Joining the Cambodian Circus – a social enterprise in Siem Reap

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I have only been in Cambodia for 3 months but from the beginning I have been continually intrigued and drawn to the amazing businesses, organisations and individuals doing amazing work in the country.

Cambodia has the second largest number of NGOs in the world, coming in only after Rwanda. That’s not even including the many social enterprises and increasingly responsibly minded businesses operating here which are all part of a huge community dedicating their time to growing and improving Cambodia’s future.

It was one of these social enterprises that first sparked my interest to spend some time in Cambodia. Phare, the Cambodian Circus is a relatively new business, having only been operating in Siem Reap for 2 years but already one of the best-rated attractions after the temples.

  • …the many social enterprises and increasingly responsibly minded businesses are all part of a huge community dedicating their time to growing and improving Cambodia’s future.

It’s not just the high quality performances that grab audiences – but the knowledge of what they are supporting through buying tickets to see the show that I think makes the Cambodian Circus one of the best things you could do with a night in the tourist capital of Cambodia.

Phare is a highly acclaimed circus show (animal-free) bringing together theatre, dance, music and circus skills and featuring performers from the NGO School, Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS). The school itself was formed 20 years ago by 9 children and their art teacher returning from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. They found that expression through art had given them an outlet and a way to heal themselves after the atrocities they had lived through.

They wanted to share this gift of art with others and so PPS was formed. Today more than 1,700 pupils attend the free public school with arts at its centre. Young people from the streets, orphanages and struggling families come to PPS to learn, express and like the founders, heal themselves through art.

The Circus venue in Siem Reap was set up in 2012 to give these students the opportunity to further their skills, perform for large audiences and earn money to support themselves. When you buy a ticket to see one of Phare’s shows your money is going directly to the local grassroots effort to improve the lives of disadvantaged Cambodian children.

The shows are uniquely Cambodian and concentrate on sharing the history, culture and beliefs of Khmer people through the art. So not only will you get to see the impressive ‘tricks’ the performers can do but you will come away with a greater understanding about the country you are visiting.

I can tell you now, you have never seen anything like it.

Phare, the social enterprise and NGO School, is living proof of how far Cambodia has come since the dark days of the Khmer rouge and other conflicts that tormented the country. During the regime 90% of artists and intellectuals were killed and so the arts coming out of Phare and other organisations such a Cambodian Living Arts and Bambu Stage is the growing revival of what was lost.

Despite all the good and innovative movements in Cambodia there is still a lot of poverty and corruption which is ever-present. Tourism has helped with the rapid development of Cambodia, but with a dark side to the business – such as child trafficking for the Orphanage Business – I’ve found it incredibly important to concentrate on responsible tourism while travelling and living here.

‘Tourism dollars’ can make a huge difference when spent wisely. I personally enjoy grabbing a drink or bite to eat on the weekends as places like Sister Srey, Soria Moria ($1 Tapas night), Haven or Marum. These are all either training restaurants – giving learning opportunities to locals – or are part of a socially minded business which allows and encourages personal growth and education while making a living working at the café.

Shopping wise there are a number of places I love to shop at for gifts for my family back home – or a wee treat for myself. Friends International and their shop at Marum, KILT, Artisans d’Angkor and Samatoa all have beautiful and fair-trade products which support their respective causes – whether it be landmine survivors, parents so their children are not forced to work or the rebirth and growth of traditional arts.

Shinta Mani, a luxury hotel with a huge focus on responsible tourism, have also started a ‘Made in Cambodia’ market which brings together the organisations above and many, many more individuals and NGO’s all selling their quality products for good causes. It’s a must-attend weekend activity in my eyes, even just for a walk round and chat with the many amazing stall-holders.

I love living in this country, where everywhere you turn there is a responsible and active way to give back to the people and environment. All you need to do is take a bit of time to read up and look a bit deeper into where you are traveling and I promise you too can experience Cambodia this way, and revel in the forward-thinking, innovative and inspirational projects and people of ‘The Kingdom of Wonder’.

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