Blog written by Sue Wallingford

While in Cambodia we were fortunate to spend some time with Arn Chorn Pond, at his lovely community home right outside of Phnom Penh.  Arn shared his music and some stories of being a survivor during the Khmer Rouge, and we even got to see a live filming for MYTV (Cambodian’s version of MTV!) while we were there.  Arn is founder of the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) and his mission is to bring back the traditional arts to Cambodia that was mostly extinguished during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, when most of Cambodian’s artists and professionals were exterminated.  To restore the rich culture of his people is one way he has found to heal the pain he and his people experienced during these horrendous years.  He lives his life to restore what was so brutally taken away.  He inspired us all.

In the next few weeks we will be sharing some more stories about Arn and the work of Cambodian Living Arts, including some videos of our time with him, and at the CLA center listening to the sounds of traditional Cambodia.  On September 19, at Cervantes Other Side in Denver, NCAS-I will be joining DROP SWITCH, for “JAMBODIA,”  a benefit concert to raise money and awareness toward Arn’s mission.  Lead female vocalist Emma Wallingford (who is also my daughter  😉 was with us in Cambodia, and was so inspired by Arn’s stories and his passion to revive the traditional music she wanted to do something about it.

Emma writes:

“30 years ago, the country of Cambodia was victim to a terrible genocide called the Khmer Rouge. When Pol Pot came to rule, he wanted to wipe out all of Cambodia’s culture and start from “Year Zero”, and establish a communist country. He did this by killing off 2 million Cambodians; all musicians, dancers, artists, educators, or people of higher class. Arn Chorn Pond, who survived through the Khmer Rouge through his talent for playing flute (he played propaganda music that played over loud speakers to muffle the noise of them killing off his people), is founder of Cambodian Living Arts. It gives kids of Cambodia the chance to rebirth culture of music, arts and dance into their country. Even 30 years later, the whole country is still suffering from the loss of their culture. A career in arts there is very much thriving and rebirthing Cambodian’s culture. Through the good vibes and night of music, we can support Cambodian Living Arts and raise awareness about this issue to help the amazing souls that populate this desolate country. Donation boxes, flyers about the school, and pictures and videos will be provided at the show!

Art Therapy comes in all kinds of packages…..  this is just another one!

Please join us for this concert on September 19th to spread the LOVE and the HOPE for the restoration of the Cambodian Arts.


Cervantes Other Side – Denver, CO
Doors @ 8pm, Show @ 9pm – $7/$10 DOS
JAMBODIA: A Benefit for Cambodian Living Arts

Shoot to Please
Rhyme Progression
Matty Mac

Questions, and more questions

by Meg Hamilton

We’ve shared a lot about the groups we have done and the things we have been seeing and experiencing here. I think we all agree- this has been a profound experience. One we are immensely grateful for. Our learning has encompassed quite a lot. In addition to the hands on experiences of the art therapy groups with the girls and the self-care groups with the staff we’ve engaged in numerous discussions with each other and with the NGO’s (primarily Transitions and Ragamuffin, although we have met numerous inspiring individuals here) we are so inspired by about what our role here looks like. How can we be most effective and gain the most learning during a period of 3 weeks?

We have realized this learning could not really happen until we were actually here seeing how these organizations operate and gaining a clearer understanding of cultural dynamics. Thus we have asked ourselves a lot of hard questions- many of which have no clear answer. Those of us in the group have stood on opposite sides of a few of these issues, and learned from each other’s perspectives as we’ve held onto our unique beliefs.

While it may take a book or two to really get into these questions and issues I’d like to at least present what some of these things have been.

As westerners in a third world country that values social hierachies in their cultural structure we have faced a number of questions about power and empowerment. What does real empowerment look like? How do we know if we are seeing autonomous choices or if the person we are talking with is being influenced by power dynamics at play? Given the power inherent in our presence here how do we maintain awareness of its impact while continuing to seek authentic relationships with those we encounter?

The relationships brings us to other questions. How are we representing those we have established relationships with- whether they be brief or sustained over the course of our time here? How do we represent them through photographs? Art work? Stories and language? What about the attachments we form- how do we hold an ethical responsibility to care for attachments and also seek to develop short term relationships with those we are working with?

What is of the most benefit to the NGO’s here, and how can we structure the things we are doing so they are sustainable for Transitions? How do we collaborate on these things in the midst of a lack of cultural familiarity on our part?

We are all processing these questions in our own ways- I use photography to do this for myself. The photographs above are part of this process for me. The act of photographing is a complex process for me- multi-faceted and requiring many levels of engagement. When I look through my photographs I see both my questions and my curiosity. I see my struggles and my criticisms. In the faces of those of those I’ve photographed, though, I am reminded that all of this learning and growing happens in relationships. When I relax into who I am and allow the person in front of me to be who they are something happens, and together we achieve some tiny moment of connection. The shutter snaps and I have a reminder of this interaction. So it’s in relationship to ourselves, to each other, to those we are working with, and to those around us that we continue to move forward and engage this work. There is much to learn.

#111, and What We Don’t Know

Phnom Penh at night

by Meg Hamilton

As part of trying to understand how trafficking happens here and what circumstances are like for women we visited a number of bars in which girls work. This work takes many different forms, and we learned a lot. To clarify this piece is not about the girls at Transitions. It has taken some time to let these experiences settle, and it feels like the learning inherent in the experiences is central to our work here. Thank you for listening:

To begin this story I’ll begin at the end.

It’s almost 7 at night. I sit in a chair in the small balcony attached to our hotel room. Tuk tuks buzz by on the street below. A horn honks. Dog barks. The smell of rotting trash wafts up from the street three floors below. The smell of food cooking in street carts.

The city is alive and buzzing tonight. There is an election this weekend. In the distance there is the echoing sound of speakers and a distant rise of cheers.

This morning when I sat I only wanted to hug my knees to my chest and sob. Yet I could not pinpoint what it was that was breaking my heart.

Last night. The last bar we were in. Walking through the front door and past a group of men sitting on their motos. “Hey lady.” They each chimed. Into the bar and suddenly affronted by a subtle set of images. On the tv screen in the corner a tiger mauled an antelope. To my left a group of women stood behind the bar. In front of me was a large mural- women in silhouette in bras and panties. In front of me and scattered throughout the bar photographs of the bar owner and his three young daughters. They reached their hands up to his chest appearing shy and seeking protection.

This set of images- as bizarre as they were- slammed into my gut and mind. The disjointed links between them setting off a series of alarms that were already set to spring.

On the tv screen the predators continued their violent pursuit of prey.

We sit at this bar for a while and play Connect Four and a dice game I’ve never played before with a few of the girls working there. They are friendly and playful. They kick my ass at the dice game and I buy them shots for winning.

The bar before this one. Heather, a teacher from Transitions who is showing us around, opens the door and we are instantly greeted by cheers and loud Hello’s!! The bar is dark- it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust and take everything in. It’s small- a narrow space lit with a few lights. A long wooden bar covers the left side of the building and tables, booths, and chairs fill the remaining corners. There are probably 30 young Cambdian girls in this bar- each dressed in a tight sexy blue dress and wearing thick make up. It takes me a minute to take all of this in and to click these pieces into place.

We sit down at a bench in the back and instantly five girls are sitting with us, asking us questions and flirting. I am still uncomfortable. It takes me a minute to be able to answer.

When Heather says it’s appropriate, I begin to ask questions too. One woman says she has worked at the bar for two months. Before this she worked in a shoe factory for 10 years. She made almost no money, and told us the conditions at the bar are better than those of the factory.

Another has been at the bar for 6 months. She speaks little English, and uses her body to communicate. Puts her arm around Katie M., uses her other arm to push away another girl attempting to join the circle. Her long dark hair is curled in beautiful careful ringlets. She strokes Katie M.’s arm and tells her that her light skin is beautiful- more beautiful than hers.

Go back a few more days. The karaoke bar near our hotel in Siem Reap. We don’t know what this is or how karaoke bars work but we know we’ve seen girls sitting out front and we are curious. Investigative. We walk in and our overwhelmed by the bright colors and loud blaring music of the place. The people there seem panicked. Eager to get us out of the hallways. They seem stunned to see a group of white women here. A skinny man in a maroon suit anxiously leads us through the hallways until I, confused and not wanting to follow this man deeper into this building, stop and ask about karaoke. He turns the other way and opens a door to a large room with a projector. Blue and yellow striped plastic booths line the walls. It’s your own personal karaoke room. We tell the man we will be back later. On our way out we pass two women sitting in the entryway. They’re dressed in playful girly outfits. Wearing thick make up. They have buttons with numbers pinned to their chest. #111 looks up at us as we exit quickly.

We have no idea what it is we’ve just seen. Each of these bars contains its own unique culture, and it has been immensely difficult to sort out our understandings of trafficking, and to differentiate it from sex work by choice. Hostessing is different from being a bar girl. A karaoke girl is different from a prostitute. In 2008 the Cambodian government passed a law clearly defining trafficking and outlawing it. Since then trafficking has moved further underground; prior to this law it would not be unusual to have young children- 8 years old, 10 years old- approach you and solicit you. It would not have been unusual to see women soliciting customers on the streets. Now when you enter a bar in which girls are working it is impossible to tell who is here by choice and who is not.

Many of the women who work as bar girls value their work, and have found it to be empowering. Many come from the countryside to work in the city. They send money home to their families and care for sick relatives. They raise their social status through the accumulation of wealth. Should they remain at their homes in the country they would likely spend their lives as rice farmers, live in poverty, marry a man they don’t want to spend their lives with. Or continue work in a factory that treats them worse than the men in the bars.

My heartache, I think, comes from the weight of the overwhelm of the entire system. Empowerment is found in a more lucrative vocation, in the power so easy to feel in sexual mastery. Yet these vocations are inherently still dependent upon a man and have what seems to be primarily a materialistic gain. What about real options- real freedom- what would these women do if they felt they could do anything at all?

The burden deepens for me when I think about my role in these systems. The woman who worked in the factory, for instance. Whose shoes did she make? Did I ever buy a pair?

It feels like an impossible situation.

Work and Play

by: Katie Markley

Today began with a spark of energy.  We had agreed to create a mural at Transitions and today was the day.  Up early, out the door, and into a Tuk Tuk.  Weaving through a sea of motos, bicycles, pedestrians and cars we began to discuss our plans.  A draft had been created for the painting to offer guidance yet if there is one thing we have learned, it is to adapt.  We planned for potential hangups and altered the design to suit the space.

The mural’s design reflects the mission of Transitions.  A butterfly was selected to be the central image as we have noticed this symbol arising in the art created through our work in Cambodia. When inquiring about the meaning of the butterfly we were told that it represents peace to many Khmer people.  At the tips of the butterfly’s wings you can see the profile of young women, a simplified representation of the girls at Transitions.  Lotus flowers are incorporated throughout, depicted in various stages of blooming.  The piece is surrounded by the Transitions logo, “Freedom Begins with a Dream,” written in both English and Khmer.

We worked wholeheartedly and focused for nearly five hours to cultivate the final product you see here.  While standing back and taking in our efforts we were amazed at what can be accomplished in such a short amount of time.  Marissa offered that it felt like we had participated in a “mural flashmob” and I would agree.

The second half of the day was spent with the girls.  They greeted us warmly, beaming smiles our way and quizzing us on the Khmer words they had taught us in our last meeting.  We sat on the floor in a large circle and settled into the dance of our two languages being spoken one after the other, English translated into Khmer and Khmer back to English.  It is a practice in patience and quiet listening.

We offered the girls the dream flags that were created by the Naropa community during our Small Resources=Big Possibilities art auction.  A girl next to me held one of the flags, rubbing her fingers over the green and gold paint, and said “suh-aht” (beautiful). Then, we guided the group in making charm necklaces as a way to both build relationship between our merging groups and offer an opportunity to make something special for oneself, an act of self-love if you will.  The girls all completed necklaces reflecting their personal style.  We concluded our meeting by sharing some of our talents with each other.  Meg and Emma offered a duet of Amazing Grace and the girls performed a traditional dance.  We left feeling full.

There is more to come…thank you following!