Siem Reap’s Phare, The Cambodian Circus, grew out of a school in Battambang that provides free arts education to local children. // © 2015 Phare, The Cambodian Circus
Feature image (above): Phare, The Cambodian Circus, holds nightly performances behind Angkor National Museum. // © 2015 Peter Phoeng
International travelers well-versed in South Asia’s geography and culture are likely to associate the Cambodian destination of Siem Reap immediately with the country’s most iconic tourism attraction: Angkor Wat. But the folks at Phare, The Cambodian Circus hope more of the many visitors who stop in Siem Reap each year will also spend an evening under the big top.
“It’s the most fun people are going to have in Siem Reap,” insisted Craig Dodge, director of sales and marketing for Phare, who has previously worked as a travel agent. “Every guest who comes to Phare has a great time. If travel agents have clients who are looking for something that is unique, different and not contrived or touristy, it’s Phare.”
Quick to distinguish Phare from the clowns and animals many American travelers might associate with a traditional circus, Dodge said every Phare performance tells an intriguing story.
“It’s Cambodian youth telling authentic Cambodian stories through circus, music, dance, theater and drama,” he said. “The stories can come from recent history. They can come from folk tales, or they can even come from modern society.”
Dodge noted that prior to Phare’s debut in 2013, there wasn’t much else to do in Siem Reap at night, other than a dinner with a traditional Cambodia “apsara” dance performance — which he certainly recommends for first-time visitors — or going to Pub Street to kick back with some beers. He also pointed out that Phare guests are likely to take more away than just a good time from an evening at the big top.
“A lot of travelers today — and especially high-end travelers — are very interested in knowing that the money they’re spending actually means something,” Dodge explained. “They don’t want to feel like the money is being siphoned off by some corporation, and Phare is the epitome of socially responsible, sustainable tourism.”
Dodge said the circus can trace its origins back to a school founded in Battambang, Cambodia, in 1994. It was established to take children out of poverty and dangerous situations, including human trafficking, and give them a free education.
Known as Phare Ponleu Selpak, which roughly translates to “brightness of the arts,” the school first used visual arts, such as painting and drawing, as a means of therapy to help children get through any trauma following the Khmer Rouge regime. Phare Ponleu Selpak later expanded its offerings to include theater, music, dance and most recently, elements of circus performing.
“They were taking these kids out of poverty and giving them skills, but there were no jobs,” Dodge said. “And the school asked, ‘What can we do?’ So they came up with this idea of a social business in Siem Reap that would give paying jobs to the students and graduates from the school. The business would also earn money to help make the school more financially sustainable and less dependent on donation.”
According to Dodge, the Phare circus in Siem Reap employs more than 50 of the school’s graduates and current students as both performers and musicians for its year-long schedule of nightly shows. Many of those artists make international trips around the globe as well, performing for Phare in countries including Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.
Phare is scheduled to make its first U.S. visit this October, at Ringling International Arts Festival in Sarasota, Fla., and will feature a performer named Phunam Pin, who often stands out in Dodge’s mind as an example of the positive change Phare has provided for many Cambodian children over the last two decades.
“When Phunam Pin was a little girl, she was a trash picker, which means her family would take her to pick through trash to find recyclables, and then they would collect them and exchange them for money,” Dodge said. “Pin was abused by her dad, who gave her mom HIV and later burned down their house. She found out about Phare because they were giving away food and she was hungry.”
According to Dodge, Pin started at the Phare school around age 12, and now at 23, she speaks English and French and has traveled to France with Phare a half-dozen times, along with performing in Japan.
“It’s really just amazing,” Dodge said of her story. “Her circus skill is mainly contortion, but she’s now a fabulous actress as well, playing roles that are usually very dramatic.”
Visitors are welcome at the school in Battambang, which is about a three-hour drive from Siem Reap. Tours in English are available daily, though the on-site circus performance is not held every night. Folks can get a sense of the many disciplines offered to the community’s children and tour a gallery of student artwork.
“There’s lots of French colonial architecture in Battambang,” he said. “And UNESCO designated it as a City of the Performing Arts, largely because Phare has fostered this artistic community there for the last 20 years. There are little funky art galleries and art cafes popping up all over town. Battambang is a great place for people who want to see a little bit more than just Siem Reap and the temple.”
Gates at Phare’s Siem Reap big top — which seats about 330 people — open at 6:30 p.m. Located behind Siem Reap’s Angkor National Museum, the venue also features a small art gallery showcasing work by students at the Battambang school. There’s also Phare Cafe, which offers full meals, snacks and drinks.
“The atmosphere is quite magical because as it’s getting dark, there are colorful lights all around the venue, and then the big top is in the background,” Dodge said. “And it really just makes for a complete evening experience when people come early.”
Nightly performances start around 8 p.m. and last about an hour, according to Dodge. Pricing begins at $18 for adults for general seating and is $35 for reserved seating with a more central view of the show.