…But I hope the joy and laughter lives on in the children’s memories for a long time to come.
I’m at the end of my journey. How did I get here so fast?! Isn’t that how it always goes. December 27 I take the bus from Sihanoukville to Koh Kong border to continue on to Bangkok, where a flight awaits me to take me home. Three months is a long time (two in Cambodia), and yet it was just enough to start to sink your teeth in… I would love to return to work with the children again, especially where I only visited a day or two, for a sense of continuity and deeper exchange. I also discovered additional places (such as ‘Homeland’ taking in orphaned and abandoned children off the street) where the children had never had any creative visit or outlet and very much were in need of opportunities for joy and laughter. Alas, a visit there was not possible this time around. So I have to come back! We’ll see what the future holds.
In meantime, this particular venture is complete. It has been a fantastic journey. Although, I must say, it is difficult to qualify the experience in words. But I have tried to give you a good description below of what I was up to these three months, and I hope you enjoyed looking it over! The children and adolescents with whom I clowned and the directors of the places where I went all expressed how excited and grateful they were to have me visit, and I would like to extend their sentiment through me to all of you who helped make this venture possible. Thank you all for your great support and contribution!!! Aw-koun jee-ran!
December 22 – 27
My last stop on my clown journey through Cambodia is Sihanoukville on the south-west coast. This is fast becoming a popular beach resort with foreigners, but I am not here to lie on the beach and frolic in the water. I’m here to work with the kids of M’lop Tapang.
is an organization helping street children with shelter, education and a future. There are tons of street children in Sihanoukville; you see them roaming the beach selling trinkets to tourists, begging for money or picking garbage. MT addresses itself to three kinds of street children: street-living children – who have been abandoned by their families, or have run away from home and are living alone on the streets; children from street-living families, i.e. children who live on the streets with their families; and street-working children, children who spend most of their time on the streets fending for themselves, but do return home on a regular basis. Many children are sent out by their parents to work all day or night to help the family survive. MT works with these families to counsel and convince them that the children are better off in school and to find ways for the parents to earn a better living.
M’lop Tapang operates a main day center where education and recreational activities are offered together with regular meals, medical care and counseling. There is also an outreach team with small centers in the midst of the slums where those children who can’t come to the main center still have close access to schooling and recreation for a few hours a day. MT provides vocational training for the adolescents and also houses many girls and boys who are not able to stay with their families or have none to return to.
Tapang is a certain kind of tree also called ‘umbrella tree’ because of the extended branches. M’lop means shade or protection in Khmer. Everything got started with a bunch of street kids who were living under an umbrella tree on the beach and has since expanded to a large organization helping over a thousand children.
I play with the children aged around 4-12 at the annex center, which is being built to accommodate more creative arts activities. In the morning I have one group of around 30 and another one in the afternoon. The kids are really engaged and very creative, the boys a little more so than the girls who are more shy… I can tell which kids have already had a chance to express themselves, in creative play that has been offered before — who are “warmed up” so to speak and jump into the games more readily — and who are new to this and new to the center, and therefore more on guard.
We do workshops with creative movement and clown play, goofing around with our bodies and faces, making funny dances, and playing with exaggerating reactions like surprise! discovery! wow! how great! excitement and joy! ha ha ha! whoopee! woohoo! yey! or anger, arrrr! or upset, boohoo!, back and forth. Playing with rhythm and range. Warming up body, face and spirit! Together in a circle or in small groups. We work on being connected, having eye contact and responding off each other. The kids work together to each add interesting movements into a choreography. I am impressed with the kids’ creative engagement — I have them do an entrance and greet the ‘audience’ as three clown characters, with a funny walk, and do a little dance and then exit. And they’re hamming it up! Funny stuff. We practice some juggling and stiltwalking too.
Christmas Day, the center organizes a party (Cambodians are Buddhist but clever as they are have found a way to capitalize on Christmas — it’s a great excuse to party! And for Cambodian enterprises, it’s another great way to make money, selling Xmas decorations. I fully expected to not celebrate Xmas this year, being in Buddhist country, but there’s glittery trees and Santas all around me!) At the party I do a little show for all the kids and dance around the Xmas tree (a tropical leaf tree decorated with balloons) on my stilts.
Before show time, the director of the center talks with all the youngsters gathered to encourage them to keep going to school and build a productive future for themselves. Then it’s the kids turn to speak. They talk about what they have gained since they have had the opportunity to come to the center and how grateful they are. One girl starts to cry. I ask, “What’s wrong?! Why is she crying?” It turns out she’s crying because she is so happy that she has been saved from the life she had and is now at M’lop Tapang. Another girl, around age 6, stands up on in front of everyone and speaks in the microphone: she told us how when she arrived a year ago, she was so shy (traumatized) she was unable to speak — and now here she is yacking it up in front of a crowd!
The Slums of Sihanoukville
I also visited the children living in the slums and we had great fun as well.
See for yourself!
I skipped town for the weekend to go visit the children at Wat Opot, about an hour or so south of Phnom Penh in the countryside of Chambak, towards Takeo.
A small local bus takes me down there; it was packed and because I hadn’t bought a ticket in advance, I end up having to stand for the close to one and a half-hour journey. No problem, though. Then I get dropped on the dusty roadside by the Chambak market, except there seems to be nothing around but a small fruitstand. I am somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Usually a foreigner gets bombarded by moto drivers offering a ride as soon as you step out on the street or out of a bus, whether you need it or not, but here, of course, when I really did need transportation help, there is not a moto in sight! Then one appears but when I say “moto dop?” (the usual nomer for a moto taxi driver) he looks at me as if I’m an alien speaking an alien tongue. But I’m not! That’s what you say in Cambodian when you want a ride from a motorcycle.
[This occurs a few times throughout my journey — I say something in Khmer (i.e., Cambodian) and the person stares back at me as if I’m from outer space. I’m told, generally, they are so used to foreigners speaking English that they are assuming English is coming out of my mouth, but they’re not understanding… because I’m not speaking English, I’m speaking your language! Other times, though, I start to say something in Khmer, and they go: “Oh, you speak Khmer! Bla bla bla bla, and they rabble off…” Eh, no, not quite. Just a few helpful phrases, such as ‘Joum riep sue, suk sabai?’ (hello, how are you?) or ‘kniom awt niem sait’ (I don’t eat meat!). I’m trying to learn the language. It’s fun. But I digress…]
Eventually I do get a moto dop, and clamber on with my big bag of clown stuff and stilts, and off we go down the main road for about 15 minutes and then onto a small dusty way past traditional houses, rice fields and cow pastures to Wat Opot, the temple. Wat means pagoda, or temple, in Khmer.
Bus to Chambak (Takeo Province) / and, gateway to the road to Wat Opot …
I am going to the Wat Opot Children’s Community (also known as the Wat Opot Project), which is an organization offering a home to children living with HIV/AIDS or who have parents with AIDS who can no longer care for them. Many are orphaned. Here they receive loving care, shelter, education and the chance to be part of a community. There is much misunderstanding of HIV and AIDS in Cambodia, which here is still a relatively new phenomenon and fast becoming an epidemic, and most people are deathly afraid of catching the disease. Thus, people, including children, who are infected are often ostracized from the community. But at Wat Opot they get to live life freely as part of the community, and there is a lot of outreach to integrate the general surrounding population. At Wat Opot, everyone lives and plays together and the only way you can tell which children actually have HIV or AIDS is at 7 am and 7 pm when these children line up for their daily anti-viral medication (donated by Doctors Without Borders).
These children have suffered much hardship and sorrow — seeing their loved ones wither away with disease, losing their mother and father, a sister or brother, or themselves on the brink of dying until they came to Wat Opot for proper care. Thus, a main goal at Wat Opot is to bring back for these children the joy of living and a hope for the future. Many of these children have been despondent thinking there is no life ahead for them, they will die sooner or later. But with medication they do not have to die, so go to school and build a life and a future for yourself! It takes time to convince some of them. Even if all is possible, they are nonetheless surrounded by death. As a different example, one boy, recently arrived, was pampered and spoiled by his grandmother who let him do or have anything he wanted because he was going to die anyway. Now at Wat Opot Community, the boy is on the brink of becoming a troublemaker, seeing no point of going to school and causing mischief. He is slowly learning to adjust to the possibilities around him. To take his life seriously for what it’s worth and what is possible.
The children are extremely affectionate, even with a stranger. Even the older ones, those teetering towards trouble. One boy puts his arm around me as we walk to the temple for evening prayer, he’s holding on with great affection. At night when there’s a dance party after my performance, I see him at moments letting himself go, expressing himself joyfully on the dance floor, then suddenly withdrawing, the smile and gleam gone. It’s like two forces are pulling at him, he’s not quite sure yet which way to go, what to trust. He is one of the boys not wanting to go to school. I hope the joy wins out.
As I arrive, one little boy, around three years old, immediately runs up to me and clings to my leg. Wow, I just got here and I’m a complete stranger. Throughout the day, he is constantly there, crawling up in your lap, hugging you, taking your hand. I’m told he is extremely needy, seeking love and affection from everywhere else but his mother who is very sick and has rejected him, trying to ween him off her, convinced that she is soon going to die.
Wat Opot is a place of great joy, love and care, yet with the nearness of death a daily reminder.
Some of these children may be infected with HIV, but it is their energy which is infectious! Their smiles, the gleam in their eye, the affection they lavish. Their excitement at playing and clowning around! They love the red sponge noses I brought with me. And the stilts, always such a hit. We do workshops in the afternoon, playing clown games, making funny movements and playing silly characters. Even the older youngsters, 15-20, who seemed way too “cool,” get into getting goofy. Not used to a whole lot of structure, our play gets a little chaotic at times, and I discover that the kids’ attention span is very short (even though they are not raised on MTV!), when I try to enter into more structured, disciplined exercises to actually teach them certain skills or create specific choreography. But no matter, as long as the kids are having fun! (It’s a good challenge for me, though — how to adjust my game to cater to each situation, each group of kids. Each place is different, what approach is best for these kids, how do I switch things up on the fly to keep them engaged? If this doesn’t work, what can I do instead? I am learning as I go!) For anything more, I would have to come back and stay a longer time, which I just might! It would be great for them to develop their focus and concentration skills, to build their sense of accomplishment through theatrical exercises and for them to have a chance to express and work through their experiences by creating their own plays and performances. The children would definitely benefit from drama therapy. Although there is an art class offered on weekends to some students, the kids have not had much opportunity for creative expression through drama.
It was but a brief visit. I hope I left the children with a powerful experience that will stay with them into the future!
Time to say good bye! Off I go! Thanks, kids, for playing with me! And thanks Wayne and Bonnie for the wonderful opportunity of visiting Wat Opot!
I also worked a few days at a wonderful little place in north Phnom Penh — a newly started center helping street children, which calls itself Your Cambodian Street Children Organization (YCSCO). Aptly named, since as members of the world community these children are indeed your children!
The center is situated in a poor neighborhood on a small side street in northwest Phnom Penh.
The kids range from about age 5 to 14. We were about 40 on the roof top that is their class room, clowning and goofing around together. The kids had such great energy and engagement, fully participating all together with such enthusiasm! Sometimes it got a bit chaotic but they were over-run with excitement.
I went away for a couple of days to clown elsewhere, and when I came back the kids were out on the street and upon seeing me gathered all around me calling my name. Suddenly an impromptu clown workshop formed on the street as the kids on their own initiative formed a circle with me and started playing the games I had taught them before. These are the moments that make you feel the venture you set out on is worthwhile.
YCSCO is a new organization and these children have only recently had the opportunity to come here to get shelter, care and education. So they are still very much in need and hungry for stimulation. These are kids who live either by themselves or with their families on the street; they have no homes. Other children who benefit from YCSCO’s services are poor kids from the neighboring community. No one is turned away who wants to come and learn and play.
Learning English is seen as a gateway to a successful future, offering better options for gainful employment – and so YCSCO offers English lessons every afternoon after regular school. At this time, the space for the children is an open roof-top, and the organization is hoping to be able to build a roof over this space so that a place can be created where the children can learn at all times even during bad weather, and so that those children who are homeless (and parentless) can have shelter for the night. If you would like to support their fundraising effort to make this happen, please go to http://www.yscso.blogspot.com or email email@example.com.
Sorn Lorn is the founder and director of YCSCO. He is a man in his 30’s with great enthusiasm, dedicating himself wholeheartedly to helping these children. In a world so full of corruption (especially in Cambodia) and self-serving people following the ‘each man to himself’ principle, driven to make the most money they can (for themselves), Lorn’s self-less engagement in these children’s future is exciting and heartening.Above, Sorn Lorn with Leakana in front of his YCSCO center.