The man on the ground sees nothing but the wooden plank in front of him. It rests on a block, like a sea-saw. He takes a deep breath and a bead of sweat rolls down his temple. As he breathes out, his gaze lifts.
The audience follow his line of sight. There are two other men, standing on top of a large box eyeing up the other end of the sea-saw.
Suddenly, the audience understands. The man on the ground slaps his sides with his hands just once; this must be the signal. The two men on top of the box leap off.
The impact when they hit the sea-saw sends the man on the ground up into the air like a skyrocket. No one can believe it as he begins to backflip. Once… twice… and then he is caught by the other performers, on a large crash mat. The audience breathes again.
Every night at 8PM, people pack into a big tent in Siem Reap to watch 90 minutes of circus arts with a distinctly Cambodian edge.
Acrobatics, silks, fire; it is all here. There is even a hand-balancing duo of deities; proof that acro-yoga has reached the heavens.
Nine different stories are performed on rotation. All are based on Cambodian folklore and explore big picture issues from rejection and manipulation to war, romance, and the pursuit of happiness.
Whether the performers are playing Double Dutch with the fiery skipping rope of Satan, fusing break dancing with the traditional Cambodian dance style, Apsara, or just having a ball, it is impressive.
Yet, it is not the high level of skill of the artists that sets the circus apart from others, nor is it the fact that you can turn up early and pick up your own set of skills from the stars themselves in the celebrated circus workshops.
The point of difference at Phare is the artists themselves. All performers come from challenging social and economic backgrounds. The circus is just one of the initiatives run by non-profit Cambodian association, Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) or, “The Brightness of Arts.” At its heart is the aim to teach local children to rise above poverty and empower them to build a better future through art therapy as well as free access to social support and public schooling. Over one and a half thousand students have become involved in the organization since it began back in 1994.
Phare has conservation on its mind too. Even the smallest opportunities have been taken to reduce the carbon footprint; you would never guess that the cheery lamps dotted around in the courtyard are upcycled plastic bottles.
Watching the artists pull off gravity-defying feats is all the more poignant in the knowledge that they could just as easily have been sold into the merciless sex trade that plagues Cambodia. Instead, they are empowered, have pride and skill, and literally soar above the rest. The success of the show speaks for itself; it is an essential activity for every visitor to Cambodia.
Good to know
Tickets are sold in three tiers and cost from US$18-35 adults or US$10-18 for children (ages 5-11). For more package options, including dinner and circus workshops, see here.
If you would like to donate to Phare, you can find all the details here.