A night at Phare Cambodian Circus, Siem Reap, might seem like an odd way to spend an evening in the northern Cambodian city that’s famous for Angkor Wat and other Khmer Empire archaeological sites. Yet this quirky show has become one of the top things to do at night in Siem Reap, while turning around the lives of its stars.
Phare Cambodian Circus, Siem Reap, is not your average circus. There are no animals, no ringmaster and no clowns. Although the animated young Cambodian performers – free of zany wigs, loud costumes and over-the-top make-up – continually fool around, drawing roars of laughter from the crowds of tourists, expats and locals who fill the seats night after night.
There is a big top tent and tightrope walking, along with juggling, acrobatics, aerial ballet, balancing acts, fire dancing, drama, music, mime, contortion, and comedy. The closest comparison might be Cirque du Soleil, only Siem Reap’s Phare Cambodian Circus is a relaxed, warm-hearted, spirited, and down-to-earth take on that highly stylised genre, and it invariably has the audience in stitches as much as tears.
It’s this combination of personality, impressive skills, natural talent, and fine storytelling, that has seen Phare Cambodian Circus go from an empty tent after they first hammered in their pegs two years ago to a nightly packed house. There have been overseas tours and a purchase of land just outside Siem Reap, where they established a permanent big top this year.
The Phare Cambodian Circus Siem Reap
But to really appreciate how far the Phare Cambodian Circus has come and what its success means to Cambodians, it’s necessary to go behind the scenes and know its tragic roots, humble start, and the destitution that many of its performers are born into and grow up in before they join the circus.
Cambodia’s Circus History, from Royal Beginnings to Cultural Renaissance
The history of Cambodia’s circus tradition stretches as far back as the sixth century, as bas-reliefs on archaeological ruins in Kampong Thom province attest.
During the peak of the Khmer Empire in the 12th century, the circus might have also been at its prime, if the wonderful carvings on the temple walls of Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuon and Ta Prohm depicting circus performers juggling and engaging in impressive acrobatics during festivals and ceremonies are anything to go by.
While the Khmer Empire may have declined a few centuries later, the circus still played an important role in everyday life, as attested by vividly illustrated murals that enliven the walls of Wat Kampong Tralach Pleu pagoda in central Cambodia, dating to the 19th century.
But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the circus would be restored to its former glory, when the late King Norodom Sihanouk, a filmmaker and lover of the arts, called for a revival of the circus in Cambodia’s Golden Age of the Sixties, when the capital Phnom Penh was undergoing a cultural renaissance not experienced since the glorious Khmer Empire.
Tragic Interruption by the Khmer Rouge and Creative Resuscitation in a Refugee Camp
Sadly, the circus would die in 1975 – along with its performers, as well as Cambodia’s artists, actors, musicians, intellectuals, and educated professionals, executed or driven to their deaths by hard labour or illness under the brutal Khmer Rouge after its despotic leader Pol Pot banned creative expression.
It wasn’t until the Vietnamese occupied the country, and the Khmer Rouge fled to the mountains, that Cambodia’s culture and arts were reignited by a small but very significant spark.
In 1986, at Site 2 Refugee Camp on the Thai border, nine young orphaned Cambodians were taught to draw and paint as a form of therapy to deal with the trauma inflicted upon them.
They were so stimulated and inspired by the creative workshops that when the war ended and each began the journey home, they agreed that one day they would work together to help rebuild their country by resuscitating the arts.
New Beginnings in Beleaguered Battambang and the Brightness of the Arts is Born
In late 1994, the group gathered in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, to form a performing and visual arts school that they would call Phare Ponleu Selpak, or ‘brightness of the arts’.
Knowing Cambodia’s history, it wasn’t so strange that circus skills would be a subject in the curriculum, alongside painting, music and performance, and, much later, courses in graphic design and animation.
Not far from the border with Thailand, the small rural city of Battambang had become a magnet for repatriating refugees, including orphans suffering post-traumatic stress. It would be plagued with greater degrees of poverty, domestic violence, and health and social problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse and juvenile delinquency, than other Cambodian cities.
The students of Phare Ponleu Selpak were vulnerable and impoverished. Some were found living on the streets, others seeking refuge from troubled homes, while still others were rescued from human traffickers. The school not only provided the students with a creative education, it gave them food, shelter, and, eventually, an income.
Behind the Scenes at the Circus School at Battambang’s Phare Ponleu Selpak
Some 1,400 students are currently enrolled in the thriving school in Battambang. Stroll the leafy grounds – it’s possible to do a ‘behind-the-scenes’ tour – and you’ll hear classical musicians rehearsing under a shady tree or see young artists painting murals on building walls.
In one classroom, teens will be on computers developing digital editing skills while in the gymnasium children as young as six will be practicing the splits.
The circus students might be doing theatre exercises that require them to be trees, training their lean muscular bodies to do things impossible for you and me.
Or they could be working with a choreographer to develop routines for the next show that they will write as a group and after graduation, as professional circus artists, perform under the big top in Siem Reap.
Under the Big Top in Siem Reap Wide Smiles and Visible Sense of Pride Warm Hearts
One afternoon, back in Siem Reap, after watching warm-ups and rehearsals for the evening performance at the Phare Cambodian Circus, I chatted to some of the artists. Pin Phunam, a petite young woman who has become a star of the circus troupe.
“I was born in a very poor family,” Phunam told me as she tried to calm her fast breaths from the rigorous workout.
“My father was a very violent person. Every one of us worked in manual labour at a very young age, doing anything you could imagine – going on the streets early mornings, days and nights collecting rubbish that can be sold for money, doing house work for others. Anything we can do to survive.”
“Phare Ponleu Selpak gave me a unique opportunity,” she said, as she mopped the sweat from her neck with the checked scarf that all Cambodians carry.
“It taught me how to live independently. Without the circus, my family would still be struggling,” she said. “I also learned that the difficult childhood I had been living in extreme poverty makes every one of us a stronger person and understand what’s important in life.”
Later that night, at the end of the show, the wide smiles and visible sense of pride of Phunam and her colleagues would warm the hearts of every person clapping furiously during the standing ovation.
It was clear why a night at the Phare Cambodian Circus has become the number one thing to do in Siem Reap after a day at the temples.
Our Guide to the Phare Cambodian Circus Siem Reap
- Book tickets online here for nightly shows on the Phare Cambodian Circus website.
- Ticket prices: Preferred Reserved Seating (Section A): Adult (age 12+) US$38 / Children (age 5-11) $18; Preferred Open Seating (Section B): Adult US$28 / Children US$15; General Open Seating (Section C) Adult US$18 / Children US$10.
- Shows rotate, so check the website ahead of time to find out what shows are on while you’re in Siem Reap. They’re all wonderful, but some are light and funny, such as Khmer Metal and new show Same Same But Different, while Sokha is more serious, a little sad, and abstract in parts, yet it still has its moments of sunshine and laughter. They’re my favourites.
- From 1 November 2017 through to 31 March 2018 there will be 2 shows on Monday, Thursday and Saturday from 5-6pm and 8-9pm. On other days, only the 8-9pm show.
- Our advice: get there an hour before the show, pick up your tickets, have a glass of wine and crispy spring rolls and Cambodian-style satay sticks at the cafe, then browse the gift shop for beautiful Cambodian-made products before the show.
- Make sure your tuk tuk driver knows the new location on Ring Road, south of the intersection with Sok San Road. If you’re coming from the centre of Siem Reap, allow 15 minutes for the trip in case of traffic. Have the driver wait for you or return at 9pm.
- When you’re in Battambang, make sure to visit Phare Ponleu Selpak, which offers guided behind-the-scenes tours of the school on Monday to Friday at 9.30am, 10.30am, 2.30pm, and 3.30pm, along with circus shows.
- The circus is fantastic for kids; see our Siem Reap for Families guide for more fun things to do.
UPDATED November 2017.