SIEM Reap? – never heard of it. “Dad, it’s the jump-off place for Ankhor Wat” “Oh, I remember Ankhor Wat; it was on the Vita Brits cards when I was a little kid: funny looking templey thing with towers that looked like large stone pineapples.” “Yeah, that’s it – in Cambodia.”
A couple of days later we were dropping in over water logged fields and landing at the cutest airport terminal I’ve ever seen: long low-to-the-ground traditional Cambodian red tile roofed buildings with spars sticking out and up obliquely from the peaks of the gables at either end that I later learned were modern abstractions of the tails of snakes.
Siem Reap, a short drive away, was all bustle and untidiness and crowded with smiling faces.
The roads seem a chaotic jumble of cars, motor bikes and scooters and the ever present tuk tuks – a kind of 4-seat trailer towed behind a small motor bike with its smiling driver.
The footpaths, an ankle threatening cobble of misshapen stones and broken concrete, peopled by swathes of smiling hawkers offering all kinds of souvenirs and services.
The smiling is infectious: you can’t help but be happy here among these people who have been subject to a brutal history and are now left with virtually nothing but their wits and charm.
The ruins, dating back to the 10th century, are far more extensive than I’d ever imagined: there are far more temples than my Vita Brits card projected, kilometres of stone walls in various states of repair, vast and intricate moat systems. This was a city as extensive and complex as the ancient city-states of Europe and the Americas.
But as marvelous as they are, they were not the highlight of our visit. That fell to a spectacle and performance from an institution I’d never heard of: Phare – the Cambodian youth circus.
The circus springs from a school located in Battambang that was started by nine young refugees returning home after the final fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge. The aim is to provide free public education and vocational arts training to street kids and those from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds.
The school has grown to over 1200 students and now provides tuition in circus, dance, theatre, music and visual arts. It is entirely self-funded through donation and its own marketing and performance programs.
Commitment to ecological sustainability is a feature of all its activities and equipment. “Earth Smart” is its proud boast and that includes compostable materials down to drink bottles, drinking straws and corn starch cutlery.
And the performance?
I will not use those debased effusives like awesome, unbelievable, incredible, fantastic and so forth because it is all of those and more.
It is energetic, precise, skillful and engaging as the gifted and attractive performers tell stories from the recent history of Cambodia through comic invention, lightning choreography and athletic skill.
The tales they tell are touching, instructive and impressive. If you go there buy tickets early because it regularly sells out; buy the best seats (US$35) – they deserve that support – and be prepared to leave the tent feeling just a little better for this experience of music and movement.
Watch out for Phare Circus at other locations – I hear they are set to tour – and look them up on social media; they’re a very savvy outfit.