Travel Report: Phare, The Cambodian Circus.
Phare The Cambodian Circus.
Looking back on our time in Cambodia and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I can actually pinpoint the precise moment the world last felt normal. If I can even use such a word. It was the 3rd of March 2020 and Sladja and I were making our way inside the red, big top performance arena for a night at the circus.
I say it felt normal because we were among several hundred people that evening. Everyone excited at the prospect of seeing Cambodia’s most talented and dedicated artists in action. A fun evening out on a planet that hadn’t yet gone to shit with lockdowns, travel bans and quarantines.
Except it wasn’t normal of course. When I saw how tightly packed in everyone was, I began feeling anxious. After all, neither of us had brought masks. Moreover, someone three chairs down had begun coughing. For a moment, I seriously considered getting the hell out of there. I mean, what had we been thinking?
Suddenly, the lights dimmed and a wave of hypnotic traditional Khmer music washed over the crowd. Seconds later the arena suddenly lit up in a deep red glow, as nine performers sprinted onto the stage. The men were all bare chested, some of them carrying tall wooden poles. A few others had knives.
Within moments they had formed a menacing circle around a scared looking man and woman. Instantly, I had forgotten all about COVID-19 and found myself completely immersed in the events playing out before me.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus.
For visitors to Siem Reap, a night at the circus is every bit as essential as a day or two exploring The Angkor Temples. Not only due to the amazing acrobatic skills of the performers, but also because Phare Circus is one of the country’s most inspirational social projects.
Phare’s story dates back to the mid 1980s following the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. In order to cope with post traumatic stress, a group of Khmer refugees began drawing, singing and acting.
These impromptu gatherings eventually became organised workshops, leading to the formation of The Phare Ponleau Selpak Association in 1994. Dedicated to child protection and development, the group went on to open two schools specialising in music and theatre. Over time, they also established a public school. Today there are over 1200 attendees, with all offered courses free of charge.
An Inspirational Social Enterprise.
The Phare Circus opened its doors in 2013 with nightly shows under the big top, which holds around 330 people. All performers are Khmer youths from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some of them were orphans or street children. All go through a gruelling 8-10 years of training before they graduate as official circus performers.
This comes as no surprise when you see what these guys are capable of. I’m talking staggering abilities in fire performing, cycling, spinning, pole twirling, tightrope balancing, juggling and breakdancing.
However, these shows aren’t just about dazzling visuals. Each performance tells a unique Cambodian story. It might be a historical adaptation, something based on folklore, or a tale from modern society.
On the night of our visit the story was Eclipse, which follows a disfigured young man bullied by all around him. Broken by constant rejection and cruelty, he prays to the gods for a solution. They respond by transforming him into a beautiful woman, enabling him to exact a ruthless revenge upon his torturers.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus.
Spoken words arrive in Khmer, but are used thinly throughout the show. A large TV screen in the corner of the arena provides a basic translation in English and French. In any case the story is a simple one that’s easy to follow, allowing visitors to concentrate on the physical action onstage.
I hadn’t been to the circus since I was a kid. While I enjoyed those long ago experiences, I’d never fully bought into the circus as a thing of spellbinding wonder and awe. Consequently, I admit that I’d hardly been frothing at the mouth in the days leading up to the show. Rather, I’d viewed Phare simply as a fun distraction. A When in Rome deal that had to be ticked off before we moved on.
The performers at Phare certainly changed my mind. In fact, it’s impossible to deny the majesty of their work, from the incredible energy and positivity of the players themselves to the infectious oohs and aahs of the audience and the persuasive beats of the drums. When it was finally all over I felt energised… inspired… perhaps even a little emotional.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus.
As fate would have it, Sladja and I caught one of the last shows at Phare before it closed its doors due to the virus and the subsequent end of tourism in Cambodia. Luckily for us, our decision to attend the show that evening went unpunished and we managed to avoid infection.
Four months later, in July 2020, Phare reopened and now operates on a new schedule that has to adapt to the unpredictable nature of the times we live in. For the latest times and ticket prices, it’s best to head to the official website. Keep in mind that 75% of all their profits goes back into the maintenance of the group’s various schools and charities.
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Somehow I managed to not even hear about this on our brief visit to Siem Reap – such a shame as we would have loved it, both the performance and the philosophy behind the organisation. I recall a similar experience on our last London theatre visit before Covid. We went to see Upstart Crow and as I looked around the full theatre I wondered if it was a good idea to be in such a crowd, but totally forgot my concerns once the play started. We got away with it, and the country went into lockdown four days later!
Eek, it was all about luck I reckon in those early days of the pandemic. Somehow we managed to travel in and around six countries without getting COVID, and then finally caught it during my family reunion in Scotland. The first time I’d seen my mum, sister and niece in nearly three years. Oh, well. Thanks for checking out The Cambodian Circus, it was a special experience.
The arts as a form of escapism are often so disregarded as also often being one of the best prescriptions to survive trauma. This looks like such an amazing and authentic experience. I understand the feelings towards circus in general – but love the mission of this show, it definitely seems like something that should not be missed 🙂
I’m glad the Phare story appeals to you Nic. It’s a special organisation and the show transcends anything I have ever seen that goes under the “circus” description. Thanks for reading!
Phew! I’m glad you both got the chance to enjoy the circus. Funnily enough, the last big event I attended before covid was also a circus, here in Beirut. I enjoyed every minute too.
I find myself curious about what the Beirut circus is like. Thanks for reading!
The last one I watched was a water circus. The story told was weaved through the water theme. It also had the usual acrobatic and aerialist shows. It was fun 😀
An amazing display and glad you managed to attend before the world changed. What is normal these days? Some think it is all over and it is business as usual. Others shudder at the thought of being in a crowd. Phare looks like a story of hope of what can be done with dedication and teamwork. A great teaching tool for the world. Happy Sunday Leighton. Allan
I think we are the shuddering at the thought of a crowd type. In any case we have never been one for large gatherings, so for the most part we find it easy to stay away from trouble. Phare is indeed inspiring, thanks for your contribution Allan.
The story of the school and charities is actually more impressive than the circus if that is possible. It is a unique way to garner attention and raise money. Ok, so the slack wire performer was impressive. Then he got on the unicycle. Then he juggled while on a unicycle on a slack wire. At least, the wire wasn’t on fire – yet. My favorite part is still the back story. Great post.
I agree Memo, it’s the backstory that makes this such a great place. The slack wire stuff was just awesome. I will be in touch soon via email.
I’ve never actually been to the circus before. Despite the crowds, it sounds like it was a lot of fun. I guess it was good timing that you were able to visit before it closed its doors because of the pandemic.
Circuses generally…. I’d say you aren’t missing much. This place though is something else, and no animal exploitation involved which is always a bonus.
Loved reading this post, Leighton! The Phare is a tick in the plus box for Cambodia. The fact that they perform to raise money for the benefit of children’s educations makes their story even better. I look forward to your next post.
Hey Kellye, I’m glad you enjoyed this uplifting piece from Siem Reap. Luckily the country has a bunch of social charities addressing poverty around the country and indeed the long lasting effects of the genocide years. One article you may have missed (grr WordPress!) is on The APOPO rat centre which came out before this one. Hope you guys are doing well and that the summer temps are not too fierce!
Thank you, Leighton. I will check out to APOPO rat center which sounds very intriguing! Our high temp today is 101 F. I’m staying inside!
Oh lord! That is pretty darn toasty. Stay safe!
Ah, when last did I visit a circus … must have been ages ago! But then again, your circus is not JUST a circus – the history behind the Cambodian Circus is fascinating. And wow, that guy on the rope … that’s serious balance! It’s a good story to tell Leighton – and I’m happy to hear they are still continuing after all the madness – they definitely need to be supported!
Thanks for your supportive comment Corna. It is great that Phare is back open and performing again. I only hope that the income they make from the decreased tourism in Siem Reap is enough to keep the circus profitable.
It is hard to believe it has been more than two years since Covid changed the world. I wish more companies shared their profits with great causes the way Phare does.
Right John, nothing stops the relentless march of time, not even COVID. And yeah, the world would surely be a better place If there were more Phares around. Appreciate you taking the time to keep up with my Siem Reap series.
It looks like a fantastic show and is clearly a noble social enterprise. yet another excellent article from Siem Reap Leighton
Thanks Stan, appreciate you keeping up with the Siem Reap files.
I’m not really a huge circus act type of human but this looks interesting! Plus “don’t touch me, you outcast” is hilarious hahaha
Ha ha I’m not sure “hilarious” is the vibe they were going for, but yeah I agree. If this is the only circus act I ever do I think I can live with that. It kinda feels like anything else might disappoint. Thanks for reading!
What a neat organization! Not only to put on an impressive show, but also to give back to the community. I haven’t been to a circus show in over a decade, and the Phare looks to be a wonderful experience to be had, if anyone were to visit Cambodia someday. Glad you got to see one of its last shows before it closed its doors due to COVID (although now, it’s great that they re-opened)!
Thanks for checking out Phare Rebecca. A friend who still lives in Siem Reap tells me that the arena is about half full these days for the nightly shows. That’s better than nothing I guess, though I do wonder if it will ever return to pre-pandemic sold out levels. Thanks for reading!
So fortunate that you decided to go to the circus when you did before it had to close. It looks very impressive from your photos. I haven’t been to a big top circus in years and the last one was actually the Russian State Circus when they were on tour in Leeds. Don’t expect they’ll be invited back anytime soon! Hope your week goes well Leighton.
Ha, yes I imagine it’s game over for The Russia State Circus’ international adventures. Thanks for reading Marion. We are heading into Belgrade as I write to celebrate our 1 year wedding anniversary. Have a great week too!
Congratulations to both of you, have a lovely day.
Happy Anniversary Leighton and Sladja!!! 🙂
Thank you! 🎉
It must’ve been pretty scary being so near the Covid outbreak relatively. Here things didn’t get crazy until about March 15th. How strange to go into the office on a Friday in the middle of tax season and never return haha. But I do love how shows can fully immerse you to forget about all the craziness outside. That’s how I felt seeing the first show back on Broadway this year.
Art in all its forms is key to helping us deal with difficult times I think. Thanks for reading about Phare Lyssy!
Incredibly physical artistry and ability to be sure. But the story behind it is really beautiful and full of that human spirit of generosity and healing that seems to be at the heart of so many of these places you have shared with us. Great post!
Yeah, I think there is an emotional depth to a lot of Cambodia’s sights. A direct result of what the country and its people have been through. Thanks for checking out The Cambodian Circus, Meg! 🎪
Definitely something we would do if we had the opportunity, sounds like a great show and an absorbing experience. Are you really still feeling that things aren’t normal? Apart from occasional requests to wear masks we’re finding travel pretty much back to normal now, which is very pleasing. Then again I suppose we’re lucky enough not to be vulnerable so don’t have to be as much on our guard as those who are less fortunate. Definitely getting hopeful of completing our aborted South East Asia trip, maybe next year. Adding this Phare event to the wish list which you’ve already lengthened significantly with your recent posts!
Hey Phil, on the surface everything seems to be “normal” but I don’t personally feel like it is. Having picked up COVID for the first time recently in Scotland (on a family reunion day of all things) I certainly have no desire to go through such a two-week ordeal again. That effects how we now view being out and about, particularly among larger numbers of people in small spaces. It’s not going to stop us making our travel plans, but there are levels of anxiety attached that seem hard to shake off. It is what it is. Hoping you get to do your SEA trip soon and that it delivers for you.
You obviously copped it worse than us…we had very mild symptoms when it was our turn (also from a family gathering, by the way!)
Sharing history, folklore and stories through art, drama and performance is a powerful tool. I agree with you about circuses; particularly when animals are involved. However; this is far more than a traditional circus. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for reading, as always, and for joining the thread. It seems most people generally feel meh about circuses. But I’m glad that everyone agrees this is an organisation that stands apart. Both with the actual skills of the artists and in the meaningfulness of the enterprise itself.
Such an amazing area you visited seeing this Circus. This brings back memories of our time there. Hoping we can get back to normal during this pandemic.
Thanks for reading!
A circus with heart and soul. Maybe that’s how a circus should be now, rather than big shows for big profits. Bad luck about the Covid, hope you’re recovered. I had it earlier this year and it wiped the floor with me. It’s definitely still in the back of my mind when I make plans!
And happy anniversary, enjoy celebrating and enjoy your travels!
Thanks so much Helen for swinging by. Yeah, COVID was no joke for us either, regardless of having no underlying health problems. Glad Phare appeals to you, “heart and soul” sums it up very well.
This looks like such an amazing circus! That is good that you both could see it before the pandemic really hit! I am glad that the company was able to modify their schedule and that they are able to continue on in these times.
Hey Allie! Yes it would have been devastating if Phare had gone under. So glad they pulled through and continue to operate, despite the huge fall in tourist numbers. Thanks for reading!
What a great way to say goodbye to the normal world, but of course, you didn’t know what was to come. I’m so impressed by the dancing and percussion music, the skill, and omg the performance with fire sticks. Thanks for sharing this one!
Yeah, the talent these guys have is just something else. Imagine the hundreds of hours they would have put in practicing and honing hair skills.
I wonder if this is something that becomes a family thing, and they learn to participate early with their parent performing.
Hm, could be in some cases. I’d have to look into that!
It was a pattern with circuses, at least in the US and Europe, I think.