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Houn Bonthoeun

Houn Bonthoeun

Copyright 2013 Jorge Rodriguez Santos

Copyright 2013 Jorge Rodriguez Santos


Copyright 2013 Jorge Rodriguez Santos



Courtesy of Phare

Houn Bonthoeun is one of the first generation performers from Phare Ponleu Selpak and he performs with Phare The Cambodian Circus. He plays one of the twins in Phare’s Siem Reap based show, Tchamlaek. His specialties are acrobatics, balancing acts and juggling. I recently had a chance to speak with Bonthoeun and ask him a few questions. Below are the translations and you can also hear his answers in Khmer.

How and why did you join Phare Ponleu Selpak?

My name is Bunthoeun. I am 25 years old. I used to be a street kid, a rubbish picker and a scavenger. I begged others for food at ceremonies and wedding parties.

I was never close to my parents. I never saw my mom’s face except in a photo. She had another husband. She visited me once when I was young and I didn’t recognize her. I lived with my grandmother. My grandma used to pick water lilies and water morning glory in the rice fields and lake to sell.

A Ko, my deaf and mute cousin, introduced me to Phare Ponleu Selpak. I didn’t know what Phare was and was afraid that if I went there I wouldn’t be able to make money. A Ko came to visit me many times and showed me how he could do acrobatics, draw and paint. He even showed me how to put on clown make up. I was very interested and finally I went to Phare. I saw many, many children playing volleyball, football and with each other. I saw the circus tent made out of bamboo and plastic with rice mats and many children practicing for the circus. I saw Lok Krou (Teacher Det) teaching and performing. I really wanted to join but I had to go home to pick potatoes.

I snuck into the school for 3 consecutive days before I had the courage to ask Lok Krou Det if I could join. He kindly accepted. I didn’t tell my father and grandma and I would sneak out of the house to go to the circus and learn for two hours a day. One day they found out and my father hit me. He told not go to Phare again and to stay home and help my grandma earn money. My grandma was afraid I would get hurt.

At one point I went to public school but I was never on time and I showed up a maximum of three times a week. I was young and I thought a lot and my mind was divided. I had to help my family make moneyed I wanted to go to Phare. One day, Neak Krou Lin, a social worker, came to talk to my grandma. She told my grandma that I had talent and really wanted to learn and that I should be allowed to go to Phare to develop my skills and gain knowledge. My grandma refused because she said I had to help her pick potatoes to sell, but later she allowed me to go to Phare for a couple of hours a day.

I would often eat with Lok Krou Det. He didn’t have money. At one point, Unicef was supporting us with rice. Lok Krou Det game me some rice and canned fish for my family. Gradually my grandma gave me more time to go to school, but my dad didn’t agree. He would hit me when he overtime he found out I went to the school. Neak Lou Lin, Lok Krou Det and Jean-Christophe went to talk to my dad and grandma many times. My dad was not very happy but he did allow me to go to school. I had more time at the school, but I still had to go pick potatoes.

My first show was “Bong Toch, Bong Thom” or the “Gangsters”. The school sent a formal invitation to my dad and grandma to see my first public performance. They cried during the show. I was just a street kid and they couldn’t believe I could perform like that. They were speechless. After that I went to live at the school with Lok Krou Det full time.

I am very happy with myself for what I have done and struggled to be where I am today. If there had been no Phare Ponleu Selpak, I couldn’t imagine what my life and the life of my friends who grew up in Phare with me would be like.  I am very thankful to Phare, which has helped many children and youths like me. The many teachers, especially Lok Krou Det, he’s like a second father to me. He raise more than ten of us on a twenty dollar salary. We lived together in a small house; he slept on the bed and we slept on the floor. We ate together, even when we had nothing to eat except rice and salt. I am very indebted and grateful to Det, Jean-Christophe and all the great people in Phare who helped us a lot.

What motivates you and how long have you been in Phare?

I have been with Phare Ponleu Selpak for 15 years. Circus art has helped me a lot. I have performed many times in Cambodia especially in remote rural Cambodia where we performed Awareness Theater to educate many people about health, land mines, HIV-AIDS, disabilities and many other important issues that affect our society. I have also seen the world while performing outside Cambodia. We have the motivation and reputation. Many people appreciate and support us as artists. I’ve learnt about lives in the city and in the rural areas. I’ve learn about people and society. However, Cambodians are less enthusiastic about this art compared to the Europeans.

What are your plans for the future?

I have always dreamed being a well-known artist in Cambodia and around the world. I wanted to join a large circus troupe and perform around the world. I still have the same dream but now I love to teach and help many other young children in Phare. Like my teachers who taught me, I would like to be able to help children.

Bonthoeun can be seen performing in Tchamlaek until the show closes on June 22, 2013. This autumn he will perform in Théâtre du Soleil’s “L’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge” in Paris, France. More information about Phare Ponleu Selpak here. More information about Phare The Cambodian Circus here.


Posted on

June 11, 2013