Siem Reap circus is a must do when you’re in Cambodia’s Temple Town. Supremely entertaining, it provides an insight into everyday life in Cambodia that you won’t see at Angkor Wat or sitting with other tourists downing cheap beers on Pub Street. It’s an absolute must-see.
When we talk about ‘circus’, we’re talking about Circus Arts. There are no animals, just extraordinarily talented young Cambodians, accomplished in contortion, acrobatics, aerial ballet, balancing, fire dancing, tightrope walking, vaulting, juggling, dance, drama, music, mime, and comedy. The Siem Reap circus stars are massively entertaining.
Think of it as a down-to-earth Cirque du Soleil, which is what I wrote in my CNN Travel piece on Phare Cambodian Circus five years ago, just a few months after they erected their big top in Siem Reap.
But what makes the Siem Reap circus really special is that it’s distinctly Cambodian. The music, dance, settings, themes, and stories provide an insight into Cambodian culture and everyday life that’s difficult to experience scrambling temple ruins.
Here’s what to expect from the Siem Reap circus and the show, Khmer Metal, which has been brought back to celebrate the fifth birthday of the Phare Cambodian Circus.
Buy tickets online for nightly shows on the Phare Cambodian Circus website.
Siem Reap Circus is a Must Do When You’re in Cambodia and Here’s Why
A young Cambodian bar owner arrives to find his bartender still drunk. He’s sleeping on a floor littered with empty beer bottles and cans. The band arrives, carrying a beaten-up car door, which they inexplicably hang on stage.
The intoxicated bartender, now awake, is incapable of walking a straight line. Yet the inebriated bloke takes to a tightrope strung across the bar to do tricks to impress the cute female vocalist. It’s not for the faint hearted and is edge of your seat stuff.
It’s also not a scene from some crazy local bar. Although it could be! It’s the opening act of Khmer Metal, a show by the Siem Reap circus, more correctly known as Phare, The Cambodian Circus.
Why You Need to See the Siem Reap Circus
For most tourists, Siem Reap is little more than the departure point for exploring the dazzling Khmer Empire era archaeological sites at Angkor Archaeological Park, such as Angkor Wat. So a night at the Phare Cambodian Circus probably seems like a strange way to spend an evening when most other tourists are making a beeline for the cheap beers on Pub Street.
But increasingly, visitors interested in a more immersive and deeper experience when they travel are opting for a taste of contemporary Cambodian culture, everyday life and entertainment under the big top at the Siem Reap circus.
Their choice to see the Siem Reap circus is keeping performers employed and helping make their parent, non-government organisation Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), self-sustainable. Home to the circus school, PPS is keeping disadvantaged kids off the street, educating and training them, and helping to pull the community out of poverty.
Help Keep the Rich Ancient Circus Traditions Alive
Cambodia’s rich circus tradition dates to the 6th century as carvings at temple ruins in Kampong Thom province attest. There, and on the walls of 12th century temples Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuon, and Ta Prohm, bas-reliefs vividly illustrate circus artists performing balancing acts, juggling and acrobatics for ceremonies and festivals.
Circus scenes are also depicted in intricately detailed murals decorating 19th century Wat Kampong Tralach Pleu pagoda in central Cambodia. In the 1960s, Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk encouraged a revitalisation of the circus, only to see it die in 1975 when Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge abolished all forms of art, culture and creative expression, and murdered artists.
After the Vietnamese occupation sent Khmer Rouge fleeing into the jungle, eight young Cambodians who’d been in a refugee camp on the Thai border decided to help rebuild their country by reviving the arts and culture.
Help Lift Cambodian Communities Out Of Poverty
In 1994, the group established Phare Ponleu Selpak (Beacon for the Arts), opening a school for visual and performing arts, including circus skills, in a place that needed it most: Battambang.
Close to Thailand, the rural city had been a magnet for repatriating refugees, including orphans, most suffering post-traumatic stress. Battambang became plagued with poverty, domestic violence, health and social problems, including drug and alcohol abuse and juvenile delinquency.
The school came to the rescue, providing free food, education and training – and in 2013, after raising its shiny-red big top in Siem Reap, launching a program of shows starring circus school graduates – it also provided jobs.
A Circus Without Animals, the Spotlight is on Young Cambodian Performers
Phare is no ordinary circus, but an edgy, alternative, down-to-earth, all-singing-and-dancing Cambodian Cirque du Soleil. A contemporary circus without animals, the stars of each show is the cast of talented young Cambodian performers.
Accomplished in acrobatics, contortion, aerial ballet, balancing, tightrope walking, fire dancing, vaulting, juggling, music, dance, drama, mime, and comedy, the Siem Reap circus stars are extraordinarily entertaining.
Why You Need to see Khmer Metal – Love, Life and Rock ’n’ Roll in a Cambodian Bar
The Siem Reap circus show Khmer Metal is about love, life and rock ’n’ roll. Set over the course of one night in a crazy bar, it’s edge-of-the-seat stuff. The drunk bartender totters back and forth on the tight rope, juggling cardboard beer cases and ‘accidentally’ entangling his body in the swinging rope.
A cocktail-sipping customer in mini-skirt and high-heels does an elbow stand on the table, folding her legs over her back and head with ease to shoot a bow and arrow at a balloon with her feet.
A moneyed muscle-bound customer she fancies in skinny white jeans, who has had his iPad stolen, takes to the bar, doing some impressive hand-balancing moves on beer taps to grab her attention.
In between these daring feats and complex tricks, bar staff and customers break into choreographed dance numbers as the band performs Cambodian rock songs, incorporating an array of samples, from heavy metal to hip hop, traditional Khmer folk music to 1960s Cambodian pop.
Musicians swap instruments, share vocals, and at one point the contortionist takes the microphone to sing “Who took my lover?” as her companion exits the bar with the rich guy.
Other Siem Reap Circus Shows You Should See
Eclipse – Chinese Ghost Films, Gangham Style, Brazilian Caipoeira and Break-Dancing
While Khmer Metal is thoroughly modern in its setting and storytelling, post-modern show Eclipse is steeped in tradition, drawing from folk stories, religion and popular beliefs. Eclipse tells the story of a bullied hunchback, rejected by villagers, who seeks divine intervention from an angel-like Apsara, the celestial maiden who graces Angkor temple walls.
Wearing the simple black garb of rural peasants and using few props, the artists perform elaborate acrobatics and audacious stunts. They form human towers to strike Apsara poses and do somersaults mid-flight, executing an impressive aerial strap routine. In between acts, the performances do a spirited, high-energy dance to the catchy upbeat rhythms of the traditional xylophone, guitar and drums.
Like Khmer Metal, Eclipse is post-modern, imbued with cultural references from around the globe, from the American movie Fight Club, Chinese ghost films, Brazilian caipoeira, break-dancing, martial arts, and even a Gangham Style dance.
As clever as it is, Eclipse is ultimately uplifting fun, the energy and enthusiasm of the artists contagious. It’s hard not to smile when young performers in front of you are grinning from ear to ear and having such a great time – especially when you know how challenging their lives were before they joined the circus.
How to Buy Tickets to the Siem Reap Circus and Tips
- Buy tickets online for nightly shows on the Phare Cambodian Circus website.
- NOTE: During high season, shows are sometimes held twice-nightly: 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, there’s only the 8-9pm show.
- 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 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. (I’ll write about both of those soon.)
- 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.
- You can take photos at the circus, but please make sure you to turn your flash and sound off as it can be dangerous for the performers if you don’t.
Phare Cambodian Circus is fantastic for kids; see our Siem Reap for Families guide for more fun things to do. If you’re still planning your trip to Cambodia, take a look at our recommended hotels in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang, all tried and tested.
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.
Note that this is an edited and longer version of a piece Lara originally wrote on Phare Cambodian Circus for CNN Travel in 2013.