The Cambodian circus that saves lives

Our featured blogger, Brendan Lee, comes across a circus set up to help street kids in Siem Reap – and discovers it is really rather good

8 mins

While travelling through Siem Reap last month I was delighted to encounter Phare: The Cambodian Circus.

The circus is a project run by an NGO named Phare Ponleu Selpak, meaning 'The Brightness of the Arts'. Its origins can be traced back to a refugee camp on the Thai border following the Khmer Rouge years. Here, nine refugee children from a drawing class were taught, through self-expression, to use art as a means of recovery from the trauma they had experienced during the genocide. Years later, upon their return to Cambodia, they founded the school, aimed at empowering other vulnerable children through art – the same way they had done in the refugee camps the years before.

The circus is one of Phare Ponleu Selpak’s key projects, which gives students the opportunity to perform, tell their stories, and ultimately make a living through circus. Pretty incredible stuff.

It was explained to me that they have a variety of shows running throughout the week, with different performers coming in from the school to add variety to the programme.

The show, 'Proniap', was supposed to be a little different from most, as Khmer New Year had mixed a few things up. As a result, the show would be made up of younger, more inexperienced performers who had put together a performance at rather short notice, but were ecstatic to be performing in front of the tourist crowd. It sounded perfect.

I was invited backstage to see how the students prepare. I had expected a tense, focused bunch, silently psyching themselves up before showtime, but it couldn’t have been more different. Just a bunch of young, smiling kids, decked out in artsy street clothes and goofing around with one another.

I’ve been to quite a few circuses in my life – Cirque Mother Africa, The Amazing Chinese Circus, The Peruvian Circus, and quite a few Cirque du Soleils, but the energy at Phare was on another level. The show was hilarious, and even just thinking about those clowns now has me laughing again.

On top of laughter, every circus needs some impressive stunts, and Phare has those in abundance. You’ll get all your somersaults, fire juggling and unicycles, only with a slight Cambodian flare.

But what I loved most about the show was how raw the performance was. Many other circuses I’ve been to, the expensive ones in particular, always felt somewhat robotic and expressionless to me. For me personally, there is such thing as ‘too perfect’ when it comes to these things.

The young performers in this show made mistakes, didn’t wear fancy costumes and just performed with a small stage band, but the energy in their performance was electric. Sure, they dropped a few juggling pins, but there is an unmistakable passion in their performance, and that to me is what makes a show real and entertaining – much more so than the guy who just does his act flawlessly, smiles, and then walks off stage. And that’s not to say that these guys weren’t talented: the show was filled with many 'ooh', 'ahh' and 'wow' moments.

When the show came to an end it was clear that the crowd had loved it. Phare was a perfect example of unpolished, passionate story-telling. In a country with such a dark history, one can only admire these organisations who give under-privileged children a voice and a chance to find their way in life.

If you’re ever in Siem Reap, be sure to head out to the high top, and see the magic for yourself.

Want to go to Phare?

When you get to Siem Reap, simply book a ticket through your hotel/hostel (most will be able to help you). Otherwise, just look for the Phare sandwich boards around town, book directly on their website, or if you’re happy to try your luck, just show up at the venue and buy your ticket at the entrance. The show starts at 7:30pm.

At $15, it’s an absolute steal, and you can be confident that your money is going back into a truly amazing programme.

Brendan LeeBren On The Road | Brendan Lee

Brendan is former accountant from New Zealand who left his job in 2011 to travel the world. Now a full-time nomad, he writes to inspire others to travel and discover their world. You can follow his adventures on his blog,, or connect with him on Twitter at @brenontheroad.

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