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A spot of hope | Battambang, Cambodia

A spot of hope | Battambang, Cambodia

From a refugee camp’s hopelessness, a world-class circus emerges—a restoration of the nation itself.

Abhijit Dutta

Mint(Wall Street Journal India) – June 14, 2014

art1--621x414Like others at my hotel I too have risen at dawn. We rub sleep out of our eyes, drink our coffee, load our cameras with fully charged batteries and sit in the cars that wait for us. Then we set off: the others to catch the ethereal beauty of Angkor Wat at sunrise, and I to Battambang.

I am in Siem Reap, gateway to the famed temples of Angkor, built in the early 12th century at the height of the Khmer empire. It’s a striking contrast: Here is one of the world’s least developed countries, and amid all the poverty and lack of development perpetrated by decades of violent conflict—civil war, genocide, and foreign occupation—are these symbols of glory and human achievement.

Yet I have no time for temples; I am more interested in a circus. To be precise, the Phare (pronounced faarhh) Cambodian Circus.


The previous night, I had watched Proniap (Panic), Phare’s latest performance. The premise of the show is simple: A famous travelling circus has come to town and a ragtag team of village boys has lined up for an impromptu audition, aspiring to be a part of it. They all panic when they find themselves within sniffing distance of the big league.

The show was overbooked and the audience in the small tent—mostly foreign tourists but also local Khmer—went mad cheering for the artistes as they jumped, leapt, contorted, juggled, flipped, twisted, danced, balanced, clowned, climbed and played with fire, a performance that was all muscle, nerve and sinew. There were few props, no safety nets, no elaborate staging, no plan B. The artistes threw themselves at it viscerally, spinning their magic with humour, charm and will.

Proniap is a filler show: Not many people work during the Khmer new year, the holiday during which I was visiting, and Phare too had to work with the artistes who were available, and keep it simple. And what could be simpler than their own story?

The performers are all students of the circus school run by Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit Cambodian association working with vulnerable children and young adults, nearly all of them from families living in extreme poverty. At Phare, they get an education, and an opportunity to learn a variety of art forms, circus among them. The children, from violent or abusive families, get free meals and shelter at a child protection unit operated jointly by Unicef and Phare.

Since its inception in 1998, some 50 students have graduated from the circus school—it takes seven-eight years—and 80 more such graduates are in the making. They perform daily in Siem Reap, three days a week in Battambang, and sometimes at festivals and private events. They also go on tours across the world, on their own or with partners such as the French Collectif clowns d’ailleurs et d’ici (Collective of Clowns Here and There). This summer, a group will tour Europe with Sokha, a long-running hit performance.

In 2011, two of Phare’s circus- school graduates, Sopha Nem and Dina Sok, won scholarships to attend the prestigious National Circus School of Montreal, Canada, considered the world’s best circus school, and alma mater for most artistes of the famed Cirque Du Soleil.

The fact that Phare itself is now opening its doors to others around the world is perhaps the biggest marker of its “global” success. A few years ago, it gave a scholarship to 21-year-old Mohamed Saliou Baungoura, who had been studying with Tinafan, an organization similar to Phare, in Conakry, Guinea. This year, Baungoura will travel with Phare’s artistic directors to Tanzania to lead workshops for children who want to become performers.

Yet, even as Phare has grown upward and outward, its roots have grown stronger where it all started—in Battambang.


Battambang, situated in the north-west of Cambodia along the winding Sangkae river, not too far from the border with Thailand, is the country’s second city and its rice bowl. Till recently, despite its reputation for great food and well-preserved Khmer-French architecture, Battambang didn’t get too many tourists. It’s a hard-working, practical sort of town that gets on with life and business.

Today, thanks to Phare, Battambang is leading a cultural renaissance of sorts. Driven by the talent of Phare’s visual arts school, independent galleries, art cafés and curio shops, most housed in heritage Khmer-French buildings, have mushroomed. The artistes enjoy a reputation, and their works mix the political with the aesthetic.

Travellers too have gotten a whiff of this renewed Battambang and are arriving, not by the bus-loads yet, but in enough numbers to put this town on the tourism map. It gets a certain kind of traveller; those who have already been to the temples in Siem Reap and the killing fields of Phnom Penh, travellers who have fallen a bit in love with the country and want to discover more, travellers who have smoked a dubious cigarette with the locals, or shared a plate of duck foetus with them, and been tipped off about Battambang.

They often stay here for longer than they had planned, volunteering with Phare, or with one of the art studios, exulting in this discovery of a Cambodia away from the clichés and guidebook recommendations. The travellers add to the texture of new Battambang, infusing it with a global chic that only adds to the unmistakable and proud local character.


Walking down Battambang’s streets today, it is difficult to imagine the place bereft of its present zest. Look at Phare Ponleu Selpak’s 2-hectare campus, reached by a narrow, dusty lane, and it’s hard to imagine that only 20 years ago, this was just a rice field.

Luckily, I have some help in reconstructing the story of Phare’s beginnings. I have got myself a tête-à-tête with Khuon Det, one of the eight original founders. We sit down in his newly built house right next to the Phare campus, sip dark coffee, and talk.

Det was just 7 when Vietnamese forces invaded Democratic Kampuchea in 1979, removing the Khmer Rouge government and installing a pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Under the Khmer Rouge, children were considered to belong to the “Angkar”, or the Organization, and eventually become its soldiers. So, even when the parents were alive, the children were placed in orphanages controlled by the military.


Det was living in one such military orphanage somewhere in rural Battambang when, in January 1979, Vietnamese troops tore through the countryside, pillaging everything associated with the Khmer Rouge, including orphanages. Det’s grandfather, who had by then joined the resistance movement against the Vietnamese, was able to rescue him just in time, removing him from the orphanage and leaving him at a transit camp on the other side of Cambodia’s border with Thailand.

Like thousands of others, seven-year-old Det found himself moving from one refugee camp to the other, all by himself, till he arrived, almost two years later, at Site 2 near Aranyaprathet in Thailand, near the eastern border with Cambodia, the largest camp in the world at the time, with over 200,000 refugees.

Det remained there for the next 10 years, growing up with hunger and squalor. In 1986, Veronique DeCrop, a French NGO worker, arrived at Site 2, following a French Jesuit priest, Father Pierre Ceyrac, who, after serving 40 years in India and having become an Indian citizen, had decided to go and work in the camps.

Father Pierre Ceyrac believed that the children needed more than the basics, more than just food and water and a clean place to live, and asked DeCrop, a graduate of the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, to teach them drawing.

That was the spark. DeCrop began teaching a ragtag class of young artists who sat in bamboo huts and poured their trauma out in furious crayon sketchings. They didn’t call it anything then, but this became the foundation of the art therapy work that Phare would come to champion for vulnerable children years after the conflict.

After the peace accords were signed and the refugees began to be repatriated to Cambodia, DeCrop decided to open an arts centre in Battambang, a place where children in the community could study and also learn the arts, but more importantly, learn a vocation that would allow them to reintegrate with the community on their own terms.

Together with eight of her former students from Site 2—among them Det, now almost 20—she helped in founding Phare Ponleu Selpak on what used to be a swampy rice field in Battambang. A World Food Programme initiative that gave rice in exchange for work encouraged villagers in the area to help out, dredging and clearing, building and painting, till the first structure was erected in 1994 and the first group of students began to study, sing and draw.

It would be another five years before Det would think of adding a circus school at Phare. As a camp child in Thailand, he had his first taste of the performing arts through the traditional pahi troupes—pahi means magic in Chinese—a primitive and ancient form of circus that would tour the border provinces, including the refugee camps. These were essentially travelling salesmen who peddled traditional medicine, mostly herbs and nostrums. To hawk their fares they would employ magic tricks and illusions, long chains and monkeys.

For children starved of entertainment and opportunities for play, the pahi artistes’ performances were enchantment. The camps were violent places, with fights over food and space, and Det had to teach himself the basics of martial arts, strengthening his body in the process. He was gifted with a naturally athletic body—he would cartwheel, jump and flip for his own amusement.

In 1998, all this came together when Det saw a French circus troupe, Les Cousins cirque, which was among the first to tour post-conflict Cambodia. Det, along with the other founders, could see clearly that many of the children who came to study at Phare were naturally gifted with lithe, athletic bodies and acrobatic talent. The decision was made. They borrowed the pedagogy from the National Circus School in Phnom Penh, a well-respected institution, but too expensive for poor students to get in. They created a circus school that anyone could attend for free.

Today, 1,400 children enter the gates of Phare Ponleu Selpak every year to receive free schooling and basic education. After school, they can walk into any of the art schools—music, dance, visual arts, circus or theatre—to learn what they want, when they want, for free. While the circus school is the most renowned, each of the other schools nurtures world-class artistes.

In collaboration with the Paris-based group, Théâtre du Soleil, 30 students from Phare’s own theatre school created a spectacular 9-hour performance called The Terrible But Unfinished Story Of Norodom Sihanouk, King Of Cambodia, based on Hélène Cixous’ 1985 epic of the same name. Performed first in France, the play travels across the US, Europe, China, Japan and Russia.

Phare’s visual artistes too have done well for themselves, with regular exhibitions in Cambodia and around the world. This year, Srey Bandaul, one of the eight founders of

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Phare, will take his installation, After Digestion, to London, UK, and Istanbul, Turkey. Visual arts students train also in contemporary forms like graphics and animation, preparing themselves for a range of creative jobs. Graduates of the music school are leading a revival of traditional Khmer music, accompanying the performances of the circus and theatre schools. The dance school too is coming into its own, with original choreography.

There is great significance to this. During the Khmer Rouge rule, 90% of all the intellectuals, artists and writers were murdered in the name of a destructive communist ideal; essentially, a radical form of agrarian socialism. The regeneration that Phare has fostered is therefore more than just about art or a mere social cause, it is a restoration of Cambodia itself.


Kakada, a shy 22-year-old student of the circus school who is part of the Proniap cast, had sat in on my conversation with Det. When I ask him what he thinks of Phare’s journey he says simply, “It is unbelievable, but it has happened.”

Back in Siem Reap that evening, coated in dust and delight, I head back to the Big Red Top behind the National Museum, where Phare performs each night. The show has changed after the Khmer new year holidays and this night they are performing Eclipse, an intense story about belief, discrimination and redemption that weaves extreme contortion, acrobatics and great balls of fire with Khmer mythology and superstition about curses and black magic.

The protagonist has a paralysed leg, and is ostracized by the villagers because they fear the disease will spread. They ignore the fact that despite his handicap he can out-jump, out-leap and out-climb all of them. The gods turn him into a woman whose beauty mesmerizes the whole village. This is the plot line that leads up to the climax of Eclipse.

The performers are among the earliest graduates and their skill is extraordinary. The virtuoso performance brings the audience to their feet in ovation.

I do not regret having missed the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Phare Ponleu Selpak means “brightness of the arts”—and to have basked in its shine is to have seen the sun rise over Cambodia.


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