Creativity and Cambodia

by, Aimee Palladino

As we transition from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s largest city and the country’s capitol, we are excitedly starting our work with Transitions, the organization with whom we are partnered. Yesterday, NCAS-I attended an orientation with Athena Pond, founder and director of Transitions, to learn more about our collaboration with them. This meeting was the culmination of several months of laborious planning, fundraising, and anticipation. After so many hours devoted to making this collaboration a reality, the actual moment of sitting and engaging with Athena was inspirational and affirming. All our aspirations about this organization were confirmed — Transitions, and the people who run it, are phenomenal. Their work in providing after-care and rehabilitation for young girls who have been sex trafficked is informed, heart-centered, effective and culturally sensitive. They offer holistic rehabilitation services that focus on successful and sustainable reintegration. At the foundation of this process is shifting from approaching the girls’ future based on survival to potential — as Athena said, freedom for these girls “begins with a dream”.

I approached this meeting full of questions and wonderings. Through my past week in Cambodia, I have found myself churning and swirling with all of the layers of this experience — the personal (and transpersonal), educational, and professional. I am at once a traveler, an artist, a student and an emerging therapist. As NCAS-I’s mission statement says, I am a “guest and learner” here. As a result, I entered our meeting with Transitions replete with thoughts — how does Cambodia’s traumatic past inform their collective psychology? How can opportunities for creative expression empower individuals within a country where artistic expression has been so arrested? How is sex trafficking embedded with cultural gender norms and socioeconomic factors? Our meeting with Transitions helped me sink more deeply into the complex, shadowy and nuanced aspects of this work. It clarified and contextualized the role we will play over the next few weeks here. 

As art therapists, we offer the unique ability to offer ‘art as therapy’. Staying true to NCAS-I’s roots as a community art studio model, our art projects with the girls will provide opportunities for them to deepen their relationship with the creative process and manifest imagination, emotion and unique expression through various art materials. This model becomes particularly effective given the trauma of sex trafficking and perhaps even the collective trauma that Cambodia experienced under the control of the Khmer Rouge (artistic engagement was nearly eliminated under their leadership). Cultural openings for unique artistic expression seem to just now be reemerging in Cambodia. As a result, NCAS-I’s work with Transitions crosses an interesting intersection of art, culture, history, and trauma.

Over the next few weeks, we will be offering six arts-based experientials, staff trainings in arts-based therapeutic work and self-care, and a mural project. Tomorrow is our first meeting with the girls where we will be making handmade journals! We are extremely excited to offer this opportunity to engage in creativity, community and relationship. In addition to facilitating this first art project, tomorrow NCAS-I will also be visiting The Raggamuffin Project, an INGO that has been introducing creative arts therapy to psycho-social organizations in Cambodia. As we further shape our global understanding of art therapy, this meeting will certainly contribute to our knowledge about arts-based healing in Cambodia. We imagine tomorrow will bring rich and amazing experiences and we hope you check back to hear stories from the day! 

The Great Divide

By Katie Hanczaryk 

After a grueling six-hour bus ride, we drive up to our hotel in Siem Riep and I feel like I have stepped into paradise. The terracotta tile steps are lined with outdoor lighting, orchids, and tropical trees. Our pool looks like something out of a magazine with an azure color, as defined by the blue tiles that surround the water, and stone sculptures mimicking those from Angkor Wat.  There is a small pond of blooming lotus flowers, and a beautiful covered area with oversized brown wicker chairs and big fans. Around this area is a pool table, and a full bar. We have access to ice (a NICE delight), deep fried spring rolls, and even chicken wings with a lemon pepper oil sauce. I’m convinced I am in a dream.  We have endless mango smoothies, tuk tuk drivers on call, and A.C. in the rooms. It’s heaven here. We are truly traveling in style. I have a great sleep that night, sans bug nets. 

The next morning I take a walk up to the tower located next to the pool. It’s the highest point in our neighborhood, and the best view of Siem Riep. Up there I can see the whole town, even parts of Angkor Wat in the distance.

I see a large trash pile, which I didn’t see before because of the big brick walls surrounding our hotel. A dog sniffs through it, and I see chickens and roosters and really skinny looking cows. I see many people cruise past on motorcycles, sometimes with three or four people riding, usually with baby on board holding on loosely. There are kids in uniforms going to school, riding bikes that are much to big for them. I smell smog, and gasoline, meat and fish. I sat up there for a while, until the sun came up.

 I decided to make this my daily practice, going to the tower for meditation and contemplation. One morning I heard music coming from a temple over a couple of loud speakers. It was such beautiful and strange music to me. As I walked down the long spiral staircase to go to breakfast, I bumped into one of the hotel workers who lived in a tiny windowless room in the tower. He was very embarrassed that I saw him with his shirt off, so he hid his body behind the door with his head poking out and said hello.

 I asked him about the music. He said it’s played as ‘celebration’ after someone has died. They play this music for 10 days during mourning. He said that Cambodians are reminded of their own mortality when they hear this music. He said that if a Cambodian is poor, they can’t afford a funeral, and asked what families in the United States do when people die. I told him about life insurance, a funny concept for Cambodians. He said that in China they have insurance, but definitely not in Cambodia.

This whole experience struck a chord deep within me.  Here I am, a wealthy, white, American tourist living in a beautiful stone mansion hotel, while surrounding me is poverty, and real authentic Cambodian life. No A.C., no life insurance, no pool. It as if I were in a big bubble with thick stonewalls, as if to keep all the cleanliness inside.

I am faced now with my own white guilt. Never before have I thought about not being able to afford a proper funeral. Never have I been scared to be trafficked, or have to sell things on the street to help support my family. 

After the turmoil of sadness mixed with grief, I realize that underneath those uncomfortable feelings was a sense of gratitude.  I am so lucky to be from a family who put me through many, many years of education in a country that is extremely privileged.  I know that poverty exists in the United States, but I am rarely faced with images of starving children, desperate mothers, and so much dirt, mud, and free range chickens……….especially in Boulder.

These challenging experiences are one reason why I love to travel.  The other side of my guilt is my glory. I am able to see a different way of life, not for better or for worst. I get so caught up in the everyday pleasures and even find myself frustrated when I don’t have eggs in the fridge to make pancakes, or when my Internet goes out for a moment. Here, in Cambodia, I am slapped in the face with a sense of reality.  This is how the other half lives. I am grateful for that tower which gave me perspective on my own privilege and wealth, and a small taste of Cambodian culture. 

1st Course: Crickets!

Yum! Roasted Crickets!

by Tracey Kayne and Meg Hamilton

Our adventures in Siem Reap ended today as we embarked on our trek back to Phnom Penh.  Along our six hour bus ride, the bus driver announced that the bus was going to pull over for a 30 minute break.  We were greeted by rows of street carts that have piles of roasted crickets and as you continued to walk along each stand had larger and larger crickets.   We stood there in disbelief.  We learned quickly that roasted crickets are a delicacy in Cambodia. Cambodians began eating crickets during the Khmer Rouge regime out of desperation. During this time up to 2 million Cambodians died, many as a result of starvation (

Despite the dark inception of this culinary trend crickets are an extremely popular snack in Cambodia still. Clearly, we immediately began daring each other to see who would give it a try. We looked around our group, urging “C’mon- just try it!” and being completely unwilling to do it ourselves. Personally, I was in the “not a chance in hell” corner.

Then, Katie H. chirped up, “I’ll do it!” We didn’t believe her until she reached her hand into the pile of crickets carefully selecting her cricket snack. The woman behind the cart began laughing quietly and continued to do so through the whole ordeal.

Katie examined the cricket, turning it over in her fingers. She raised it to her lips and… CRUNCH! The cricket’s hind legs and thorax disappeared down her throat.

She nodded nonchalantly and said, “Yep. Tastes like cricket,” and handed the remainder to Sue. Sue didn’t even hesitate and quickly took a bite of the cricket. “Now I  can say I ate a cricket.”

The woman at the stand seemed to be enjoying this so much she wouldn’t even accept our payment for our cricket experiment. She was entertained by watching our disbelief and chuckled to herself at the sight of this.

We told Katie and Sue that since they had tackled crickets now they were ready to upgrade. Check out what’s next on the menu:

Well, that was certainly one bit of cultural learning we won’t forget. Tomorrow we go to Transitions’ Shine School! We will meet Athena Pond, one of the founders of Transitions, and begin to get oriented to the organization and the work we will be doing with them. Much, much more to come!

A few pictures from Anjali House

Sue Wallingford and Tracey Kayne tell the story of the Angry Monster with the help of an Anjali teacher

Anjali House

By Marissa Grasmick

As Arianna prepped you in the previous blog, the NCAS-I team spent the day at Anjali House, a registered non-profit here in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This site is pretty incredible, they offer education, healthcare, food, and much more to these children who were previously selling items on the street (perpetuating the poverty cycle) and/or not receiving the opportunity towards an education that they deserve.

We spent six hours today at Anjali House, offering two art groups: one with shadow puppets for the younger students, and making handmade journals for the older students. The conditions were extreme, and something that us Colorado folks had to step up to. The heat, but mostly the humidity, were off the charts, and the luxuries of air conditioning, or even proper lighting, were miles away.

About an hour into one of the journal making groups, one of the students grabs some yarn off the table and starts weaving a beautiful braid that she plans to use to tie the front and back covers of her journal together. Another student starts painting an elaborate scene within his journal and then writes, “I am the man,” and looks over at me with a huge smile on his face. You can tell that he is proud of his work. Another girl is practicing her English and writes a short poem in her journal, including a line that states, “I am happy.” Half-way through the group, we encouraged the students to take a 15 minute break, which to our surprise, most of them refused. They kept working diligently, raising their heads only to find the next art supply that they needed to complete their creative vision. I noticed that each student stayed true to their unique interpretation and expression of the journal task, and barely followed the trail of their friendly neighbor. This resulted in over a dozen authentic, handmade journals that each student respectively created. Most of them filled their pages up right away with all kinds of images, some were lighthearted and playful, others were serious and suggested layers of struggle and pain.

Half-way through the day, a volunteer at Anjali house ( a peace-corps member from Chicago who has resided in Cambodia for 1.5 years and plans to stay as long as possible) came over and sat to talk with us. He said, “we are very happy you are here. Art offers the kids a way to heal that conventional talking just can’t access. It crosses the language barrier, and is very beneficial for the kids. Thank you.” Of course we were all tickled by this because we feel the same way. Well, we’ve been studying the powerful impact of art for several years now, especially Sue, and we all are considered “Masters” of the topic. So you can imagine our excitement, especially since we are honing our skills towards a multicultural perspective. This is powerful work, and we we are all so grateful to be blessed with the opportunity to work closely with the loving students at Anjali house.

With love and gratitude,



Preparations for Anjali House

By Ariana Tosatto

ImageKatie cutting card stock for the journal covers. 

ImageThe NCAS-I crew at work


We spent last night gathering supplies for our visit to Anjali, a registered non-profit in Siem Reap that offers education, healthcare, and food to underprivileged street children.  Their organization fills a great need in a community where many children do not receive an education, having to instead sell goods or beg on the street to help their family survive.  As we prepared our materials for our visit to Anjali, I found my mind replaying the many interactions I have had with street children since our arrival in Siem Reap.  Their voices have echoed over and over in their mind, “please lady you buy something”, “three for one dollar, three for one dollar”, “please lady, I don’t want money, need milk”.   In each of these interactions I have felt helpless, knowing that giving them money provides further incentive for them to be on the street and not in school.   Being a privileged tourist I have had to grapple with the realization that I am often seen only as a potential source of money and thus survival.   The insatiable need of the children in the streets, approaching us one after another can be overwhelming and testing of the human heart.  The one interaction I have played over and over again in my mind was with a ten-year-old girl named Enji who I met outside a temple at Angor Wat.  Enji is a tiny child with deep brown eyes and short dark brown hair.  Her lankly body rests on dirty bare feet and her skin nor clothes seemed washed recently.  Enji was persistent following me at least twenty feet as I walked to the bathroom repeating over and over “three for one dollar” as she held bangles out in her hand.  Unable to hear her desperate calls any longer I stopped and turned to her asking her name.  She thought for a minute before quietly responding, “Enji”.  I began asking Enji questions and told her my name and where I was from.  I found out that Enji loves elephants, she goes to school in the morning (or so she says), her favorite subject is literature and she giggles a lot when asked a new question.  Enji does not ask me for a few minutes to buy anything.  Maybe Enji hoped I would buy something if she kept talking to me or maybe she genuinely liked being asked questions.  It is hard to say.  For me the interaction was an ember to my heart as for a moment I got to see the giggling carefree child within Enji.


We will be spending the whole day at Anjali house teaching the kids how to make shadow puppets (a traditional Cambodian art form) and handmade journals.  All of the children were at one time working on the street and are now instead receiving an education.  In order to compensate for the lost income of the children no longer working, Anjali provides each family with 4 kg of rice a week.  We look forward to sending the pictures of the kid’s artwork and sharing what is sure to be a memorable day!

Story and Practice

by Meg Hamilton

I came across a book today that put into words much of my experience at Angkor yesterday. The book was Elegy, a compilation of photographs of the temples at Angkor by John McDermott. In the introduction he spoke to his first experience of the place- of being confronted with these massive artifacts of legacy and story, of being enthralled by the history of the temples, of hearing the giant stones whisper.

As I flipped through the pages of the book I settled into his words and images and reflected on my own experience there. We arrived at Angkor Wat at sunrise. The popular temple was already flooded with tourists, and our plans to start our day with a peaceful sunrise sit suddenly seemed incredibly silly to me. Yet we pushed through and found a quiet patch of rocks away from the masses waiting to capture the perfect sunrise image of the temple. We sat and watched the shadows change as the sun slowly creeped higher into the sky.

Always the cynic I struggled to relax and could not sway my mind from exactly how much of a silly tourist I felt like attempting to meditate at Angkor Wat at sunrise. Frustrated with my cynicism and hoping to not distract my classmates who may or may not have been more attuned than I was I picked up my camera and began with another kind of practice.

I photographed all day, and the images I collected speak to the awe with which I perceived the place. Giant stones stacked one on top of another. Some crumbling in ruin, laying skewed and tumbled in massive stacks. Shades of grays streaked with blacks and blues and greens, and ancient images intricately carved into the stone and delicately worn away over centuries. Towers and spires built to honor kings and gods and goddesses, stacked by slaves, destroyed by war and abandonment. Incense burning in quiet corners near a man or a woman offering you a blessing and a bracelet in exchange for your prayer and your dollar. As I ran my hands across the old stones and the persevering images carved in them I was stunned by the awe that inspired such creation and by the devotion that merited it. My heart ached.

In the introduction to John McDermott’s photographs a Cambodian man says that Cambodians do not teach their children lessons. Rather they tell them stories. The stories etched into the walls of the temples. The stories about how the temples were built, and how they were later destroyed in civil war. As I stood in that place I understood that my stories mingle with those stories. Somehow there is a place where they meet. And when I consider how this may be true and what things we have to learn from the intersection of these stories my heart aches.

Our first days….

blog by Sue Wallingford

So, finally after working hard to get acclimated, find our ground and get much needed rest (even though I write this at 3:30 am), there is some time to share a small bit of what we have experienced and shared together so far….  Please stay tuned as we share more tomorrow about our trip to Angkor Wat.

Wednesday and Thursday:  Getting Here

Our journey began when we left the airport Wednesday morning on different planes – Katie H and Katie M on one plane, Marissa and Emma on another and, Meg, Tracey, Arianna, Aimee, and me on yet another.  After about 20 hours of flight, and stops in Vancover, Singapore and Seoul we arrived in Cambodia late Thursday evening, finally going to our first night of rest at our hotel. The time then was just around mid-night Cambodian time, which is 13 hours ahead of us in Colorado.  Jet lagged, bleary eyed but with a buzz of excitement to meet up with each other again and begin the 3 week trip that we have prepared for the last year and a half we met our Cambodian shuttle driver waiting patiently to take us to our hotel, just a short distance from the airport.  It was apparent from the beginning that the language barrier would be a challenge, but the gentle nature and welcomed smiles of these Cambodian people would make it easy for us to ease into this very different environment.  We fell in love pretty much instantly.

Friday:  Going to the sacred city of Siem Reap

We rose early Friday morning, some of us having gotten a good night’s sleep and some of us not, for our 6 hour long bus ride to Seim Reap.  The ride was full of rich imagery, new smells, and sounds, as we traversed this Cambodian Landscape.   Following, in the spirit of what we call the Body, Speech, Mind discipline at Naropa, is a series of snapshots of our first “real” day……

The bus is full, people from everywhere I think. All sorts of colors – both skin and clothes decorate the insides of the bus.  Familiar and unfamiliar sounds resound all around.  Languages I have never heard, and voices familiar mixing together to create a sort of soft background hum with the steady and sometimes not so steady movement of the bus.  My sense of smell is alive as my brain registers all the new and different scents around me, instinctively determining the safety that is here for my students and me. Reminded by these smells my mouth waters, anticipating the tastes that will delight and nourish me in the days to come.

Peering out the window I see….

Stretches of rice paddies, with tall rooted green filled trees held by a backdrop of gray and silver clouded skies.  Burst of Bougainville pink. Muddy, and neon green puddled waters with lotus blossoms reaching out of the fecund decay of histories past. Children running naked in the rice paddies splashing water at each other.  Imagined flies and worms waiting to feast on something – a memory of the past when rancid human flesh was abundant. White cows with every bone expressed feeding on the scarcity of the land.  Visions of families, and generations perished, torn apart, living and thriving together again.  Dusty fish smelled air dampened, turned into slippery mud by the refreshing afternoon shower.  Houses, sun bleached gray, and eaten away by the bugs or time, standing on stilts.  Outside, under-house dinner tables surrounded by brightly colored plastic chairs, with skinny stray dogs scraping for left-over bones.  Whispers of stories past maybe uttered here. And big ceramic pots collect rain and clean water from roofs.

Mopeds and bicycles filled roads zoom past going somewhere to make the daily bread.  A silhouette of three far out in the field, following the afternoon rain, obscurely lit by the fading sun.  Fabric colored windows, tattered and color faded adorn. Foot worn wooden staircases, painted light blue or turquoise leading upward to an ornately decorated door and inside a place I have never known.  Wood-stacks, hay-stacks and garbage-stacks and hammocks sway.  An occasion pig or rooster dotted front yards.  Smoldering smoke filled backyards cooking up the evening family meal or burning yesterday remains.  Little girls and boys in school clothes of navy and white walking or riding home, clean and fresh, while I hear lady Gaga, singing her songs on the radio as we make our way on the road to these people’s sacred land.

Golden shrines popping up in the most unusual places.  A row of happy fat Buddha’s line the road surrounded by heaping piles of used up trash.  A small treasure is found by barefoot and dirty boys sifting through the discards.  A small frail young mother shoos flies from her baby’s mouth, holding her tight as if she might be ripped away.  And yet, they still smile, kind eyes with soft gazes hiding horrendous pasts as they wish me a good luck day.

It is the first day, and this is only a little bit.  I am already transformed. I know it I have much to learn and open my heart too here.  I feel very thankful, guilty and so much love.

Photographs from Angkor Wat

Contemplative Preparation

We begin our work with a visit to Angkor Wat, one of Cambodia’s most sacred Buddhist temples. Today we walked among towering architecture, peered closely at intricate relief sculpture and imagined the history of a place. This opportunity offered us a first hand experience in Cambodian culture as well as historical context to inform the work we will do in the upcoming weeks.

Keep checking our blog for updates!

With Gratitude,