After you’re templed-out at Angkor, "Phare", the Cambodian Circus, will make your heart sing.
The red circus tent almost vibrates with energy. It’s all generated by the young Cambodian performers inside who flip upside down, balance in seemingly impossible contortions, and jump through flames. Their enthusiasm is so infectious that the audience is soon on the edge of their seats. Their cheers create a recurring circle of energy that incites the performers to more death-defying feats, which bring yet more cheers. Huge smiles are on every face.
This spectacle occurs every night of the week under the big top in Siem Reap (often sold out in high season, even with the addition of three extra weekly shows). Phare is the perfect cap to a hot and tiring day spent exploring the Angkor temples a few miles from town. It’s a circus in the Cirque du Soleil tradition, though a low-budget one. There are no animals, only human contortionists, acrobats, jugglers, daredevils, painters, and musicians. The costumes and sets are simple, but the performers more than make up for it in talent, heart, and enthusiasm.
Dazzling Phare was born out of Cambodia’s dark Khmer Rouge history. The circus is part of an NGO called Phare Ponleu Selpak in Khmer, which translates to The Brightness of the Arts. The NGO provides social support, education, and visual and performing arts training to kids and young adults in need. The school is in Battambang, 100 miles from Siem Reap and the Angkor temples. The NGO lifts kids out of poverty into a wide range of careers, in addition to creating the Siem Reap and Battambang circus performances that lift the spirits of everyone who encounters them.
Phare has almost a dozen different shows, which rotate through the circus tents in Siem Reap and Battambang and at occasional special events. The artists have toured in more than seven countries. No matter the show, its story teaches a little of Cambodian folklore and traditions and leaves the audience hungry for more.
Sokha, for example, tells the origin story of Phare’s founders and how art and hope helped rebuild Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. The original music, live painting, and chilling masks first spark tears of sadness. As the story progresses, the juggling, extreme balancing, and acrobatics soon change the audience’s tears to those of hope and joy. This quickly evolves into roars of enthusiasm and awe. There’s plenty of room for laughter at the antics of the performers, as the men are obsessed with ensuring their hair sits just right regardless of the need of one of their colleagues to balance upside down on top of their heads.
Eclipse (Sokrias in Khmer) is another dramatic piece. It tells the story of bullying in the face of disability, all too common in a country like Cambodia which has the highest ratio of landmine victims in the world. Eclipse features towers of people impractically balanced on tubes which roll, jump rope stunts, links to traditional Apsara dance, dangerous fire tricks, and breathtaking acrobatics. While the show has dark moments, as with Sokha, the emotions soon turn to joy and the entire circus tent—performers and audience—leave infected with positive energy.
Enjoying one of Phare’s incredible shows also means you’re donating to the annual education of 1,200 at-risk youth and creating jobs and career development now and in the future. Do your souvenir shopping at the show too—now that Phare is in its new permanent location west of downtown Siem Reap, there’s room for the redesigned Phare Boutique to spread out and show off its wares. The shop features original artwork by the school’s students and locally-made fair trade goods. Pick up a Phare “Refill Not Landfill” water bottle too. It’s refillable for free at two dozen locations and is a key way of reducing Cambodia’s plastic waste problem.
Absolutely the temples of Angkor are the reason to book a trip to Cambodia. But Phare The Cambodia Circus is the reason to stay longer in Siem Reap and to visit other parts of the country like the city of Battambang. Just be sure to buy tickets in advance so you don’t miss out on the chance to see this exhilarating show.
All Photos Courtesy Of Johanna Read