Cambodia–Observations and Experiences

City Orphanage

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Today I went to the city orphanage of Phnom Penh (way on the outskirts of the city) and played with the HIV children and the disabled children (cerebral palsy, etc.). It was great! I was very impressed with the facilities, all new, clean, spacious, kids well taken care of. Good to see among so much usual squalor, in a developing country where one would expect less. Even in the United States (or perhaps especially in the U.S.), state-run care facilities that I have witnessed are usually dismal buildings with minimal care by an apathetic, under-paid staff. So it was so wonderful to see that here there was a positive space for these poor children. The only disadvantage, I felt, was that the kids with HIV, who were otherwise fully functioning, physically and mentally, were mixed in with the disabled, and did not have much opportunity for creative stimulation at their level.

So I think my visit really offered these kids a chance to go for it and have fun and play — freely and fully. They were so engaged and gung-ho! I was surprised. Usually when I propose a game and ask ‘who wants to try, who wants to go?’, nobody raises their hand, most everyone shy and hesitant to be the first. Here lots of hands shot up in the air and the kids were ready with such great creative ideas for fun (and funny) movement and sounds!

Cambodia – observations, experiences

Everyone has a moto (a Vespa-like motorcycle). This is the general mode of transportation in Cambodia. In fact, there aren’t really any taxis or buses except for long-distance travel, you simply hop on the back of a moto to go wherever you’re going. That or a tuk-tuk. And there’s no limit to how many or how much you can pile on. “No problem,” goes the motto of the moto drivers. I saw a moto with six people on it, including a baby dangling from her mother’s arms. I also saw a moto with four big television sets piled on the back (with no protective packaging, mind you). And then of course you have me and my huge luggage — see photo to the right (my 4′ stilts are sticking out on the other side). And off we go into the crazy traffic of Phnom Penh! No problem!

As I may have mentioned, I find the Cambodian people to be extremely friendly. Especially children are very open and curious. Little kids passing you on the road will most certainly shout out “Hello! Hello!,” invariably followed by giggling. Even way out in the field, if they see me, they will holler “Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!” It’s funny. Cute. They do it with such excitement. I bike by on a little path past a house, and the family goes “Oh, look, a barang (i.e. foreigner)!… Wave to her!… Hello, hello!” Even adults when driving by on their moto, turn and shout out a friendly “Hello!” Men may stare at me, but not in an uncomfortable way. It’s fairly easy to make friendly contact and conversation. Of course for conversation it helps if they speak English (as my Khmer is limited). Which a lot of them do. The younger people. And the older men and women often speak French, a remnant from colonial times. Since I speak French that works for me. Then, on the other hand, there are the times of complete communication breakdown, when I say something as simple as “bai” (rice) which I cannot possibly be mispronouncing and the woman selling rice patties looks at me like I’m an alien. Since I very much want to learn Khmer and pride myself in my easy ability to pick up languages, that frustrates me! Bai? What don’t you understand?! Argh.

There are a lot of children begging for food and money in the cities (Battambang, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh) and it is hard to know how best to deal with it. One little girl no more than 4 or 5, extremely dirty and barefoot, came up to me as I was sitting at a street-food vendors cafe table eating. She wanted money. I bought her some food, which they wrapped up for her to take away. She did not look happy, however, at being given food. I wondered what she was going to do with it. Was she sent out to beg by a Fagin-type leader, who would collect everything they get? If with her parents, would they take the food? Would she get to eat it? However, later when I walked down the street, I saw her sitting on the sidewalk eating. Good, I was glad. Often children are sent out by their parents to beg, or by a gang leader. You don’t want to encourage this practice so it’s not the best thing to give them money. And yet you want to help. It’s hard to know when they really just want help to get something to eat, and when they are foils for someone else’s scheme. And there are so many you can’t give to everyone, you really can’t. Some people make it a principle to never give at all. (And instead, help by supporting aid organizations.) Besides children, lots of mothers with babies on their arms, and old women.

Here’s an interesting little tidbit: Cambodian women like to wear pajamas as street clothes. I mean, a lot. It’s curious to me. If only for the fact that the weather is so warm and they’re walking around in flannel pajamas, aren’t they hot?! I find it funny. Grown women walking around in Hello Kitty pajamas or little bunny prints or ducks. If a person was walking down the street in pajamas in the U.S., someone would be calling the men in white coats. Maybe not in New York City, where anything goes, but otherwise. Apparently, as I was told, it started out as a trend for rich Cambodian women to demonstrate that they did not have to work, so they could go around all day in lounge wear. Then it became fashion somehow and women working wear them and so does everyone else.

Shopping at the market – in pajamas

[Further observations to follow]

Afesip – Phnom Penh & Kampong Cham

December 12-16

Next I continued on to the two other Afesip centers — Tamdy center outside Phnom Penh, and the center for the younger girls (under 18, as young as 4) way out in the countryside towards Kampong Cham (northeast of Phnom Penh). We drove for two hours to get there, the last part bumping along dusty dirt-roads, past traditional houses, with cattle roaming, children playing and school kids biking home. When I arrived in Cambodia it was the end of the rainy season and there was mud everywhere. In just a few weeks everything’s turned to dust.

Here are some more photos!

On the way to the center near Kampong Cham

“AFESIP-Kampong Cham Rehabilitation and Vocational Training of Basic Skills Center”
And above right, the upstairs hall where the girls sleep (on mats that they pull out at night).

All new plates and pots and pans, yey! / And then some clowning in the sewing center-come-theater!….

Latiya (Liya) got a kick out of dressing up in my clown costume, and so did Sareka and Kakada. Those clown converses were a big hit!
Standing tall! While Opeyka poses.

Tamdy center outside Phnom Penh:

Srey Leak and Ratchana get creative and clown away!

The girls at Afesip

December 9 – December 11

I am now in Siem Reap to clown at Afesip, at their center for young girls and women rescued from trafficking (sexual slavery) and domestic abuse, a mission started by Somaly Mom.* When I was in Sweden in the summer I read an article about Somaly Mom in a Swedish newspaper, because she had won a Scandinavian human rights prize. And I thought, I am going to Cambodia… and this is exactly the kind of place I want to go to. So I got in touch — and now here I am! They invited me to perform at the International Anti-Trafficking Day, (officially Dec 12), which was initiated by Afesip and which they celebrated on Dec. 9.  I came up with some classic schtick scenarios and just improvised in the moment around it and found myself clowning around with the governor of Siem Reap! (He and Somaly Mom and a whole panel were seated on stage as guests of honor.) It went really well! They were all laughing heaps. The girls sure got a kick out my goofing around with the governor.

I was amazed how loving and sweet these girls are given their recent traumatic past — so ready to love and laugh! I came back in the evening to join their dance party, and as soon as the girls saw me they rushed towards me screaming with delight surrounding me with hugs! Wow. Such outpouring of love and affection.  They had done the same to Somaly Mom (running up and gathering around her so excited and happy) when she arrived, but after all she is the big momma who saved them. They had just met me and I only made them laugh a little… That was a powerful moment to be greeted thus. Their excitement, being so full of life and joy, was wonderful to see. I imagine they are so hungry to live and to love, now that they have the chance; they are making up for lost time!

The next day I came back to do workshops with the girls and we had a lot of fun playing games and acting silly – and they especially loved trying to walk on the stilts!

I got to know one girl more closely, Ren (pronounced “rain”), who spoke English. Somaly introduced us so that Ren could practice her speaking and to show me around the place. Ren is looking forward to finishing her seamstress training so she can open up her own business. She, especially, loved walking on stilts, and managed to do it by herself quite quickly!  We took a lot of photos and I promised to send her copies. Over a couple of days we made a nice connection and were just starting to get to know each other. I wish I could have stayed longer. But this time my clown visits were scheduled as shorter stays. The girls have a very busy schedule with school and training to move forward with their life and opportunities. They have a lot of lost time to catch up on! I am glad I was able to come and play with them a little and offer them some joy and fun through the silliness of clowning!

* Further information on Afesip and trafficking in Cambodia
Human trafficking, especially the sexual enslavement of young girls, is a serious and rampant problem in Cambodia. Somaly Mom was herself sold off in her early teens and forced to work in a brothel. She did not get away until she was in her early twenties and has since worked tirelessly to fight trafficking and rescue young girls and women from a life as a sex slave. Her organization Afesip runs three centers, one in Siem Reap, one just outside Phnom Penh and a third in the countryside near Kampong Cham. There the girls are offered a safe home, the camaraderie of each other, psychological counseling, education and vocational training. They are given the opportunity to pursue a viable career track doing either hairdressing or sewing. At the end of their training, assistance is given to set them up in their own businesses. Since many of the girls have lost years of schooling, they have many grades to catch up on and they stay at the center for many years until they have completed their education and are fully trained in a vocation.
For more information, go to and

The Siem Reap center / Waiting for the show to start….
International Anti-Trafficking Day, December 9, 2008

Somaly Mom / Governor of Siam Reap w/Somaly Mom seated at front of stage

Grooving with the girls
Ren and Liya in the sewing room / Ren on stilts!

All gathered together!


More write-up to follow soon! But in meantime here are some more pics.

My clowns! They are great!

Clowning around with the 12-19 year olds
The adolescents and young adults learning theater which they bring into the community presenting shows about relevant issues
The youngsters who live at the Maison des Enfants (because they have no parents or can’t live with their parents)

Voleak, a spirited young girl who lives in the Children’s House
…. and Apheap goofing around

My work at Phare Ponleu Selpak

This is a special mission I have at Phare Ponleu Selpak (beyond clowning around for simple joy and delight).

The kids I work with are learning and preparing for a future as artists, as a viable alternative to trying to make a living as a rice farmer, or picking the garbage heap, or trying to sell trinkets and snacks on the side of the road — which is what some of their parents do. Some parents have no work at all.

The youngsters are incredibly talented — their drawings and paintings are fantastic and the circus trainees already have amazing acrobatic, contortion or juggling skills.

I teach them clown and physical theater as an opportunity to freely express themselves emotionally and physically (as opposed to circus training which is more technical) and to advance their performance capabilities.

I work mainly with two groups: one where the kids are between 13-19 years old and the other a group of young adults between 19 and 24. I also play with the younger children who stay in the Children’s House, age 9-13.

The young adults I work with go out into the community and do shows about relevant local issues, such as domestic violence, HIV/AIDS and trafficking. A couple of youngsters are preparing to go to hospitals to clown for sick children. I help them prepare and work with them to enrich their playing.

[To be continued.]

PHOTOS Phare Ponleu Selpak

The road to Phare 
The grounds… with circus school in background. And this is the visual art center.

Here’s the music school.
The daycare leisure center

The house where I live (that’s my room on the corner)

Morning workout

End of school day 5pm

Hanging outside the daycare leisure center

All pics Anna Zastrow
Share this: