From all the teachers, students, and staff at Phare Ponleu Selpak: Happy World Circus Day! 

World Circus Day was founded on 17 April 2009 by the Federation Mondiale du Cirque to celebrate and promote traditional circus arts all over the world – and that includes Battambang, Cambodia. 

Today, we want to celebrate World Circus Day by acknowledging the impact that Cambodian circus arts have had on the children, youth, and young adults at Phare Ponleu Selpak – and on the world beyond.

Discover & celebrate the impact of the Phare Ponleu Selpak’s circus program on World Circus Day 2024

During the Khmer Rouge regime, all forms of art and entertainment were banned – including circus arts – and many artists, musicians, and performers were executed in the genocide that followed. Thirty years ago, Phare Ponleu Selpak was founded to help children and youth recover from the traumas of war through the healing power of the arts. 

The Long History of Circus in Cambodia

The circus arts have been a part of Cambodian culture for centuries. Sculptures and carvings in ancient temples – including Angkor Wat in Siem Reap – dating as far back as the sixth century depict jugglers, acrobats, magicians, sword swallowers, and performing animals.

Ancient temple carvings showing Cambodian circus arts

Cambodian circus was revived by King Norodom Sihanouk in 1960, banned by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and then brought back again in 1979 with the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the founding of the National Circus School of Cambodia. 

Read this blog post for a more detailed history of circus in Cambodia

The Founding of the Circus at Phare Ponleu Selpak

The circus program at Phare was launched in 1998 by Lokru KHUON Det, one of the nine co-founders of Phare Ponleu Selpak.

Children playing field games in Battambang, Cambodia

Back when Phare only offered drawing and music classes, Lokru Det would often play sports, perform acrobatics, and swim in local ponds. He noticed that both Phare students and other children from the community also wanted to join in physical activities and play. This was when he first had the idea for a circus school – allowing students to turn their movements into art

An early circus aerial swing and trapeze at Phare Ponleu Selpak
Rolla bolla practice at the circus arts school in Battambang, Cambodia

“I had prior experience with similar activities from the Site 2 camp, as I used to attend gymnastics and martial arts classes after drawing class,” said Lokru Det. “As an experienced person, I could contribute to developing these circus initiatives at Phare Ponleu Selpak. We found that kids who have fun are more likely to attend classes regularly, which helps them grow faster.” 

Juggling clowns at the early circus program at Phare Ponleu Selpak

The circus program did not have an easy start. Circus materials weren’t easy to come by, so students and teachers had to create everything by hand.

“We made juggling balls ourselves, dug the ground, and filled it with hay for soft landings from jumping high,” said Lokru Det. “The practice class was made from tarps and bamboo poles to protect students from the rain and sun, but it didn’t always work and made the hay smell horrible.”

Early circus school classes at Phare Ponleu Selpak

After only one year of intense training, Phare’s earliest circus students performed their first circus shows in 1999 in both Battambang and Siem Reap. In 2006, the big top circus tent first opened on the Phare Ponleu Selpak campus. 

Seven years later in 2013, Phare, The Cambodian Circus was established in Siem Reap as part of a social enterprise to support the school in Battambang and give graduates a source of dignified employment. Ever since, the Phare circus program – with students in Battambang and professionals in Siem Reap – has become the pride of Cambodia and captured the hearts of every audience.

Circus at Phare Ponleu Selpak Today

Over 25 years after its founding, the Phare circus program is still thriving. What was once hay and bamboo poles has grown into a full-fledged circus hall, big top tent, and Phare Performing Social Enterprise in Siem Reap – giving our graduates a dignified career in the performing arts while providing the school with self-sustaining income. 

Phare Ponleu Selpak’s on-campus circus shows are one of Battambang’s top-rated attractions, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to the Phare campus every year. The on-campus shows also allow young performers to showcase their craft and gain confidence performing in front of an audience. 

"Never Give Up" circus show at Phare Ponleu Selpak

Photo credit: Juliette DELORON

To date, Phare students have toured, taught, or performed throughout Cambodia and in 24 different countries abroad. Most recently, Phare circus graduates completed tours in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Taiwan, and other countries.

Here are a few other figures and statistics about Phare Battambang Circus: 

  • Phare Battambang Circus holds the Guinness World Record for longest circus show at 24 hours, 10 minutes, and 30 seconds.
  • Circus is the 3rd oldest program at Phare Ponleu Selpak, after visual arts and music.
  • 368,680 guests have come to see Phare circus students perform in Battambang since the big top first opened in 2006.
  • Phare students have performed over 31 different circus shows over more than 20 years of the program.

This November, Phare Ponleu Selpak is hosting the biennial Tini Tinou International Circus Festival in Battambang!

Discover what's in store at Tini Tinou International Circus Festival from 22nd to 30th November 2024 in Cambodia

Mark your calendars from 22nd to 30th November 2024 (new dates!) for this week-long circus festival extravaganza starting right here in Battambang – the arts and cultural hub of Cambodia – and ending with a very special performance and exhibition in Phnom Penh!

Tini Tinou International Circus Festival parade in Battambang, Cambodia
Circus performance at Tini Tinou International Circus Festival
Circus parade at Tini Tinou International Circus Festival organized by Phare Ponleu Selpak

Photo credits: Steffano Morrone

The 12th edition of Tini Tinou International Circus Festival is co-organized by Phare Ponleu Selpak and Phare, The Cambodian Circus, our daughter social enterprise, and we expect to host 13 circus troupes from 10 countries and engage audiences over 11,000 people.

So what’s going down at this circus art festival? Read more in this blog post.

The Impact of Learning Circus Arts: Reflections from Students & Teachers on World Circus Day

To celebrate World Circus Day, we’ve asked a few of our circus students and teachers to describe how learning circus has impacted their lives. We hope they inspire you in your own circus practice or admiration!

VORN Sreyneang

Phare Circus Student

21 years old

“Circus is a really admirable art form. It gives me knowledge and skills as well as courage and strength. I had the opportunity to perform internationally, fulfilling my dream of performing in France. I felt honored to perform abroad because it allowed me to introduce Cambodia’s rich arts and culture to the world.”

Circus student VORN Sreyneang shares her thoughts on World Circus Day

SAM Narong

Phare Circus Student

16 years old

 “I benefit a lot from being part of the circus. I have many friends in the circus, and it also gives me a chance to perform in front of others at the big top. I most enjoy doing aerial silk. It’s so fun.”

Circus student SAM Narong shares his thoughts on World Circus Day

NEM Tharo

Phare Circus Student

18 years old

“The circus is very important to me and is one of my favorite arts. It develops me as a person and allows me to showcase my performances to the audience at the show. The circus is also a source of income for me to support my education and other needs. I also enjoy how I can incorporate hip-hop dancing into circus because dancing makes me happy, and I enjoy dancing with my friends.”

On World Circus Day, circus student NEM Tharo shares her thoughts

Neakru HUOT Heang

Phare Circus Teacher & Coordinator

“Circus is an important art as it makes me be brave and fearless – for myself and for others. The circus has given me the opportunity to learn from and exchange experiences with people from many different countries and contexts.

“Every circus performance at Phare Ponleu Selpak is special because each performance tells a story that serves to promote Khmer traditions and culture to international viewers and sometimes to deliver a moral message as well. What is even more special is that each circus artist has the self-awareness and capacity to learn from others.”

Circus teachers HUOT Heang shares her thoughts on World Circus Day

About the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus Program

The circus curriculum at Phare Ponleu Selpak cultivates a wide range of values in students, including recognizing the value of hard work, situational awareness, risk assessment, teamwork, self-confidence, and artistic expression.

"My Funny Dream" circus show at Phare Battambang Circus

Photo credit: Juliette DELORON

In addition to leisure classes for younger students, there are four levels to the circus program:

    1. The Foundation Class helps older beginners discover basic circus activities.
    2. The Preparatory Class is a three-year program where young performers master the fundamentals: acrobatics, balancing, juggling, flexibility, and physical exercise.
    3. The Vocational Class sees students specialize in one to two disciplines and put in over 2400 hours of practice.
    4. The Professional Class combines circus training with other disciplines like stage management, playwriting, directing, and pedagogy, with a diploma granted upon completion.

After graduating from Phare Ponleu Selpak, circus program alumni are equipped to work with Phare, The Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap or pursue other professional performing arts roles.

We’ll See You at Tini Tinou International Circus Festival!

On this World Circus Day, Phare circus students, teachers, and alumni are gearing up for Tini Tinou International Circus Festival happening this November. If you’re a fan of circus – as an audience member, a performer, or both – this will be a circus art festival you don’t want to miss! Watch the festival teaser video below:

(note that dates in the video have changed to November 2024)

Here at Phare Ponleu Selpak, we are grateful for the expressive art of circus. We are proud of all our students, staff, teachers, alumni, donors, partners, and other supporters who have grown the circus program over these past 30 years. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Happy World Circus Day!


Don’t miss a single moment under the big top: Sign up for Phare’s monthly email newsletter and get regular updates about Tini Tinou and everything else happening during our special 30th anniversary year! 


Soree Kim, Communications Intern at Phare Ponleu Selpak
Soree KIM
Soree Kim is a Communications Intern at Phare Ponleu Selpak. She is taking an organized gap year in Cambodia through her university which involves volunteering at an NGO, living with an homestay, and learning Khmer. She chose Phare because of how the passionate the community is about the arts. She hopes to become a better writer at her time at Phare. In her free time, she loves baking desserts and spending time with family and friends.