Contortionist Pin Phunam, 21, stunned Siem Reap audiences at the opening show of Phare, The Cambodian Circus when she bent her legs above her head and then, using a bow held with one foot, dexterously fired an arrow with her other foot into a balloon about five metres away.
But few in the audience knew that the extremely talented contortionist supplemented her income when at home in Battambang by rising at dawn daily to sift through other people’s rubbish to earn a few extra riel to help feed her family.
Few would guess that the radiantly-smiling performer had endured a childhood of suffering and despair.
“I am a contortionist and it makes me happy,” she told Insider on the eve of departing for Europe on a circus tour. “Even though at home it’s so stressful, and it’s also stressful when I come to circus school to rehearse, sweat, play, and perform. But when I perform I forget all my troubles and when the audience is happy, I’m happy.”
Pin Phunam found her passion in circus performance when she started studying at the Phare Ponleu Selpak association in Battambang when she was about four.
She is from a very poor family in Achhan village, Orcha commune, and in Battambang she now lives in in a rental room with her mother and siblings. Her father is dead and she faces many problems because she is the only family member who really tries to solve the family problems.
As she pointed out, while preparing for her trip to Europe, she piled up enough fish to provide food for the family for about a week.
“My family life is very difficult. When my dad was alive he had his own business but he never helped any of his children with the money that he earned. He spent it on beer. Sometimes he went out at night and slept with other women, and finally he gave AIDS to my mum,” she said. ““He beat my mum and his children every day, and then he burnt our house down.”
Even now as a circus performer, she still sifts through garbage as a routine activity in the early morning when at home. She has worked as a garbage picker since she was eight, along with her sisters and her cousin.
“Your trash is my treasure,” she said, adding that before the circus, “We did every small job we could to earn money to fill our stomachs. When we work, we have money. But if we sleep we don’t have money.”
When she was 13, the Phare organisation let her live in a childrens’ house where the Phare Pon Leu Selpak circus school is also based.
“At the end of 2007, the school sent me to study circus skills in Hanoi, Vietnam for the first year and then my life started to change,” she said.
She became a contortionist in 2008 and said, “ cannot believe what I have done now, gone from the garbage pickup girl to a contortionist.
“At first, I started to learn circus because I wanted to find a skill for my life, and I wanted to earn some money too. But when I grew up I found that circus is a good sport and a difficult art that not everyone can do.
“Honestly I really don’t know how to tell you about my performance. I can say that it’s very difficult but if you strongly commit to do something, you can surely do it and I have learnt my skills for many years already.
“I love this job. I love to be a circus artist, and because of the show I can travel the world. I can bring my culture, my history and my art to people around the world. In my future, I want to finish my master degree in somewhere in Europe. Then I am going to come back to work in my country. I want to be the one who can be a part of helping the next generation and share my art's culture to the world.”
Circus performance in Cambodia stretches back to the Angkorian period, and evidence of circus performances at Angkor can be seen in carvings at Angkor Thom’s Elephant Terrace and at Bayon temple. The recent war and upheaval due to the Khmer Rouge destroyed circus in Cambodia and the mission of performers like Pin Phunam and her contemporaries is to revive it.
Phunam is now on a European tour and she will be back home in the middle of July.