Photography: Aaron Santos 2014
Top-tier showmanship and heartfelt community spirit pave the way for a bright future at Cambodia’s spectacular Phare circus.
Feats of strength and dexterity abound in Siem Reap’s eye-catching big top tent. Bodies whirl through the air during dazzling acrobatic routines and modern circus numbers. The audience hold their breath during gravity-defying balance and contortion acts. Emotive live music, passionate performance and deeply resonant dance numbers bring to life unique and untold stories. It is no wonder that Phare The Cambodian Circus is recognised as one of Siem Reap’s top non-temple tourist attraction.
Phare: Cambodian Circus Redefined
However the story runs deeper. Phare is not just a platform to showcase Cambodia’s talented young artists—it is a thriving social initiative and a product of the inspiring Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) association, where all the performers learn their skills. The circus is founded on three social missions; to provide gainful employment to Cambodian youth from difficult social or economic backgrounds, to sustain and support the PPS school, and to push forward the rebirth of Cambodian modern art.
PPS emerged 20 years ago from a turbulent period in the country’s history. As the Khmer Rouge fell, nine students and their teacher were returning home from a refugee camp. The war had wounded the country, but these young survivors found empowerment in creative self-expression and art making. This was a gift they sought to share with the underprivileged children of Battambang
A New Community with a Modern Voice
Photography: Quinn Ryan Mattingly 2012
An art school was set up, and quickly followed by a public school to offer free comprehensive education. A music school, theatre school and circus school came shortly thereafter. Today, 1,200 pupils attend the public school each day, with 500 students at the alternative schools. With the birth of Phare The Cambodian Circus in 2013, PPS graduates were given a place to earn a real living wage and further hone their skills.
The circus also gives a voice to the performers. The stories told are close to their hearts, based on real personal experiences. Each show features themes that are uniquely Cambodian; from the haunting memories of the Khmer Rouge regime and local supernatural folklore, to young adults seeking social acceptance or negotiating Phnom Penh’s intricate bar scene.
“We are a proud Cambodian organization, founded and run by Cambodians, and contributing in concrete ways to community development,” explains Dara Huot, CEO of Phare The Cambodian Circus. “We also play a role in making the city a destination for tourists and giving them a compelling reason to stay longer.”
Savvy travellers are increasingly aware of the social and environmental impact their journeys have. In this regard, Phare positions itself as the perfect model for a responsible tourist attraction. Aside from working with and developing the local community, the team are also acutely aware of the surrounding environment. The big top tent forgoes traditional air conditioning in favour of evaporative water coolers, reducing their energy use and greenhouse emission.
Reusing and recycling is also a fundamental aspect of their design process. Many of the props and decorations are made from reclaimed materials, fashioned into attractive pieces by students at the PPS art school. Guests who purchase items in the boutique will have them hand-wrapped in recycled Khmer newspaper.
Siem Reap Spectacle
Photography: JF Mousseau 2008
The circus often arranges guest appearances at Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor hotel in Siem Reap. If there are no performances scheduled at the hotel, staff can easily arrange tickets and transfers to the big top tent.
Patti Ho, Food and Beverage manager at the hotel, recommends the circus to guests seeking a unique night out. “I think they are Cambodia’s answer to Cirque du Soleil!” Patti tells us. “Guests normally come back and say, ‘If you only have one night free in Siem Reap, Phare is a must.’”
Daily performances are scheduled year round. Now is the perfect time to arrange your visit to Siem Reap and catch a life-changing show.
by Daniel Hayden