From refugee kid to Cirque du Soleil star

Battambang was a flourishing city before the horrific Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, dramatically jeopardized the lives of its inhabitants. Many of them ended up slaughtered in the killing fields or neighbouring killing caves for no reason, whilst others were luckier and made it to close-by Thailand. Most of them spent years in refugee camps under harsh conditions. Kids grew up traumatised with hardly any access to proper education. In 1986, Véronique Decrop, a French art teacher, volunteered at the Site Two Refugee Camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. She used drawings as a therapy to help traumatised children express themselves. That was the spark to what will become Phare Ponleu Selpak (Cambodian for the brightness of the arts), a non-profit organization improving the lives of Cambodians through arts and education, its highlight being one of the best circus schools in the world.

In 1994, a group of eight of these children had grown into young adults and returned to Battambang, their home town. Shocked by the many underprivileged children suffering from trauma, poverty and abuse, they decided to buy a swampy rice field, and build a wooden house in which they started giving drawing classes for free.


23 years later, we are strolling through the wooden building. Fine pieces of art are displayed. Drawings with depth and an interesting perspective decorate the walls. Human sized sculptures block my way and confront me with their philosophical meanings. Different aquarelles, charcoal sketches, portraits and original graphic designs complement the rest of the impressive exhibition that has been entirely created by art students. A bell rings, and kids in uniforms run to their classrooms in different building across campus. Besides the variety of art classes and living arts trainings, about 1,400 four-to-eighteen-year-old pupils are schooled here, following the main trail to obtain their high school degree.


“Parents who cannot afford schooling can apply, and their children are welcome here. We provide lunch for the poorest ones and have opened a library with free access to computers and the Internet for the community.” our guide Megan explains. A wide variety of books in different languages are displayed and a five year-old boy eagerly turns the pages of a colourful book, clearly not bothered by our presence.


A group of boys with smiling familiar faces hurry past us towards a large gymnastics hall. We cannot suppress our enthusiasm, and rush after them to attend the practice: “We have seen these teenagers perform last night, and they are extremely talented!” Megan smiles, and highlights the fact that some of the former students are now traveling the world as performers at the ground-breaking Cirque du Soleil. Remembering the quality of the show we attended the night before on campus, we are not surprised! The Cambodian circus show is a mix of true passion, talent and teamwork, and attaining this level of professionalism requires hard work and dedication. Kids can learn circus: acrobatics, music, drama, aerial ballet, tightrope walking, dancing, vaulting, juggling and more… The most dedicated and talented students perform in evening shows for locals and tourists in Battambang. Tickets sold fund the school, and the experience is paramount for them to practice their skills and maybe to become a circus performer at Phare the Cambodian circus in Siem Reap, or the Cirque du Soleil.


Their excellent and experienced choreography, music and arts teachers have the same objective: guiding all students to a job that suits their skills. The Phare Ponleu Selpak campus contributes highly to helping Cambodians be proud of their roots while introducing its vibrancy to the world.

Waving back to Megan, we jump into a bus on our way to Siem Reap. Very impressed by the performance we attended and the visit of the Phare Ponleu Selpak campus, we cannot wait to see what the graduated students can come up with. The Phare, the Cambodian circus show in Siem Reap is already in our agendas!


Claire & Marcella

Travel tips:

  • Attending a show on the Campus is a valid reason to come to Battambang! Please refer to Phare Ponleu Selpak to order tickets and check out our interactive map for the exact location.
  • A campus visit is also very interesting and comes highly recommended.
  • Donations are accepted to support the organization.
  • For more great things to do in Battambang and a great day out of exploring the traditional crafts of Cambodia, please refer to the fantastic Mr. Ola!
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!

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5 thoughts on “From refugee kid to Cirque du Soleil star

  1. Nice post 🙂 Just to clarify, though, only one former Phare student performs with Cirque du Soleil and we have been filming him for 5+ years during his (and another former Phare student’s) quest to join Cirque by moving to Montreal to attend the National Circus School of Montreal. The film is slated to be completed by the end of the year and you can learn more about it at

    • Thanks for your clarification (this is why our title is a singular :-)). We are looking forward to the movie and hope that many more students will follow. Please, keep us posted! Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Phare the Cambodian Circus, Siem Reap, Cambodia | Best regards from far,

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