Phare, the Cambodian Circus

Wowing audiences

What we say: 3.5 stars

If the word circus conjures up images of top-hatted ringmasters, fearless lion-tamers and sinister-looking clowns, then a night at Phare, the Cambodian Circus will quickly erase those distant childhood memories. With performances seven nights a week, the circus of the world-renowned Battambang Art School – full name Phare Ponleu Selpak — is now wowing audiences in Siem Reap with a spectacular alternative to the town’s traditional Apsara dance and shadow puppet shows.

Phare is a livelier alternative to Apsara shows and shadow puppets.

The Cambodian Circus is a lively alternative to traditional Apsara shows.

Performances skilfully combine elements of traditional Khmer culture such as haunting gamelans, hypnotic drums and shadow puppetry with acrobatics, dance and contemporary social themes to produce spine-tingling and at times breathtaking spectacles. The overall impression is definitely more Cirque de Soleil than Barnum and Bailey.

Acrobatics, shadows, The Cambodian Circus has got it all.

Acrobatics, shadows, the Cambodian Circus has got it all.

The circus currently has two shows which rotate, with a third show away on tour in Europe. I saw Eclipse, a cautionary tale of a young man who is rejected by his villagers for being “different”. The performance is entirely in Khmer but if you take five minutes to read the synopsis displayed at the venue, the music, lighting, dancing and props all make it very easy to work out what is going on. While the show is rooted in traditional Khmer performing arts, foreign audiences will also enjoy the tongue-in-cheek nods to contemporary Western culture, such as breakdancing and moonwalking. Watch out for the rather comical knitted fighting cocks too.

Arguably more compelling than lion-tamers and clowns.

Arguably more compelling than lion-tamers and clowns.

Even if you can’t follow the storyline, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the physical prowess of the troupe of nine men and two women as they dance, tumble and fly across the stage for over an hour. The almost gratuitous display of acrobatics that brought the performance to a close left us clapping and foot-tapping and itching to join the fun on stage.

The circus venue is currently an open-air stage and 300-seat arena behind the Angkor National Museum to the north of the town centre. Seating is comfortable and well-spaced, rising in stepped terraces from a wide area furnished with cushions which provides a great space for children who want to be really close to the action. Every seat has an unobstructed view of the stage, but if you want to take photographs you will need a decent camera and should sit near the front as flash photography is not permitted for the safety of the performers.

You may want to leap on stage and join in about now...

You may want to leap on stage and join in about now …

Obviously such a venue has its seasonal limitations, but thanks to generous donors (and some bank loans) the circus will soon be taking delivery of its very own “big top” making it a genuine year-round attraction — particularly handy with the imminent onset of the rainy season. If rain does put paid to any performance your ticket is transferable or refundable. For now, though, the rustling of trees in the steamy tropical breeze and the sound of happy cicadas only add to the atmosphere. But do make sure you cover up or use plenty of mosquito repellent, and bring a hand fan if you struggle without air-con.

Lights, drums, cicadas and rusting trees all add to the atmosphere.

Lights, drums, cicadas and rustling leaves all add to the atmosphere.

To find out which show is on while you are in town you should contact official ticket agent Beyond Unique Escapes or visit the circus’ Facebook page. Adult tickets are $15, children under 120cm in height pay $8 and anyone under 80cm can enjoy the circus for free. Discounted prices apply for Cambodian nationals. All performances start at 19:30 giving you plenty of time to get back after sunset over Angkor Wat, and tickets are available on the door, subject to availability. The circus is run as a not-for-profit so all profits are re-invested in the school, and of course help pay off the loans for the big top. So if you are enthralled by the performance and want to help ensure the continued existence of the circus, donations are warmly welcomed and gratefully received.

More details
Corner Alley West and Sivatha Blvd, Old Market Area, Siem Reap
Last updated: 2nd October, 2014

About the author:
Simon is fluent in English, Spanish and French, but to date he has only mastered a few carefully chosen words of Khmer, like "Food" and "Beer" and "Fat".
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