By Caroline Stafford
The summer of 2013 marked my fourth year in Cambodia volunteering for The Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF). Amongst the whirlwind of things we aimed to accomplish, perhaps the most meaningful, was working with two PLF students from Koh Ker village to help launch their idea for a business: adventure treks for tourists in Koh Ker. For those that have never visited Koh Ker and would like to help PLF in a different way, I would highly recommend taking one of these amazing treks.
But, the treks are more than just tourist adventures. These treks are the embodiment of PLF success in Koh Ker. The fact that these students now have a chance through education to aspire to start a business, a future beyond subsistence living, is testament to the incredible PLF journey in this rural community. And being a part of this journey is what makes taking one of these treks just so meaningful.
Koh Ker is a jungle village in northwest Cambodia. It is in the region that was heavily mined after Pol Pot and his army took refuge in the surrounding hills in 1979. In a country that is already very poor, it is by far one of the poorest regions and was not accessible before 2004.
Ponheary Ly made education in Koh Ker her personal crusade even before the formal founding of the Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF) in 2006, which today brings education and support to over 2,500 school children. Her vision in Koh Ker was to reach children beyond the rural schools around Siem Reap. When PLF first arrived at the local primary school, they found about 40 students. Most were sick and malnourished, many dying. The drinking water was contaminated. School as it was did not go beyond 3rd grade. There was little role model for education as most parents did not read or write, reality was and is still subsistence living through planting in rice fields or catching fish.
When PLF support came, its first focus was on restoring health. In many respects education was secondary to healing these kids, not just the 40 that occasionally trickled into the ramshackle school, but the hundreds still working in the fields. They installed a doctor on site, launched a breakfast program and eventually persuaded the local parents to allow their kids, to attend school, at least for a few hours.
But a 6th grade education was still not a future. So PLF decided to help the early few that made it past primary school. To relieve the burden on the parents and prevent the kids having to bike for hours each day, PLF built a dormitory adjacent to the only existing local high school in the area, supplanted the teaching staff and provided a home for these first graduates to continue school.
Each year we arrive in Koh Ker, change is monumental. Today, Koh Ker primary school has 200 students in grades 1- 6 and the first of these older kids 16 girls and 16 boys are now graduating from 9th grade. These older graduates are around 19 years old on average having started school with the help of PLF at the age of 12. Now is the time to find opportunity beyond support from PLF. And so the concept of launching new Koh Ker business opportunities was born.
Since work (i.e. jobs) outside of farming don’t really exist in Koh Ker, starting a business from scratch, initially with PLF support, is the only way forward for these graduates. And so the first social enterprise concept, adventure treks of local and ancient life in the surrounding Koh Ker region, led by two of these students, Dieb and Ty was born.
Dieb and Ty are still perfecting their tours, but the idea, is to entice tourists to the treasures of this local region with them as guides, where they share historic and local insight, as well as their own personal stories as well. From the perspective of PLF, this is the final and most important leg in the Koh Ker journey. Can the foundation make education bring a better future?
Certainly the opportunity for tourism abounds as there is a much to see in and around Koh Ker. Now more accessible through a new toll road, Koh Ker is home to the Prasat Thom temple once the capital of the Khmer Empire from 928 to 944 AD and left to the jungle for nearly a millennium. The jungle was only cleared in 2007, and little restoration work has been done since. The combined effect of a stone structure in ruins, surrounded by lush jungle overgrowth and isolation give this temple a wonderfully mysterious and surreal atmosphere. This great archaeological site also includes a huge stepped pyramid, the largest in the region.
There are also many undiscovered jungle temples, still in remote areas of the dense forest, which Dieb and Ty can show.
And, Koh Ker is also home to a vibrant wildlife of rare birds, plants and animals and special attractions like tours of vast and largely untouched peppercorn and banana farms. This is an area that exudes uniqueness and interest for the slightly more adventuresome tourist.The highlight of our trek was riding in a Cambodian tractor to reach a picturesque river through new Koh Ker village.
Now Dieb and Ty’s business still has a long way to go. But providing feedback and support to them and PLF is more than just an ordinary tour. Coming to help these students in Koh Ker is about taking a trek in the PLF journey to provide a new way forward through education, a way forward from what might have been near death, illiteracy and starvation.
I encourage those who can to support PLF’s vision by taking a trek with Dieb and Ty. This experience will allow you to become part of PLF’s success in delivering education to Koh Ker. More importantly, it allows you to contribute to the newest phase in this journey, to allow education to help create economic independence.