Phare Ponleu Selpak is an NGO and non profit organization that was set up in 1994 by a group of 8 young Cambodians who had been bought up in various refugee camps in along the Thai border after their families fled the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. During their time as refugees they had seen the use of art therapy in helping people come to terms with the terrors they had faced and wanted to create something similar upon their return to Cambodia that could also help to save what little remained of their culture and eventually provide people with a sustainable income as well.
One of the ways in which they do this is through the Phare Circus http://www.pharecambodiancircus.org/circus/ which offers nightly performances in their very own big top, here in Siem Reap. Around a dozen performers take part in each show; from artists to acrobats and jugglers and unlike regular circus performances, each show has a storyline, drawing inspiration from Cambodian folklore and history. The stories are portrayed in breakneck speed, high energy performances which combine music, art, theatre and circus performance skills in a truly unique and creative way.
The show that I saw was “Sokha” which tells the story of – and please allow me to quote from the Phare Circus website here – “a child haunted by visions of the atrocities and destruction by the Khmer Rouge. Her memories and the surreal weave with myths and facts. Cringing in darkness, consumed by her fears, Sokha discovers her strength and resilience, and gathers all her determination to fight despair”
I cannot tell you how impressed I was with the performance. The audience ran through the whole range of emotions from tears to laughter, amazement and wonder – I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like it before in my life and the performance left me truly moved in a way I really wasn’t expecting. Also, let’s be honest – who isn’t impressed by seeing 4 men all standing on top of each other’s shoulders whilst balancing on a mini seesaw constructed out of a small plank of wood and some metal piping?
Having seen Sokha – just one of the many performance’s offered by the troupe at Phare – I would implore you to add a show at Phare to your Siem Reap itinerary. For just $18 (or a very reasonable $35 for VIP front row seating) you will experience not only a truly entertaining performance but you will be helping ensure the survival of this incredible social enterprise and the wonderful work they are doing.
The lead performer in our show, a young lady called Phunam, was struggling to provide for her family by working as a child rubbish collector on the streets in addition to having to deal with her mother’s HIV related illness. After discovering Phare Ponleu Selpak and finding she has what it takes to be a talented performer, she has since travelled the world performing with them and earns enough to support her family as well. Sorry if I’m gushing but it is truly inspirational stuff and I was so moved that I have signed up to provide the monthly donation necessary to provide one student with an education.
Make sure to visit Phare early, they have a little boutique onsite as well as a cute little open air café (open from 6:30pm) where you can enjoy a drink and snack before the show begins at 8pm sharp. It is worth noting that the big top opens at 7:40pm so be sure to be on time if you have bought the free seating $10 tickets, the closer you sit to the performance area the better!