English Students and Acrobats

It was such a please to meet these English access students in Cambodia!

It’s a six hour drive to Battambang from Phnom Penh, and we had two events scheduled that day, so we woke up early, checked out of the Teahouse Hotel, chugged some coffee, met our friends from the embassy and all piled into a van together.

Outside the city, small homes on stilts line the roadways and farmlands. The houses are stilted for two reasons… 1) in the rainy season, the land is prone to floods, 2) to avoid snakes and other wild animals that are native to the country.

Our first stop was at a rural English language school. Everyone there was taking English classes on their own time. The students were so sweet. When we pulled onto the red-dirt grounds of the small, barn-like school area, the students were already waiting for us under a tarp that provided shade from the hot sun. They welcomed us with applause as we climbed out of the van, and though they were a little shy to use their language skills at first, by the time the event was over, we were having great, full conversations.

Group singalong in Cambodia! Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh

In Battambang that night, we had a concert at a unique school especially for street kids (If you’re reading this in the U.S. and find the term “street kids” abrasive/non-PC, this is the language that is widely used here, and it will help to convey the rest of the story more clearly).

Live from Battambang, Cambodia! Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh

The head of the school gave us a tour around the complex. They bring in young, street kids from the community, and train them in music, art, and as acrobats. If you’ve ever seen a Cirque Du Soleil show, it is likely there were Cambodian acrobats in the company.

The head of the school told me something about this statistical phenomenon that really stuck with me. He said, “Before the students come to our school and they’re spending their days and nights in the streets, the world is the kids’ playground. They don’t really have people watching them, telling them not to climb things, jump on things, and swing from things. Consequently, they get quite comfortable with heights and the stunts we teach before they are even students here.”

This school trains performers for one of the most popular shows in Siem Riep, the Phare Circus. The relationship between the school and the circus is symbiotic: The school trains acrobats, musicians, and artists for these productions, the performers earn living wages for themselves and their families, and further proceeds go back to the school. It sells out every day, and in advance, so we were very grateful to our embassy friends who helped us reserve great seats to the unforgettable show.

I told you in a previous blog that I was eager to share one way that it seemed the young people were continuing to press forward after the hardships of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge days in recent history (read here, if you missed that blog or want to reference back).

As a child, the founder of the circus lived in Thailand in a refugee camp made up of people fleeing the horror occurring in Cambodia. Though many different stories have been created, the night we were there was the original show. It was about a girl who’d seen her family killed by the Khmer Rouge, struggled to survive, and then had to work to restore her hope in humanity and the future. As she goes through her journey, the performance ranged from tragic, to scary, to funny, to fun. We all thought it was spectacular, and we’re so grateful that we got to experience this performance.

The incredible performers at the Phare Circus in Siem Riep, Cambodia