Heading to the Phare Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap, might seem like an unusual way to spend an evening in the northern Cambodian city world-renowned for the breathtaking temples of Angkor Wat and the archaeological sites of the Khmer Empire. Yet these eccentric performances have become the most popular thing to do at night in Siem Reap, while it has transformed the lives of its performers.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus is certainly not your average circus. Animals, clowns and ringmasters will not entertain the spectators since they will not perform, nor be displayed. The circus performs seven acts or shows, Sokrias or Eclipse, Sokha, Preu (Chills), Khmer Metal, Tchamlaek (Weird), Phsong Preng (The Adventure), and Proniap (Panic), they are divided into separate schedules and dates. All the performances are inspired and based on real-life events experienced by the performers and creators of the show. The performances depict the effects of war, inequity, relationships, struggles, and demons. Some of the shows include and feature smoke, loud noises & music and strobe lights. The animated young Cambodian performers never fail to thrill and amaze their audience – with their colorful costumes and excess make-up, they always draw roars of appreciation from the crowds of tourists, expatriates and the local community that fill their seats day and night.
On my second night in Siem Reap, I booked a show, “Sokha” through Siem Reap Shuttle which provided a one-way transfer to Phare Cambodian Circus. A representative from Siem Reap Shuttle picked me from my Siem Reap accommodation at 1830 hrs, and it took us 15 minutes to reach Phare Café located at Komay Road, the venue of the circus. As soon as I arrived at Phare Café, I headed to the ticketing counters and produced the receipt I collected for the payment I made to Siem Reap Shuttle; and I was given the actual ticket for the show. I still had about 40 minutes before the show’s start and decided to grab a coffee until others who had booked for the same show arrived. The doors at the Big top tent opened at sharp 1930 hrs and spectators made their way inside to take their seats and make themselves comfortable before the show started at 2000 hrs. I was seated at the Section C seating area, viewing was slightly obstructed due to the support poles, but I was satisfied and still managed to get some good photos.
Sokha is an intense combination of live traditional Khmer music, dance, visual art, modern circus maneuver and live painting. The show emphasizes long-term effects gone through by a war child who’s haunted by the visions of the atrocities carried by the Khmer Rouge regime whilst portraying a sense of optimism. She is afraid and traumatized, physically and emotionally. Alone in the dark, she prostrates among a chaotic symphony of explosions. She then sketches the darkness of her bottled-up memories and discovers an exit from all the fears through art, she gains the strength and finds the tools to revive her soul, rebuild the country and a space to retire with respect.
Upon the conclusion of the show, smiles and visible excitement from Pin Phunam, 25, who played the title role in Sokha, along with her colleagues warmed the hearts of everyone that clapped during the standing ovation. Siem Reap’s Phare Cambodian Circus has created a talented troupe of young performers and acrobats, all of whom have transformed themselves as a vibrant symbol of the Cambodian culture. It’s this combination of natural abilities, skills, and the art of storytelling that has seen Phare Cambodian Circus convert from a dull and vacant tent after they first secured their tent stakes four years ago to a daily full house circus.
I felt going to watch the performance helped support the Cambodia of the present-day and for the future, and it also made clear why an evening at the circus has become the most popular thing to do at night in Siem Reap.