When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a singer and a circus performer. I had never been to the circus, but I knew that it looked fun. Floating through my mind were images of colorful costumes, striking face makeup, and exotic animals fighting for dominance on a massive stage.
All I’d really seen of the circus were advertisements for world-famous acts like the Ringling Brothers. Seventeen years later, I finally got a taste of what that life might have been like had I somehow managed to pursue a career in it.
Behind Cambodia’s Circus Culture
A 6-person circus troupe, made up of teenagers training to be professional acrobats, performs for a crowd of tourists and locals 3-7 times a week on the outskirts of Battambang, Cambodia. The larger performances of the Phare is one of the most popular things to do in Siem Reap, just a couple of hours from the training school. It’s not the same small group performing each time, either, as there are several distinct stories told in rotation each year.
The Phare is actually a non-profit school started in 1994, which educates over a thousand students daily and provides general education as well as training in theatre, dance, animation, music, graphic design, and of course, circus performance. You can even tour the grounds of the school’s campus for just $5, or $3 if you buy a circus ticket.
When you purchase student-made souvenirs from the campus store or take a tour, all of that money goes directly to supporting the school. The idea is to both revive traditional Cambodian arts, much of which was lost when the Khmer Rouge brutally murdered millions of their own people, and to train the next generation of modern artists.
During the genocide from 1975 to 1979, almost all of the country’s artists and intellectuals were killed by the communist government, making this training all the more necessary and relevant in the face of otherwise potentially permanent loss of local tradition and culture. Now artists are being trained and given a general education in the same place, something that’s actually quite common in more developed countries.
Imagine going to a circus school, all the way from kindergarten on up to high school! It sounds far-out there, and it absolutely is. Battambang is one of the largest cities in the Kingdom of Cambodia, though it’s much more spread-out than capital Phnom Penh or tourist-oriented Siem Reap. The circus’ campus is a few kilometers from downtown, and many performers in circuses (circii?) throughout Cambodia spent their youth here.
Why See the Circus in Cambodia?
Before arriving, not many people have heard much about Cambodia beyond the legendary temples of Angkor Wat, myself included. Honestly, you might even picture the rest of Cambodia as a jungle, which is a blatantly false but quite common misconception. There is jungle, but I’d say there’s more rice patty than rain forest.
The circus is a way to have a different experience as well as learn about the local culture without a guide or a guidebook in hand. You’ll see uniquely Cambodian arts and themes and problems and humor, and most importantly, points of pride. These kids are professional, smiling throughout the show, even when you see that they’ve sweat all the way through their outfits. It takes hard work to do what they do, and they’re excited to show it off to you.
Cambodians want you to witness such aspects of their country which are not easy to understand through a textbook or even simple pictures, and which honestly might be lost if not for the monetary support and genuine interest of spectators. It’s a good cause, and a good time!
Their good reputation is spreading so quickly that a professional Cambodian circus troupe just recently toured around the world. All of the performers in Phare Ponleu Selpak are students who have been training for years to be in these shows, and each performance also utilizes the talents of fellow student artists studying traditional local dance and music styles. I can’t remember the last time I smiled throughout a performance of anything.
Though if you can’t make it down to Battambang, performers trained at the school there are also sent to Siem Reap to perform in the circus there. It is a similar but different experience, as we learned when comparing notes with friends who’d seen only the circus in Siem Reap. It’s “same same but different,” as the Cambodians say. So go see the elaborate temples of Cambodia in the mornings, and save your evenings for exploring local culture. But don’t just take my word; allow me to me set the stage.
Magic in Front of Your Very Eyes
The performance started on-time, and included a short introduction and a traditional Cambodian Apsara dance beforehand. This is such an ancient style of dance that the majority of the humans depicted in reliefs etched throughout the temples of the Angkor Wat complex are actually Apsara dancers. The musicians playing the show’s entire soundtrack were featured on the side of the stage. Deservedly, they got their own house-shaking round of applause at then end.
Each hour and a half circus performance can be quite different depending on the plot of the tale they tell. The story arc we experienced was “Phumstyle.” It follows a young man coming back to his hometown after living in the big city for awhile (plus a little cutesy romance on the side). Even though all of the dialogue was in Khmer, there wasn’t much of it. And what was there seemed to be more like jokes for the locals, as every quip and screeched line of dialogue generated laughs.
Communication was done largely through exaggerated body language and facial expressions, as well as a whole lot of gestures and good use of props. There was even fire dancing and a four-person juggling routine. We went for a circus performance, and our expectations were happily exceeded by the group of obviously very dedicated young people.
Every single one of those kids knew how to work a crowd and was trained to keep you focused. Their accuracy and skill level was astounding, though their costumes were not the most intricate nor their props the most useful. Personally, seeing a teenager balance on his hands atop wooden planks and cylinders atop a tall table was not what I expected. But it kept me on the edge of my seat and I sure left impressed. They didn’t freak out over messing up in front of a big crowd; they just laughed it off together and moved on.
As my friend so succinctly put it, “you can tell that they’re students, because when they mess up a trick they just do it again until it’s right.” One of the guys did his back flip four times in a row, with encouraging friends spotting him from below. They support each other the whole time. It’s just a whole bunch of teenagers doing a whole bunch of really cool tricks. And that’s what’s so great about it— you believe the magic. If you ever make it to Battambang, Cambodia, a trip to Phare Ponleu Selpak is not to be missed.
What are your first memories of the circus? Anywhere near as cool as this?