The rusty gate at the entrance and the tall, unkempt grass make it hard to believe that the compound is less than three years old.
The buildings are decaying so quickly that the floor of one classroom has already sunk into the ground. With no trees for shade, dust blows everywhere, coating surfaces both indoors and outside.
This is a campus of the Royal University of Fine Arts, where Cambodia’s future dancers, actors, singers, musicians and circus artists are being trained.
Following a land exchange agreement between the government and the Mong Reththy Group, RUFA’s north campus was moved to this site in Russei Keo district’s Phnom Penh Thmei commune in 2005.
Today, a combination of inadequate facilities, erratic power supply, lack of water, its remote location and rising transportation costs have all but emptied the campus of vitality.
Gone is the busyness that was the norm at RUFA’s former campus off Monivong Boulevard near the French Embassy. There, teachers and students would come and go all day long, filling classes or practice halls no less than six days a week.
At the new RUFA campus on a recent Monday morning, students were noticeably absent, and the only classes being held were those of the attached Secondary School of Fine Arts.
Initially designed by the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Materials and Equipment, plans for the campus were later changed by high-ranking ministry officials, said Chan Vanna, director of the department.
Classrooms on the campus must serve all purposes. Some have been converted helter-skelter into offices while others are used to store musical instruments wrapped in plastic whenever possible because of the omnipresent dust.
According to teachers and students, the rehearsal halls are too few and too small to meet dancers’ or actors’ needs. The larger hall has a stage but no theater wing or dressing-room space and serves mainly for graduation ceremonies.
Moreover, the campus has no library, and the circus-arts hall lacks a proper storage facility for equipment.
In spite of the original promises, power shortages are more than frequent. With only one well, the lack of water poses a major problem – this on a campus where dancers and circus artists might appreciate a shower after practice.
“One of the biggest difficulties I have faced here is the toilets. We have a lot of toilets and bathrooms but not enough water to flush and get rid of the bad smell,” said Soeun Sreineth, an 18-year-old, third-year student at the secondary school.
“So I have to ask to use the toilets at residents’ houses in the neighborhood,” she said.
“I frequently receive complaints from neighbors [at private homes] overwhelmed with students asking to use their personal toilets,” said Khoun Vuthy, Yike theater teacher at the secondary school.
“Due to water shortage on the campus, a dozen toilets have been locked and only two can be used by students” who number around 1,700 at the secondary school, he said.
Even so, students have to buy water to clean themselves when they use those two toilets, Khoun Vuthy added.
But what has most affected teachers and students is the campus’ remote location.
The campus can be reached either by twists and turns through Tuol Kok district or more directly by turning off Russian Boulevard near Phnom Penh International Airport onto an unidentified, narrow dirt road at first peppered with holes but later paved as buildings give way to fields.
A few more turns on unnamed roads and a great deal of kicked up dust later, the campus buildings appear.
A three-times-daily bus service to and from the campus provided by King Norodom Sihamoni helps greatly, but many more vehicles are required as the mini-buses get filled to twice or three times their capacity, students and teachers say.
The ever-increasing price of gas makes the trip to the site by motorcycle too costly for many. As a result, teachers often find themselves in class without students or students without teachers. Enrolment has also sharply dropped in general.
The total number of circus-art students of RUFA and the secondary school is now around 35, said Nay Nary, deputy director of the secondary school’s Circus School. Before the campus moved, she said, “At the Circus School alone, there were sometimes 100 students.”
In the past, students from the Secondary School of Fine Arts would enroll at RUFA after their graduation, said Krouch Samoeun, an opera and performance management teacher at RUFA’s Choreographic Arts Faculty.
Today, instead, a large number of them opt to go to the National Institute of Education to become public school teachers rather than professional artists, he said. As a result, there are only 23 students at the Faculty of Drama Performance, Krouch Samoeun said.
The site’s remoteness also poses a safety problem, students and teachers say. With nowhere to go in-between classes and limited facilities to study or rehearse, problems have occurred between students and outside thugs coming onto the campus to pick fights, said Thav Chanreasay, a fourth-year piano student who also teaches at the Secondary School of Fine Arts. “I feel scared sometimes to be at the university,” she said.
Thugs also hang out along the isolated dirt roads around the campus, which makes travel in late afternoon and in the evening dangerous, said Vong Metry, deputy director of the Apsara Arts Association and a RUFA teacher.
This decline in both enrolment and classes at RUFA comes at a time when the quality of dance is slipping, observers say. The boost in the tourism industry especially in Siem Reap town has led to groups offering traditional and classical dance shows of dubious artistic value, they say.
“We now have so many traditional and classical arts association, but there is no quality,” Vong Metry said.
Although the situation is far from ideal on the RUFA campus, people interviewed don’t believe the situation has reached a critical stage, and are not ready to give up.
“People do care, people are still committed to making it happen,” said Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro, a classical-dance choreographer with the NGO Khmer Arts Academy and a RUFA graduate.
Adjustments can be made such as condensing class schedules into fewer weekdays to reflect transport constraints, said Cheam-Shapiro who remains in close contact with RUFA teachers.
In the meantime, her NGO is videotaping traditional and classical dance choreographies performed by her own troupe so as to constitute a library for future use by all dancers and choreographers, she said.
Amrita Performing Arts, which used to work closely with RUFA to produce shows both in country and abroad, is now mainly working with established artists to form “arts practitioners” capable of taking over the responsibility of arts development in the future, Amrita Director Fred Frumberg said.
Culture Minister Veng Sereyvuth declined to be interviewed for this story; his office said that the Funcinpec minister felt it premature to speak of long-term plans for the Ministry of Culture prior to the July national election.
According to Culture Secretary of State Khim Sarith, the ministry has already taken action to improve the situation at RUFA. “We are now trying to resolve the matter of water, electricity and better road access to the new location,” he said Friday.
Moreover, he said, the ministry endorsed a letter sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen by teachers from the Secondary School of Fine Arts in which they asked for better road access to the campus, Khim Sarith said. “I’ve heard that the paving of access roads will start soon,” he said.
He added that there are many factors contributing to the decline in student enrolment at RUFA, including competition from private schools, but he did not believe the campus location played any role in that decrease.