 PM
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Thank you!
Elainee is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 07:19 PM
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Having visited the Primary School at Khna just this past April, this story is also very close to my family and myself. Ponheary can be a very intense woman. Few children would have the nerve to raise their hand and commit to anything after being set straight by her. This is serious business. It is likely that no one in their family even had a chance to go to high school. They are so close to changing their entire family's future. All they need is an extra hand.

We eat their curry and we drive past their thatch roof huts on the way to visit their glorious temples. They live in one of the poorest countries in the world, visited by the some of the wealthiest tourists in the world. Us. Every one of us. Let's give a little back to these brave people by helping their children. Just a little.

I will help as I am able to, and I will encourage others to do so also. This is the real deal folks. No black hole, no adminstrative overhead, just you and a child that needs your help. Just do it. I promise you that you will not regret it. No "post charity remorse" with this one friends.

Then you can schedule a trip to go visit your sponsored student! Stop by the guesthouse and say hello to Ponheary too. She'll gladly show you these schools and the other children that you are helping.

Thanks again Lori,
OneWayTicket is offline  
Sep 12th, 2006, 07:51 PM
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great pictures...thanks
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