Phare Circus: Siem Reap, Cambodia – a must visit

A circus in Siem Reap?  Absolutely! And, it’s become one of the city’s biggest attractions – and has a positive social impact.

Siem Reap, Cambodia, of course, has the incredible Angkor Wat temple complex and the awful, infamous Pub Street but it also has many charity and community projects like Phare Circus which aid this still-troubled country. (see also my blog about the HeroRATS) Both initiatives benefiting great causes as do many of the places we visited, ate at or bought from during our week there.

Phare, the Cambodian Circus, is an offshoot project of Phare Ponleu Selpak – a Cambodian non-profit, non-governmental association founded in 1994 by eight young Cambodian ex-refugee artists in the area of Anchanh Village, Ochar Commune, Battambang Province – a few years ago I spent a week in Battambang, (on the other side of Tonle Sap) right opposite the market and loved it.

The Phare Ponleu ‘helps vulnerable children, young adults and their families, build careers of Cambodian Artists, to revive Cambodian art scenes, to make worldwide arts connections with Cambodia and to contribute to the artistic, educational and social programs of PPS Association.’

When I, and a friend, attended the circus, it meant we were doing more than paying to be entertained: our money benefited the growing arts scene in Cambodia, that is, helping talented young people get the opportunity, income, or training access in which to develop, and showcase, their skills.

The Phare Circus is an incredible hour of traditional and modern theatre, music, dance, acrobatics, athleticism, juggling and contortion all beautifully choreographed and performed in stories about Cambodian lives and society. We loved it and talking to the young people after the show reinforced the value of attending.

Shows, each of a different theme or ‘tale ’change about every eight days. It seems tales, and sayings, are a big part of the local culture and the circus is an extension and visual representation of this with the moral of the shows often being about facing your fears in order to overcome them. The performance we saw was about being different, and bullying – combining laughter, happiness, music, and entertainment in a superbly presented show.

I recommend getting advance reservations during high season. (November through April) as performances sell-out most nights during this period.

It’s more than ‘just’ a circus, and the performers use – with energy, emotion, enthusiasm, and talent – theatre, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories – historical, folk and modern. What’s even better – no animals!

All the Phare artists are students and graduates from Phare Ponleu Selpak’s – an association which was formed in 1994 by young men coming home from a refugee camp after the Khmer Rouge regime.

“They were greatly helped during that time by an art teacher using drawing classes as therapy and wanted to share this new skill among the poor, socially deprived and troubled youngsters in Battambang. They founded an art school and public school followed to offer free education. A music school and theatre school were next and finally, for the kids who wanted more, the circus school. Today more than 1,200 pupils attend the public school daily and 500 attend the alternative schools. Phare Ponleu Selpak also has extensive outreach programs, trying to help with the problems highlighted in their own tales.”

Phare The Cambodian Circus offers these students and graduates somewhere to hone their skills and a place to earn a decent wage, money that takes them out of poverty and provides self-respect and freedom. Many of the performers have gone on to be employed by the likes of Cirque du Soleil and Phare Circus also travels the world so you may see them in your backyard!

Phare, The Cambodian Circus is one of Cambodia’s most innovative social enterprise models. Profits generated through ticket, refreshment, merchandise and private performance sales support the free education, professional arts training and social support programs of Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang. It is one of the business units of Phare Performing Social Enterprise, along with Phare Creative Studio. Other business units will come soon. The circus survives through sales of tickets, merchandise, refreshments and private events. Ideally, the business will do better than just pay bills, but also make a profit from these activities. The majority shareholder is Phare Ponleu Selpak NGO School. Therefore, the majority of the profits go to support the school’s free education and social support programs to 1200 students daily.

Circus Phare The Cambodian Circus a responsible, social business in many other ways too. While always keeping an eye on making a profit to send to the school, other efforts are made to benefit society when possible. We both bought some items in the Phare Boutique shop as it supports local artisans and craftspeople. (higher quality souvenirs or gifts than you will find in the big markets – where many items are imported ☹) Royalties for each show performed -that was created at the school –  are paid to the school before profit is calculated. The business invests a great deal in the personal and professional development and the welfare of the artists and staff and participates in many community activities, sharing art with Cambodian people who otherwise might not be able to experience it.

The school survives mainly on donations and earns some revenue through sales of show tickets, merchandise and refreshments, but it depends mainly on donations. Maybe you can help – each little bit helps – and, if I get back to Cambodia, I plan on visiting the school.

 

The year of the rat? Meet the HeroRAT

 

‘Rats?  I’m in Cambodia for the first time and you want me to go see rats?’  Reluctantly, dubiously, my friend gets into the tuk-tuk – we’re off to see the HeroRATS I’d recently heard about.

When last in Siam Reap, in the countryside, I placed my foot exactly where the person in front of me had put their foot.  Landmines, laid during the ousting of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and throughout the 80s and 90s, have had, and continue to have, a devastating impact on the people of Cambodia. I didn’t want to be yet another victim. Sadly, over 64,000 casualties and more than 25,000 amputees have been recorded since 1979.  It’s been a long, slow and difficult task finding these unexploded devices – which can last 50 years.

Numerous ways have been tried to find and disarm them and these new heroes seem to be the best in many ways, so, in April 2015 15 giant mine-sniffing rats flew into Cambodia, one of the most mine polluted countries in the world.

Not all heroes wear capes and these Gambian pouched rats, also known as Giant African rats, are now used to help the local demining efforts. They’ve been renamed ‘HeroRATS’.

Before being introduced to these heroes, my reluctant friend and I read most of the well-written signs explaining what we were about to see: by now she was getting enthused and interested to see a skills demonstration by these rats and their handlers.

After arriving from Tanzania, they then spent the rest of the year acclimatising and continuing their training.  Cambodians, SokHeng Hul and Thoeun Theap, had spent 6 months at the APOPO training centre near the mountains of Morogoro, Tanzania, learning the science, technology, and of course the practical operation of allowing the rats to detect unexploded ordinances.

The HeroRAT training continued until November 2015, when it was decided the team was ready for the first stage of the accreditation process. They took a Performance Test. This test is designed to show evaluators that they and the handlers were capable of detecting all mines that had been placed in the examination area. Over a one-week period, all the rats were tested and produced a 100% pass rate so were deployed in helping the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) deminers in their mine detection work and have since found roughly 500 anti-personnel mines and more than 350 unexploded bombs.

This success rate has no doubt saved many lives and limbs and for many families, enabled them to farm their land without fear and increase productivity.

Further information /sidebar

  • APOPO is a global non-profit organization with roots in Belgium that has developed an innovative method using African giant pouched rats, to detect landmines and tuberculosis using their extraordinary sense of smell. They detect only TNT and ignore scrap metal.
  • One HeroRAT can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes – this would take a manual deminer with a metal detector up to four days (depending on the levels of scrap metal present).
  • The HeroRATs are too light to set off the landmines and not a single rat has ever died in a minefield.
  • The expert rat handlers are trained in basic nursing care and rat first aid. Routine care includes daily observations of individual animals, weekly health inspections and regular prevention treatments for common parasites. Every week a university vet inspects the rats. When necessary, sick or injured rats are interned at the APOPO sickbay.
  • Their diet consists of high-quality pet pellets, fresh peanuts, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, sun-dried sardines and clean water that is regularly infused with extra vitamins and minerals to boost the rats’ immune systems
  • On retirement, typically between 7 and 8 years of age, the rats work as long as they are performing well, are happy, and pass their weekly health checks. If a rat decides to stop work, or if its performance has declined, or it is suffering from age-related health problems, it is retired to its home cage. It then continues to receive its usual healthy diet, is regularly taken out to play and exercise, and continues to receive its weekly health checks until it eventually passes away. If a rat is clearly suffering in its old age or from an untreatable disease, it is humanely euthanised.

Want to adopt a rat? Save a limb or a life?

SEE MORE www.apopo.org  https://support.apopo.org/en/adopt 

 

My blog topics to come

Here are just some of the stories I will be blogging about over the next few months – these are about my recent 5 weeks travelling in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Taiwan, but there will also be other blogs about New Zealand and travel tips too.

are you leaving me again?

In no particular order here are some of my planned blogs:

  • Water puppets in Hanoi
  • Angkor Wat for my 2nd time
  • the Lantern Village
  • my fav noodle stand in  Taipei
  • staying in a mansion that many locals will not go near
  • travel and food
  • what does Visa on arrival really mean?
  • Hong Kong and protests (FIRST ONE – in a day or two – as current)
  • travelling by train
  • a circus in Siam Reap
  • a train is scarily close
  • health issues when travelling
  • postcards and post offices are alive and well in parts of the world
  • money and borders
  • . . .  and many more 🙂

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If you want to follow along on my travels here are your choices if how to.

 

How to pack for business and leisure – my Asian adventures

 

Packing for both business and pleasure is often seen as difficult – I solve the problem by using different packing cells for the 2 different parts. One for business, one for leisure.

One or 2 items may belong both bags, in this instance, it’s a white T-shirt that, once the 5-day business meeting is over, it will be moved into my leisure cell for the month-long exploration in SE Asia at cheap and cheerful destinations and accommodations.

My travel is in Southeast Asia, so will have the extreme heat of July and August, and I suspect, the over-cold meeting rooms in the hotel. This just seems to be what they do in Asia – overcompensating for the heat.

I’m taking 2 pieces of luggage, my trusty red suitcase in the hold, and a daypack no. The suitcase will be left behind in Hong Kong with all my business stuff in it, while the backpack will be my luggage for Taiwan, Cambodia, and Vietnam. My red suitcase will be about 10kg max. (22 lb) while my backpack will be under the regulation 7kg. (15lb). What

carry-on luggage

It’s always a treat to just have carry-on luggage when travelling – no waiting at the luggage carousel for my red case to appear. I will also use my backpack as my carry-on luggage when I leave New Zealand for Hong Kong. It will contain vital business papers, my camera and tablet, as well as medication, Kobo e-reader and phone.

So what are in those cells? Two trouser suits – a white one with 2 tops to wear with it, and a yellow one with the white T-shirt. So over the 5 days of work, I have 3 different outfits, so one will be repeated, and if I decide to, I could wear my black travel trousers with one of the tops. One pair of black shoes will accompany them all :-).

business clothes cell

All these will remain in HK storage when I leave for Vietnam, Cambodia then onto Taiwan, before returning to Hong Kong for a couple of days and pick up my red suitcase, and go home to New Zealand’s late winter weather – and where my daughter will meet me at the airport with a warm coat 🙂

My red leisure cell contains a long sundress, a loose pair of trousers, 3 tops and my trusty Teva’s while the blue one has underwear, swimming costume, and nightwear. So that’s how I pack for a combined trip that is both official and laid-back – very different needs clothes-wise

I hope this helps you keep your clothes to the minimum -after all, we don’t have to dress to impress when we’re on holiday, you will, mostly, see a person only once, so even if you are in the same clothes daily, most of them would not even notice. We, humans, are pretty self-centred and concentrate on ourselves.

 

I’m given a very small umbrella for sun protection
ready for the airport

When a heatwave strikes, this tip will help

An umbrella lowers my temperature as I struggled up a hill in Cambodia.  People struggling with the heatwaves in Europe right now would benefit from an umbrella too.

Cuba Street Wellington, NZ -framing my apartment block at the end of the street

Here is an excerpt from my book, Naked in Budapest travels with a passionate nomad, which explains how I learnt to always carry an umbrella in hot places.

See, others carry them too … being out of the sun lowers my temperature by about ten degrees it feels

‘You go ahead. I can’t walk up here. It’s too steep, too hot.’

‘Yes you can. We’re nearly there. You will love the waterfall.’

‘We have waterfalls in New Zealand; I’ll give this one a miss.’

‘Come on. You can get up here. Just around the next corner is the last steep bit – you can make it. Just take it a step at a time. We’re in no hurry,’ Rob tells me.

‘No, I’ll sit here in the shade and wait for you all to come back down. I won’t go away from the track.’

‘Here, I’ve got an umbrella, use that, it will reduce the heat for you.’

‘I don’t have the bloody energy to hold a damn umbrella.’

‘Well you walk and I’ll hold it,’ says Rob and step by slow step I get up the mountain, feeling like a cross between a missionary with her servant and a stupid, overweight, unfit, old fool.

I’m the first to fall into the cool water – my T-shirt, shorts and sandals are off in seconds and in my underwear, I’m wallowing like the buffalo. Later, back in the boat, we make a list of the 20 different creatures we’ve seen: leeches are not on the list. The others return to Sihanoukville leaving me in this small village to find a bed for the night.

Next day I’m the only foreigner in the taxi when I travel through the mountains towards Thailand. We get pushed through sticky orange clay and cross four rivers by ferry and at each one, I’m the centre of attention – few westerners have used this road that opened two months ago: no one in the taxi speaks English.

 

“Psst … ” I’m offered an illegal money deal. And drugs :)

I’m off to Cambodia soon to write some more travel stories …. wonder what I’ll be offered this time. Drugs? Illegal money exchange? Or?

Extract from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad

Kings guards outside the Palace walls

‘Pssst! Want to change money? Opium? Marijuana?’ Women, standing on the steps of the 1901 building, mutter the offer from behind hands and I succumb to temptation.

‘How much?’ I ask and, with that sign of encouragement, I’m whisked into the hidden walkways of the market and negotiations start.

‘Eighteen.’ says the younger one and I laugh, aware that laughter is a good lubricant in Asia.

‘Twenty.’ I reply knowing it’s the rate she gave a young man just 10 minutes ago.

‘Nineteen,’ she tries again to which I give the same reply as before. Conceding, to what is a fair exchange rate she hands me a few rubber-band-held-bundles, each containing, I hope 10,000 kip. A quick flick through convinces me it’s all money and my first illegal transaction is complete.

It’s hard to believe that such huge bundles, casually dropped into my bag, are worth so little: all those zeros are still confusing me. I’m a kip millionaire yet the money is leaking out of my daypack. 3,500 kip to replace a small towel, 15,000 for a basic room, 14,000 for an Indian meal and for another 4,000 I can walk up a gigantic rock hill, Phousi, for a 360-degree view over Luang Prabang, (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) the Mekong River and surrounding mountains.

See more about this book and author here on Amazon

Memories of Cambodia

cambodia face
My fav stone face!

Opposite the infamous Toul Sleng prison, amid the dust, heat and noise of Phnom Penh, I found an oasis of green and peace. The Bodhi Tree Guesthouse and Café have welcomed people for meals since 1998 and for the past three years (written early 2000’s) have also had guest accommodation. The ten rooms are individually decorated with traditional Cambodian materials: all are extremely tasteful and most have an en-suite.

I know the food is great, not only because I tried it, but also because some 70% of their customers are locals who eat there.

The main idea of the Bodhi Tree, as well as being commercially viable, was to give a comfortable working space for young Cambodians who find themselves in challenging circumstances.

I talked with a young man who has worked there for two years.

‘I could find another job with more money but it would not be good like here’ he says ‘I like to stay here. Everyone is friendly and all are equal. I have learnt so much. Before I worked at my Auntie’s shop and could speak some English but I did not understand anyone talking about it. The accent was too hard – now I can talk to many people.’ He continues ‘I want to study management. My boss wants me to help others improve too. We only have people here who have a good attitude.’

Another young man tells me he has worked there for five months and that it was ‘ . . . a good place to work. I get two meals a day and it is a nice place to be. People are kind to me and I am learning many things. I stay in a house with some of the others who work here’ He also told me the restaurant was named after the tree in the story of how Buddhism started. (See sidebar)

The cook, who has cooked for three years, produces wonderful meals. She had been a cleaner at the Bodhi Tree before learning to cook and now her menu and skills could be used at any international restaurant she chose to work at. Along with the Asian and continental breakfasts from the kitchen, these became my favourites during my stay:

  • Slow roasted honey and cinnamon Asian pears – topped with fresh blue cheese and walnut – served with balsamic vinegar.
  • Red bean and steamed spinach salad with black pepper grilled bread with grated Parmesan and summer vinaigrette.
  • Spanish potato omelette served with tomato, olives, and mint salad and garlic bread.

After a week of travelling on the back of a truck in the remote north-east of the country, being served these, while sitting on cane furniture, leaning against silk cushions, under a Bougainvillea tree in an outdoor room, and with a Buddha gazing serenely on the scene, was heavenly.

Surrounded by the delightful artwork, birds of paradise, orchids, lotus buds, and other floral arrangements or plants it was hard to imagine the horrors that had occurred right across the road in the prison S 21. (See sidebar 2 below)

Note: I wrote this many years ago and have just refound it!

Kings guards in Cambodia
King’s guards in Cambodia .. just before I shook hands with the King
cambodia buffalo
Quintessential Asian photo
cambodia ruins2
A well-photographed tree in Cambodia

 

Perfect rows of drying fish
Perfect rows of drying fish
Sun dried chilli - Cambodia
Sun dried chilli

 

Rough road, overloaded truck (incl me on the back!) = broken axle in jungle
Rough road, overloaded truck (incl me on the back!) = broken axle in jungle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sidebar 1. (As told to me by one of the young workers at Bodhi Tree )During the 16th century, in what we now call Nepal, Prince Siddhartha Gautama became curious about what life was like outside his comfortable court existence. When he saw people suffering it caused him great pain and he decided to alleviate their suffering.

Giving up his comfortable life, and his wife and child, he set out to study various religions for the answers.

After some time he adopted a life of self denial and fasting until, on the verge of death, he realised that this was not the way to end suffering: in fact he was perpetuating it.

During this time he was meditating under a Bodhi tree and this was where he received the revelations which led to his enlightenment. These were on three successive nights: on the first night he saw his former lives pass before him; on the second he came to understand the cycle of life death and rebirth, and on the third night the four holy truths of suffering.

Despite receiving enlightenment he chose to remain on earth and help others.

Sidebar 2

Toul Sleng  (known in the Pol Pot years as S-21 or Security Office 21) is now The Museum of Genocidal Crimes. This was Angkor’s’ primary security institution: designed for the interrogation and extermination of anti Angkor elements. Originally a high school (Ponhea Yat) and built in 1962 it was enclosed with corrugated iron and electrified barbed wire during the Khmer rouge regime. Prisoners came from all over the country, all walks of life and included different nationalities including British, American Australian and new Zealand.

Over 12, 000 people were killed at S-21. While in the cells prisoners were shackled to iron bars and on arrival had been photographed and details of their life recorded.

The museum is not only a reminder of Cambodia’s very recent history, but also serves as a warning about how badly very ordinary human beings can treat each other.

 

 

Travel quotes – do you agree (or not) with these?

 

  • If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things. Henry Miller

  • The wise man’s home is the universe. Democrites

  • Those who visit foreign nations, but who associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs; they see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with travelled bodies, but untravelled minds.Charles Caleb Colton

  • People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home. Dagobert D. Runes

  • There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign. Robert Louis Stevenson

  • Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it. Cesare Pavese

Cambodia – the kiwi-travel-writer travels by bike & truck

Hire a bike by the day and see a different side of any country
Rough road, overloaded truck (incl me on the back!) = broken axle in jungle
No matter where you are, always try local food ... fresh lotus seed heads

See more of my Cambodian photos here