Come One, Come All: A Circus in Cambodia Is Helping Youths Find Work and Joy

Phare Ponleu Selpak has been teaching the art of circus performance to impoverished kids for more than two decades.
(Photo: Kristi Eaton)
Feb 10, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Kristi Eaton is a contributing writer for TakePart. She has previously written for the Associated Press, The Washington Post, and Marie Claire.

The juggler eyes the woman from across the floor, then attempts to woo her by tossing the balls into the air. He spins around once, then twice, before catching the balls seamlessly. Three other men standing just off to his right start to chase him around the stage, a sign they are competing for the woman’s affection.

We are at a practice session for Phare Ponleu Selpak, a circus in Cambodia that has been teaching and training impoverished children and young adults for more than two decades in the country’s second-largest city, Battambang. Though the nonprofit organization—whose name means “the brightness of the arts”—was started in 1994 in Battambang, the idea for it was set in motion years before.

In 1986, French educator Véronique Decrop was teaching drawing to students at a refugee camp along the Cambodia-Thailand border. At the time, Cambodia was recovering from years of war and the genocidal Khmer Rouge, which killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians during its nearly four-year rule.

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(Photo: Kristi Eaton)

Decrop used art to help children at the camp overcome the traumas of war. Years later, several of those children came together and decided to help rebuild Cambodia through social action and Khmer culture, particularly for vulnerable and orphaned children. A circus school was added to the organization in 1998, and today, Phare Ponleu Selpak is one of the most well-known attractions in the area, drawing as many as 200 people during public performances in Battambang that occur a few nights each week and feature juggling, acrobatics, balancing, and unicycling.

“This kind of activity can help people with social problems,” Sambath Cheat, a staff member who leads tours of the campus for visitors, tells TakePart, adding that acquiring circus skills also helps youths with drug or alcohol addictions.

For students like Makara Vin, the circus is a way to earn money and see the world, especially when other economic opportunities might be hard to come by. Vin, 23, practices five days a week, mostly in the mornings, and then studies at a school in the evenings.

“Acrobatics is like flying,” he says. “It’s amazing because I can fly. I can jump. I like when people watch.”

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(Photo: Kristi Eaton)

Though Vin, who first came to Phare Ponleu Selpak six years ago, has learned an array of circus skills, including tumbling, juggling, and puppetry, his favorite is performing as a clown—especially because his teacher calls him a clown in real life, he says.

Visitors are invited to participate in tours of the campus during the day to see the children and adults practice their circus, music, and visual arts skills and watch as children as young as three practice their English through high-energy singing and activities.

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During one sweltering day, the circus school was filled with young adults contorting, stretching, and bending. Some practiced their gymnastics, while others performed a variety of handstands or perfected their juggling tricks. Vin calls his fellow students his “brothers and sisters,” and it’s obvious that trust is an important factor in bringing the stories to life through the circus acts.

The Cambodian circus helps to sustain the social-enterprise arm of its company by putting on shows 115 miles away in the tourist hub of Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park and the well-known temple of Angkor Wat. There, international audiences turn out each night to watch performers juggle, flip, and fly through the air amid the narratives of Cambodian folktales.

Choup Kania was just nine years old when she started training her body to bend and contort. Today, the 19-year-old uses the money she earns from each show to help support her family. While Kania says she is surprised and amazed international audiences turn out to watch her and others perform, she also feels pressure—a recent mistake at one show still weighs heavily on her mind.

(Photo: Kristi Eaton)

Still, the energy and excitement at the show is enthralling. One performance called Sokha is especially poignant. It’s a fictionalized account of what the founders went through during the Khmer Rouge period.

The show starts with a young girl in her daily life in Cambodia as she enthusiastically plays with her friends. It then moves to a darker element: the civil war that took over the country before descending into the Khmer Rouge–led genocide. The protagonist watches as her family is taken away. Later, while at a refugee camp, she discovers the arts and eventually returns to Cambodia to begin classes at school.

Sokha has been well received, especially with younger people, who were not alive during the Khmer Rouge and may not understand a time period often not talked about among the older generation, says Anna Smyrk, a spokeswoman for Phare Ponleu Selpak.

The show, she explains, is a way to capture and express the emotions in a relatable way. “There’s usually a lot of tears,” she says.