I reached out to Phare after coming across their organization and performances during the research portion of preparing our trip. I had heard that regardless of how long you have to spend in Siem Reap, you MUST take an evening and experience Phare. We truly did not know what to expect but our evening with them was a highlight of our whole two week trip. The Phare tagline is: “Expect the Unexpected”. Boy, did they deliver on that.
Sometimes billed as Cambodia’s answer to Cirque Du Soleil, Phare is so much more than a typical circus or ariel show. Phare opened in Siem Reap in February 2013 with both a talented cast and a robust social mission to match. From their website, this is what Phare is all about:
“Uniquely Cambodian. Daringly Modern. More than just a circus, Phare, the Cambodian Circus performers use theater, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories; historical, folk and modern.
Phare artists are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO school and professional arts training center in Battambang, Cambodia.
PPSA was founded in 1994 by nine young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the camp they took drawing classes and found art to be a powerful tool for healing. When they returned home they began offering free drawing classes to street children. Soon they opened a school, eventually offering formal K-12 education and professional arts training in the areas of visual arts (illustration, painting, graphic design, and animation), theater, music, dance, and circus. Today more than 1,200 pupils attend the public school daily and 500 attend the vocational arts training programs. All programs are offered for free.
In 2013, with the aim of financial self-sufficiency, PPSA created Phare Performing Social Enterprise (PPSE) with three missions:
There are nightly shows 365 days a year in the Cambodian Big Top which seats 330 guests in the round. The heat and humidity are left outside thanks to powerful generators operating lights and air. Trust me, THIS is very important!
The best way to really describe the circus performance is that it is smart and has heart. It is truly artistic performance art. Yes, you will see amazeballs flips and spins and tricks unlike anything you have ever seen (I’ve been to a lot of circuses in my 42 years and I’ve never seen tricks like these anywhere). But your heart will be touched by the social messages each performance conveys. These messages are subtle but powerful. Loss. Loneliness. Inability to communicate and be understood. Fear. Sadness. The joy of new love. It’s all here. Each member of the cast is immensely talented and very well trained. There are no weak links; everyone is up to par and on their A game. We were fortunate to have front row seats dead center and I carefully watched each performer up close. They were all amazing.
Phare presents nine shows in rotation. We saw the show titled “Same Same But Different”. Here is how this show is described on their website:
“Through a series of everyday situations, “Same Same But Different” explores the different habits and ways of living between Cambodians and foreign visitors. A sudden downpour, an unexpected power outage, a hectic boat trip and a relaxing dinner all provide the backdrops for funny encounters and opposing perspectives. But in every situation they find understanding and connect at a human level.”
Most if not all of the performers you see at Phare have deeply personal and painful stories of abuse and hardship. They take these stories and weave them into their work, making the whole experience very authentic and rich. At one point I realized I had tears in my eyes watching a particular story of a mother and daughter. Like I said before, this is NOT your average circus.
Often when you hear about a circus, you assume there are animals involved (I certainly did when I first heard about Phare). There are NO animals used in the Phare performances which made me feel a lot better about attending. The band of musicians is small but loud. Costumes are peeled on and off throughout the show, often in view of the audience (don’t worry, it is always very modest). I loved that nothing was really hidden; it was all there to be taken in by the audience.
When the show is over, audience members are encouraged to come on stage and meet with the cast for photos. That’s my husband and sister in law. Clearly, they got really into the spirit of Phare!
We felt that we had a very rich, cultural and FUN experience with Phare Circus. I cannot imagine our trip to Cambodia would have been complete without spending the evening with them and I am grateful to Craig and Phare for hosting us. If you are ever in Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat please carve out an evening to spend with Phare Circus. It is a first rate production and you will leave with a better understanding of the Cambodian people and their unique stories and artistry.
*Our tickets to the show were upgraded by Phare Circus to maximize our ability to watch and photograph the show, but all opinions expressed above are my own. I only work with brands that I believe in and that I feel will be appreciated and enjoyed by others!