Bun Srey Mom's sister, Bun Srey, with their father, Pepsy, who provides musical accompaniment on the two-stringed thro.
The building's exterior gives no clue as to what lies within. Other than a small
sign in Khmer and English, this seems like just another wooden shack in one of Phnom
Penh's slum areas called Bassac commune.
Once you pass through the gloomy passageway, a courtyard opens up and chaos erupts:
drums bang as children run around chasing each other, chattering excitedly. In a
corner several boys saw industriously at planks of wood.
This is the Cambodian Light Children Association (CLCA), a local NGO.
Against a background of gritty slum life, CLCA takes in orphans and street children
and trains them in the delicate art of classical Khmer dance.
The site is home to around 80 children aged from five to 20.
The man who founded CLCA is the enigmatic Path Non. During the sixties and seventies
Non was a monk; he taught Khmer literature and researched the Balinese language.
Later he opened a restaurant along Route 1.
"Many street children came to my restaurant begging. This inspired me to start
the association," he says.
Non sold his restaurant and started CLCA in 1995. His initial motivation was simply
to teach Khmer to children in the slum community who could not afford the daily 300
riel school fee.
By the following year Non was educating a number of street children. With help from
the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA), he added Khmer classical dance to
the curriculum. This, he says, helps "uphold Cambodian culture". It has
also become a significant source of income for the association.
Some of the children at CLCA have suffered severe trauma in their lives. The mother
of 13-year-old Nam Savan was shot dead by a robber; disease had already claimed her
father. She lives here with four younger siblings.
Ten-year-old Keo Sophoan says she came to CLCA in 1998. Her parents are impoverished
farmers and could not afford to feed her.
"My auntie brought me here," she says. "My family came to visit
me last year."
Sophoan says she has found it difficult to develop the extraordinary flexibility
of wrists and fingers required of classical Khmer dancers. She has decided she would
like to teach literature when she grows up.
Other children live here with their entire families. The family of sisters Bun Srey
and Bun Srey Mom was picked up from a Thai border camp some years ago. All live at
the center, and the two girls, though only eight and ten years old, are already consummate
performers. Their father, Pepsy, who plays the two-stringed thro, is one of the musicians
who provides the accompaniment. He also teaches music at the center.
The older children regularly tour the provinces, performing at weddings and parties.
The center recently joined forces with La Croisette, a local restaurant, where the
children dance for tourists every night. Their technical skill, says one former teacher,
is down to their instruction by professional performers from MoCFA.
The children also put on two weekend shows at CLCA. The shows always attract a large
crowd of people who casually drop in and watch, totally enthralled. Brightly colored
backdrops hide next-door's piles of garbage and a tarpaulin covers the dirt floor.
The dancers are immaculately dressed in bright costumes and many, including the boys,
are theatrically made up with white greasepaint. Word of mouth brings in some foreigners,
and few can resist when asked for a donation.
"In 1996 there were no buildings, just the land, a place where people defecated,"
says Non, as he proudly surveys his small empire.
Despite its achievements,
Bun Srey Mom leads the dance troupe through their routine.
there is some controversy surrounding CLCA. Phlong Moeuk, 68, lives next door and
was Non's former advisor on a volunteer basis. He says the center only exists because
of the dedication of the teachers from MoCFA, and claims many former teachers were
unhappy at the lack of financial accountability.
"The accounting is not clear. This is the cause of the problem," says Moeuk.
"The orphans have no salary - they are just provided with food and education."
A former dance teacher who did not wish to be named said she never received her full
monthly salary. She accompanied the group when they performed in the provinces and
around Phnom Penh and says many people donated money. She would receive a few thousand
riel of each large donation, and the children would get 1,500 riel.
"We got thousands of dollars from the King and the Prime Minister, but I don't
know where the money went," she says.
When she asked the accountant about it, they quarreled, she says, and she decided
to resign. She feels CLCA exploits the children.
Another ex-teacher, who left for similar reasons, says performances raised significant
revenues; however, there was frequently insufficient money to buy make-up, flowers
or other essential items for the shows. She says that when she was teaching there
the children did not have enough food, but emphasises that she does not know the
"I don't want the center to close. I just want things to improve," she
CLCA's neighbor Moeuk says the children are undisciplined and unruly and conditions
are unhygienic. He says the children often practice their music until midnight, and
he regularly hears loud arguments between staff members and the director's family
about unequal division of performance revenues.
"Sometimes they quarrel at midnight and all of them scream, laugh and curse
each other freely," he says. Moeuk says neighbors come to him to complain because
he used to work at the center.
"Association means people associate together, have solidarity working together
for a prosperous life, but [CLCA] doesn't deserve the name. It's an anarchy association,"
he says bitterly.
Non admits the children occasionally practice until 11 pm if they are preparing to
perform in the provinces, but denies there is any corruption or exploitation of the
children. "I was a monk. I have to adhere very strictly to Buddhist principles,"
Moeuk and other ex-teachers propose that another organization should investigate
the center to improve regulation and accountability, which would help CLCA become
The center's accountant, Sok Lyna, who is married to Non's nephew, denies any impropriety.
CLCA's daily expenses, Lyna says, are $100 a day and she maintains that performance
revenues are enough only for hand-to-mouth existence. She says the organization still
has to pay off outstanding debts of around $3,000.
Non says the $1,000 a month CLCA gets from its association with La Croisette restaurant
will provide a reliable flow of revenue. However, more money is required to buy a
truck, a generator and other essential items for touring.
"Before we had to hire everything, now we want to buy our own equipment,"
says Non. He also says many of the costumes are old and need replacing at a cost
of $100 per person.
Weighing heavily on CLCA is the knowledge that their entire slum community is under
threat. A fire razed the settlement on the other side of the road in November, and
Non is aware of the need to pre-empt such a disaster. Although he paid around $2,800
for the land on which CLCA is built, buying it piecemeal from MoCFA, the organization's
right to be there is not assured, as the land title was granted only at the village
Since the fires Non has applied for two pieces of land: one hectare at Anlong Kngann,
where CLCA plans to build a school, and another near the airport. "Nothing is
clear, nothing is certain, and I'm worried that one day all the houses will catch
on fire," he says.