At the age of five she shaved her head to pass as a boy in order to study at Angkor Wat pagoda, at 14 she opened her own restaurant, and now Ly Akim is launching a moto tour company, Cambodia Vespa Adventures, which is 60 per cent staffed by women.
In a world where many opportunities are still only open to men, it seems there is no stopping Akim.
The Siem Reap-born businesswoman grew up in the shadow of Angkor Wat during Pol Pot’s rule, and she says life was tough with no schooling available. But Akim’s grandfather , Loung Sake, the chief monk of the Angkor complex, saw a way to give his granddaughter an education – have her pose as a boy.
“Everybody was poor during Pol Pot’s time; we had no rice, no food, we had to dig potatoes to eat,” she says. “We had big big land and a lot of money but we didn’t use money anymore.
“My grandfather was the grand abbot of Angkor and I stayed in the pagoda with him to study. I had to shave my head to look like a boy because girls were not allowed there. I had to behave like a boy, and I hated girls stuff then because you learnt everything from boys. You had to learn how to fight.”
Thanks to her illicit education, Akim can now read and speak Sanskrit.
She stayed at the pagoda until she was 11, when she started school. But she says it was a strange time for her because she still felt male.
“I was so big and tall,” she says. “I had to change myself a little bit, start wearing skirts and all that, and grow my hair. I still felt like I was a boy until about 13 or 14. It’s quite a story when you look back on it.”
When she was 14, Akim decided she was ready to enter the world of commerce and, with a loan from her grandfather, opened the restaurant now owned by Artisans Angkor near Angkor Wat.
Her family helped her run it, and she went on to open another restaurant next door.
In her early twenties, Akim met her now husband Chris Wijnberg, a Dutch expat, and they later moved to Vietnam where he was working at the time, and had two children.
Akim and her family moved back to Siem Reap in 2013, and the idea came about to start a venture in the tourism sector that would also benefit women and provide them with more employment opportunities.
“I wanted to help females to get more opportunities because in the tourism sector there are not so many jobs for ladies,” Akim says. “Like drivers and guides. From what I know about 95 per cent of tour guides are men, so a lady has no chance to enter this sector. So I decided to help them.”
She came up with a plan to open a moto tour company. Friends of Akim and Chris, Steve and Phuong Mueller, had already started the very successful Vietnam Vespa Adventures in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007 and, partnering with them, they opened Cambodia Vespa Adventures.
Akim checked out the possible competition and found it to be minimal.
“I found the two or three motorbike tours here. I tried them all and they were not good,” she says. “They just drove around the countryside and showed nothing, except one broken temple somewhere.’
She then decided to do such tours differently.
Vespa, the classic cool Italian scooter, was chosen for its style, stability and green credentials – all the bikes have Low Emissions Advanced Engine Range engines and comply with strict European emission standards. In accordance with Cambodian law, customers cannot ride the scooters themselves, but sit behind a driver while their guide rides a separate bike.
“Our drivers are about half and half – 50 per cent men 50 per cent women – but later I’m going to employ only women,” says Akim. “It’s unusual in Cambodia to have lady drivers, but so far our ladies are so happy with their job and they get paid much more than they’re used to.
“At first they were shy but now they say it’s a much better job than they did before.”
Akim’s remarkable personal story is now part of Cambodia Vespa Adventures; relayed to customers during the course of the excursion.
“We started the tours in Siem Reap because this is my home-town, and also because there’s a lot of my story here,” says Akim. “In the tours themselves, we tell the guests more about me.”
There are two types of tour available: the After Dark Foodie Tour which runs from 6-10.30pm, and the Countryside Life Tour from 8am-2pm.
The Countryside Life Tour takes in eight different stops including the West Baray, a pagoda temple and some local markets off the beaten track.
“We go to the pagoda at West Baray for a monks’ ceremony. The temple was built at the same time as Angkor Wat so it’s very old,” says Akim. “Then we go to the island there – dry season we go by bike, so we actually drive over the Baray, and high season we go by boat. At the island there’s an 85-year-old guy who does fortune telling, so we go there and have some Khmer snacks.”
After a picnic lunch guests can buy traditional souvenirs such as woven baskets and bamboo sticky rice. Akim pays the sellers a regular salary, whether the guests buy their products or not.
“We pay people at every stop, we just want to help them to get a better life,” says Akim.
The After Dark Tour focuses solely on food and drink, from various street food vendors and markets to a final stop at the headquarters of Sombai Infused Rice Spirit, purveyors of flavoured rice wines.
“The tours try to take our guests away from the tourist areas, show them things they’ve never seen before,” says Akim. “The food that they eat is real Cambodian food – I think that’s what people like about them.”
Akim is planning to launch an Angkor Tour in July, and similar ventures in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and a Mekong Tour are in the planning stage.