About Our Founders
In 2001, Chantha Nguon and Dara Chan Kim created the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center, an oasis of safety in a remote, profoundly poor region of Cambodia.
When Chantha and Chan arrived in Stung Treng in the early 1990s, the area was anything but safe. People joked that if you made it there alive—despite the armed bandits, land mines, and execrable roads—you’d earned a second life. Cambodia was grappling with postwar dysfunction and chaos, struggling to rebuild destroyed schools, hospitals, universities, markets, and pagodas from zero. Rural Stung Treng was even slower to recover.
Chantha and Chan had earned their own second lives the hardest way imaginable. They fled war-ravaged Cambodia as children, then endured more than two decades as penniless exiles—in wartime Saigon, under communist occupation in Vietnam, and in squalid Thai refugee camps. In the camps, they trained as translators and nurses. And in 1993, they returned home—to a country laid waste by genocide—and put their skills to work at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) in Stung Treng.
After MSF finished the Stung Treng project, Chantha and Chan launched their own medical mission: the “Destination Center,” a hospice facility for former sex workers, soldiers, and policemen infected with HIV. Though the intent was noble, funding was spare. So the couple shifted their focus from caring for the dying to offering safer livelihoods to Stung Treng women, most of whom had few skills and no education.
Today at SWDC, weavers quietly pace back and forth at their looms, as shimmering silk scarves take shape. Spinners wind silk around whirring bike-wheels, while pre-school children play beside their mothers. Dye-techs “cook” color into the raw silk and discuss hues, using the formulas and terms Chantha taught them. Instead of using difficult foreign dye-names like “cerulean blue,” Chantha translates the colors into things they see every day: Peach is “shrimp paste.” Gold is “ripe sugarcane.”
Dara Chan Kim
“This is how women who have never been to school can memorize 250 colors,” says Chantha. And it is how women with no education can earn a living wage, support their families, and send their children to school.
The success of SWDC, on a shoestring budget, is a testament to Chantha and Chan’s deep personal knowledge of place and the realities of grinding poverty. No one would wish such losses on anyone. But it turns out that a fierce and fearless resilience, born of surviving unimaginable hardships, has bestowed this extraordinary pair with a unique set of qualifications: having made their way out into poverty and back out again, they know how to show others the way.
“You can turn your pain into strength,” Chantha explains, with a wry grin. It’s a slogan she often heard in communist Saigon, but has only much more recently come to believe.
*To learn more about Chantha Nguon’s story, keep an eye out for her forthcoming memoir: Slow Noodles: Recipes for Rebuilding a Lost Civilization. It’s a memoir about strength and survival, told through remembered meals and family recipes. Sign up for book updates at slownoodles.com.