Last Updated on October 26, 2023
The acrobat wrapped her toes around the string of her bow, prepping the arrow. The flexible young woman leading her circus troupe took a dramatic pause to allow the audience to take a collective breath of anticipation as the tension mounted.
Next to me, my niece’s body tensed; I heard her sharp intake of breath. In the flash of a second her arrow pierced the balloon.
The circus had spent two hours telling the story of Cambodia’s sad and bloody past in its Sokha show. By popping the balloon, she had symbolically eliminated the evil forces and death brought about by the Khmer Rouge that reigned over Cambodia during the 1970s.
The circus was in town, but it was no ordinary traveling circus. My niece Ana and I followed our instincts one afternoon after seeing a faded, full-color advertisement for Phare Ponleu Selpak, a local circus performed by teens and young adults.
Our travel dates exactly aligned with one of the circus troupe’s weekly shows in Battambang, Cambodia, so we booked an evening performance. Phare Ponleu Selpak is a children’s art center in rural Cambodia.
What is Phare Ponleu Selpak?
At the organization’s core is a mission to use artistic practice and arts-based community development to support former refugees.
The organization goes a step further, though, and welcomes hundreds of local children into the arts compound every afternoon. The children engage in a variety of arts education channels aimed at teaching them their country’s recent history while providing opportunities for them to express themselves and their country’s history through art.
The organization began in 1986 as a way to help Cambodian children process trauma from the war. They began shows in Battambang, and in February 2013, Phare the Cambodian Circus presented its first outdoor show in Siem Reap for visitors from around the world.
In practice, this means that this non-governmental organization operates as a social enterprise. Phare Ponleu Selpak has a strong social mission built into its structure and foundation, but the commercial side of the organization operates like a business, selling tickets to the shows and funneling that money back into their social mission.
Phare Ponleu Slepak uses local and foreign aid—alongside immense community input—to teach circus skills, drawing, and painting to any willing child in the community, and sells tickets to tourists passing through town to support these activities.
What is a Circus Show Like at Phare: The Cambodian Circus?
By the middle of the circus performance, Ana was watching the stage with rapt attention. She didn’t fully realize that alongside this blended show of circus skills, music, and art, the haunting storyline told of Cambodia’s sad past and all-too-recent genocide.
Around us, the raised metal seats were filled with other tourists equally engaged in the performance. Beyond the “official” seats, locals had filled in every available gap—entrance is free for local Cambodians—with their children watching from laps, blankets, and their parents’ shoulders. Everyone was mesmerized.
There were deeply serious moments throughout the circus performance. The young acrobats simulated the bloody five years that the Khmer Rouge ruled the country.
Then, they showed lighter moments of jaw-droppingly good circus skills—the show includes clowns, jugglers, a unicycle rider, acrobatics, and musicians all in a unique blend of performance and storytelling.
As the show came to a close, the host for the evening explained more about the organization’s mission, its work, and how the performance we’d watched was about to tour Europe in the coming week.
Should You Visit Phare?
I loved the performance. It broke my heart, but I loved it. The young adults showed incredible, well-honed talent. But more than that, the performance clearly showed that the organization’s social mission over nearly twenty years of development work in that community had paid off.
I didn’t volunteer with my niece in Battambang as time was scarce, so Ana and I instead agreed that we would find cafes run by the local NGOs to do our fair part. Phare Ponleu Selpak is an example of how you can directly support local grassroots organizations and social enterprises when volunteering is not practical. Though note that the organization does offer long-term volunteer opportunities with Phare, for those with three months or more to give.
PPS particularly welcomes volunteers who have skills that could contribute to any of their areas of education and is on a case by case basis; for example the organization may accept a volunteer who has a particular artistic skill that would be useful for the students to learn.
At present, Phare provides education in the form of:
- A public school and Kindergarten
- Professional training in visual arts and applied arts
- Performing arts training including dance, music, and circus skills.
Finding the circus, though, gave us more than we had imagined. We hadn’t counted on finding a tiny community compound filled with love. An organization with a clear mission twenty years ago forged an effective relationship with the local community to jointly address and express their unique needs.
Many travelers express uncertainty about how to engage in responsible travel, but it’s important to remember that the concept is not a monolith, and there’s more to it than simply choosing eco-friendly accommodations or modes of transport.
The crux of my advocacy work centers on harnessing the power of each tourism dollar to support social enterprises—businesses with a social mission that exist worldwide.
While the topic of sustainable travel is serious, the practice itself doesn’t have to be a burdensome undertaking. From detailed research to a simple curiosity that urges you to explore a local event, responsible travel can manifest in diverse yet equally impactful ways.
How to Visit a Phare Circus Show
Circus shows in Battambang start at 7 pm on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, check for latest ticket prices. These shows feature the students who have not yet graduated from the program. You will also have the chance to view the art gallery on campus, where work from the program’s gifted art students is exhibited. And there is a nice outdoor cafe where you can enjoy a drink before the show.
Visit the Phare Ponleu Selpak campus for a guided tour (donations accepted) from Monday to Friday—tours start on the half hour mark in the mornings and afternoons. The tour highlights the work being done, the organization’s mission, and more. If you’re keen to volunteer, this location is where you’d be working.
Anh Chanh Village, Ochar Commune
Battambang, Battambang Cambodia
Use a taxi or tuk-tuk to get to the campus as it’s a bit outside of the heart of Battambang, where most travelers stay.
The Phare Circus show is a professional show in Siem Reap with a higher production value than the show in Battambang. The cast are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak and deliver a polished and humorous show in six acts and in a venue with more capabilities for Cirque-like acrobatics. It’s more of an entire experience—with food and shopping before and after the show.
You can book tickets directly through the organization, or through their GetYourGuide listing.
Shows start at 8pm. Phare Boutique and Phare Cafe open two hours prior to show time with unique locally-made crafts and gifts and dining before or after the show.
The venue is located on Ring Road near the intersection of Sok San Road, approximately 2 kilometers from Old Market and Pub Street.
Tuk-tuk drivers charge $3-$5 to get there from most places in Siem Reap, and the parking lot will be full of drivers after the show.
Shannon O’Donnell is an award-winning travel writer, speaker, and author of the acclaimed “Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.” She’s been traveling the world for over 20 years, and is passionate about helping others use travel as a force for good.
She was the 2013 National Geographic Traveler of the Year for her work in responsible travel and tourism, and has appeared everywhere from NPR to the BBC to CNN as an expert in travel and international volunteering.