The unusual Cambodian circus in Siem Reap: Unmissable and unexpected entertainment

Under the darkened small top, just as the latest performance of Phare, the Cambodian circus, is about to begin, there's a minor commotion in the packed audience on the far side of the tent. A tall caucasian young man is hurriedly shuffling sideways, like some elongated crustacean, by his fellow seated audience members in an effort to reach the exit.

I diagnose a sudden onset of Siem Reap's revenge though later, after the circus is under way, the abrupt departure of this time a middle-aged caucasian male and female couple, is less explicable. Could the reason be the confronting, hardly Cirque du Soleil content of Khmer Metal, one of several shows from the repertoire of the Phare, that include displays of same-sex affections?

I admit that as a fellow audience member on this Scenic river and land excursion in Siem Reap – the closest city to the ruins of Angkor, the former capital of the ancient Khmer empire – that I, too, am a little surprised by the hard-edged Khmer Metal's themes.

But a bit like Khmer Metal itself, I'm riveted and not going anywhere and not merely because of the rousing acrobatic and comedic skills of the show's talented troupe of young Cambodians belonging to this atypical, animal-free circus, as a whole.

Along with sexual mores, Phare itself, after all, also confronts important historical and contemporary traumas that afflict Cambodians, both young and old. These themes include the nagging legacy of war and poverty that pervades this poor, corruption-ridden land whose GDP represents a fraction of your average US multinational.

Oh, if only that aforementioned departing couple had paused to understand the events that had led to Phare's formation. During the Khmer Rouge regime's genocidal reign in the 1970s, circus performances were verboten, as were most, if not all, forms of human expression.

It wasn't until the end of the subsequent Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia that some semblance of normal existence could resume and among the refugees returning to the country were a group of young Cambodians who had been taught by a French charity-worker how to use the arts to help heal their traumas.

By 1994, based on these teachings, these nine returnees established a school, the Association Phare Ponleu Selpak ("Brightness of Art") in Battambang, Cambodia's third biggest city about 200 kilometres south-west of Siem Reap, founded to bring salvation through culture to the province's diminished youth.

In 2013, the group formed the non-profit Phare, The Cambodian Circus, a troupe composed of trapeze artists, jugglers, contortionists, acrobats, fire-eaters, musicians and dancers.

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Phare's raucous Khmer Metal is set in a bar in the modern capital, Phnom Penh, where amid the usual circus-like acrobatics and contortion the storyline explores the relationships and high jinks that develop between the young bar staff and their customers during one evening's business.

One of Phare's other shows, the darker Sokha, based on the lives of Phare's founders, tells the story of a child haunted by the Khmer Rouge with Sokha eventually finding a way to deal with her torments through her involvement with a circus.

However, rather than a contemporary Cambodian phenomenon, Phare is part of an ancient circus tradition, albeit a heinously interrupted one, in this country that can be traced to Angkor, which flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries.

Temple and wall carvings, such as the surviving bas reliefs at Bayon inside the sprawling city ruins of Angkor, depict circus art traditions such as a strongman holding aloft three dwarves, while elsewhere a man on his back is spinning a wheel with his feet.

Back in Siem Reap, Khmer Metal has ended. The lights are back on and the appreciative, dispersing audience, composed of mainly foreign tourists, is invited to meet and mingle with the cast in the circus ring.

It was there, moments before, that these young Cambodians had received their ovation, perhaps not solely for their entertaining and energetic performances but for what more broadly and effectively represents human triumph over an era of unspeakable crimes and adversities.

TRIP NOTES

CRUISE

Scenic's all-inclusive 13-day Treasures of the Mekong cruise and land tour from Saigon to Siem Reap, Cambodia starts from $7695 per person with the above fare applying for 2020 departures made by June 30, 2019. The fare includes a one-bedroom balcony suite aboard Scenic Spirit with butler service, five exclusive "Scenic Enrich" experiences and a choice of nearly two dozen "Scenic Freechoice" activities, breakfasts, lunches and dinners and complimentary drinks . See scenic.com.au

FLY

Singapore Airlines and its affiliate SilkAir operate daily flights to and from Singapore to Saigon and Siem Reap. See singaporeair.com; silkair.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/Cambodia

pharecircus.org

Anthony Dennis travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam as a guest of Scenic Cruises.

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