Already impressed and inspired by the work that Phare Ponleu Selpak do, this week I found a hidden gem within the organisation that has left me feeling even more excited. With the MigraSafe rehearsals on hold, I spent time with Phare’s Social Support Unit, and more specifically, with it’s art program. Even though I did a lot of research before coming to Phare I had no idea this great art program existed, and it is right up my alley. For some reason there’s no information about the social support arts program on the website, or anywhere that I can find on the web. Even their office is tucked away at the back of the campus, hidden behind the big top and some trees. You wouldn’t know it was there. But the work I have seen them do is a-maz-ing. If I worked at Phare, it’s within this team I’d want to be.

On Tuesday I jumped on a mini bus full of Phare artists, and headed with them to a detention centre for drug addiction. Placed in the centre of the bustling city, the centre has the feel of a jail, with the grey oppressive buildings, orange uniforms and shaved heads, giving me the impression that detainees were imprisoned for drug crimes. This I learnt, is not the case. A person can find themselves here through admittance by the police or handed over by their families, with no timeframe given. Some stay for a few months, one person has been there since 2008.

Workshops with about 50 detainees took place outdoor on the courtyard, and was facilitated by Phare’s core team of 1 social worker and 2 art therapists plus 8 artists who pair up to teach theatre, circus, music and art. The workshop began with a very energetic whole group activity that which was made even better by the fact the the Phare musicians play live music as the game is played! How cool! It really added to the atmosphere, with participants laughing, dancing. I wish I could take a live band to all of my workshops.

Following that they broke into 4 groups, with participants joining what ever art form they liked. Visual Art gathered a large number, with many participants drawing scenes of the green countryside and wooden houses, a big contrast to their current location.

Following a lunch break we returned, this time indoors in a large room where the participants were sat as an audience and waiting for us. Thinking there would be more workshops, I was surprised to see that within a few minutes the band was set up, a backdrop was raised, costumes were on and Phare artists were about to perform a show! It was very improvised, with the artists acting as MC’s wearing funny costumes with wigs and drawn on beards. Each group was called up to the stage to present what they learnt in the workshop that morning. The circus group performed their stretches and rollie pollies, 2 participants from the art group drew live on stage, the music group showed off their drumming skills and the theatre group performed a pretty hilarious rendition of a Chinese tale, with many of the men dressed up as women. The whole performance was tied together by Phare artsits doing clowning, a few tricks, and very funny sketches. Excellent. The hall was exploding with laughter and energy and you could feel the release from the detainees in this welcomed break from military routine. I left reflecting on how well rounded the day was, and a structure I would like to trial at home.

On Thursday morning as I took the first bite of my breakfast I got a phone all from the program’s manager telling me they were coming to pick me up right away. Considering my schedule said I was with the theatre teacher at Phare that day I was surprised, but with no time to question I did what I was told. Not knowing where we were going we drove for about an hour through beautiful rice fields, small villages and bustling markets. We then arrived at another of Cambodia’s 8 drug rehabilitation/detention centre. This time was different, there was just the core staff with no extra artists, and it was their fortnightly visit to facilitate a self help group. Starting with a few drama games, the group came together to talk about issues they are facing. I was interested to see the similarities between our work, as the art therapists used the games they played as a launching point to encourage participants to express how they were feeling. I think this team at Phare would really benefit from reading the Geese Theatre Handbook, which is a great resource full of activities aimed at offenders and how to link drama games to real life – but I doubt it’s been translated into Khmer. Tomorrow I begin teaching forum theatre to Phare artists and I am pleased that the art therapists will be attending as I think very small scale forum theatre could be worth a try within the self help group.

The centres definitely had a bizarre feeling to them, and the facilities were not good. In the centre outside of the city I was told they were lacking in water, and some rooms had no lights at night. This rural centre houses poorer people, and the Battambang centre houses detainees come from richer families who pay towards the upkeep. Interested in learning more, I searched ‘Cambodian drug detention centres’ online, and I was horrified by what I found. The first result on Google was from the Human Rights Watch website:

‘Cambodian authorities unlawfully detain hundreds of drug users and others deemed “undesirable” in centers where they face torture, sexual violence, and forced labor… Human Rights Watch called for the immediate closure of the country’s eight detention centers that are supposedly for drug dependency treatment’

‘(The report)…documents the experiences of people recently confined in the centers, who described being thrashed with rubber water hoses and hit with sticks or branches. Some described being punished with exercises intended to cause intense physical pain and humiliation, such as crawling along stony ground or standing in septic water pits. Former female detainees described rape and other sexual abuse by male guards.’

Taken from

It seems that the treatment for drug use is to simply be detained. So thank goodness for the art program with Phare, which twice a month gives participants so much – positive engagement with others, something to look forward to, a voice, new skills, confidence, hope, value as human beings…. the list goes on.