Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the entire world, but one school has it’s own circus. Phare Ponleu Selpak is a non-profit school in Battambang that exposes kids to the arts – for free! “There is nothing about arts in the public schools,” says Executive Director Eric Regnault. “But we have dance, music, theater, circus, visual arts and applied arts which focus on graphic design and animation.
Cambodia’s circus tradition is as old as the country’s Angkor Wat. There are graphic depictions carved into the stones at Bayon which depict jugglers and dancers in everyday life. However during the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge executed almost all of the country’s artists. Now Cambodia is rebuilding and Phare plays an important part in that process.
But what good is a circus in a country where the average Cambodia only earns $1000 a year?
Chamroeun Khuonthan is a former student and now teacher at Phare. “Each of us have a unique skill, and we give these skills to the children,” he says. “We also talk with the children when they have problems at home, kind of like counselors.”
Another former student Heang Houg answers this way, “The arts have made me brave.” She says, “as an artist, people listen to me and value my opinion.”
Twice a week the students put on real shows, but the school is more than just entertainment. Besides supporting them as they grow up and boosting their self esteem, it also gives kids a chance at a modern profession – rare in this predominantly agrarian country.
Without Phare, most would young adults would never make it to the big top – like Bor Hak, who was taken to work as a child in Thailand. After a few years he was caught and sent back to Cambodia.
“Then a NGO took me in and asked if I wanted to come here,” says Bor. “They said there is a circus and art, and I’d always wanted to draw.” Now Bor is a young professional earning a living from animation and graphic design.
Of course there are also several graduates from Phare, who now preform in circuses all around the world – from theaters in France to the Cirque Du Soleil in Canada. Young artists like Sok Dina, Sopha Nem and Voleak Ung.
The air is still wet and cool when the old man arrives. He comes here every day – to the abandoned train station in Songkhla, Thailand. He shuffles once around the building painted in antique yellow with reddish-brown trim. At the old train station’s platform – where the trains once arrived and departed – he stops. A chicken pecks amongst the rusted metal rails. There’s trash and weeds scattered all around. I watch him look out over the tracks. He almost appears to have abandoned his body for a few moments – then jerks back to life and completes his walk.
Mr. Viang Rodpon is the old man’s name. His story is perhaps a sad story, a tale of of abandonment. Or maybe it’s a train love story. Possibly, it’s neither. It’s not a story with a Beginning and an End. Instead, it might just be a blurry moment of time, an era passing through.
“It’s deep inside my soul. I see it in my mind but I can’t find the words.
The train was running before I was born. Songkhla’s station was built because all the goods arrived by sea not overland. Everything came by ship. Everything came by boat. At the harbor, the rails connected to the dock. There was an iron wharf, and the goods were loaded there onto the train. The rails connected the dock to the station.
I came here with my parents. They came here to work at the train station. I was 14 or 15. I knew steam trains. They were noisy, yes and blew lots of smoke. When the train was departing they blew the horn so everyone would know that the train had left. After the train departed I sold coffee. The train went ‘choo choo’.
The locomotive? It was black. Almost all black. There weren’t any other colors. Just black. At the front was the engine. In the back there was a big water tank. The train used a lot of water. Made lots of steam. We boiled the water. Oh – it was scorching hot. It always glowed red whenever it was opened. You couldn’t just open it because when the door swung open the heat roared out. You had to open it slowly. You had to add wood when the fire was low.then the train gave a signal before it arrived so we could get ready.
When I turned 21 my dad retired So I took over my dad’s job. I fixed the rails from Songkhla to Hat Yai so the train wouldn’t fall over.
I stood in the back. At the back of the train Where rails were damaged the train would shake. I would take notes. If we found a place that was warped. I’d give instructions to the workers. To fix the railroad ties before they broke. By this time, I’d already gotten married.
Back then people didn’t have cars. There were sellers in the evening. IN the morning there were a lot of students.
The most people came for festivals and the time that man was executed. He was executed on the beach. A lot of people came to see the execution. The cafe made good money.
We had one. She ran into the train. To commit suicide. I didn’t see her jump. We had to put the body in a sack.
The government said they’d stop the train in 2521. On the 1st of June. On the last day people came. Some people cursed. Some cried. Old people they’d used the train all their lives.
I saw people dig up the tracks and my heart bloomed because this is where I started life. 4 kids. Born here in the store. Raised here. These rails are like my fathers – like my – life. My father. My father is gone and I’m already 80 years old. Generations pass through. Its hard to express it. I would feel lost. It’s deep inside my soul.”