The entire Phare circus is a feel good event – with fantastic performers who want to make Siem Reap and Cambodia a better place, and proceeds going to a great cause.by Dave Stamboulis
Siem Reap was never noted for much other than those famous temples sitting right on its doorstep. For years, it was a hot, dusty, and pretty uninspiring spot, basically used for a couple of nights rest while touring the temples of Angkor. While it still is pretty hot and dusty these days, everything else has changed. The town has become the No.2 in the world on Trip Advisor, been raved about in countless publications, and while the temples are still pretty magnificent, what rocks the new Siem Reap pretty much happens after dark. Led by an amazing circus of astonishing background, and fueled by a renaissance in novel gourmet cuisine, it’s now a pleasure to spend time in town once the sun has gone down.
Not too far down the road from Angkor Wat, a red big top tent has set up, the home of Phare Cambodian Circus (Tel. +855 (0) 15 499480, www.pharecambodiancircus.org). Wander over here in the afternoon and you’ll see the sweat streaming off the bodies of young acrobats as a group of young men and a lone woman stretch, go over choreographed routines, and spend hours performing flips, contortions, and other feats of bodily strength as they prepare for an evening performance.
All the circus members have come here through Phare Ponleu Selpak, an association based in Battambang, founded by nine children who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and found solace via art therapy from a French teacher in a refugee camp in Thailand. The teenagers wanted to give back and empower other Cambodian youths the way they had been through the arts, so they started a school of visual and performing arts, along with a public school offering free education for impoverished and vulnerable Cambodian children, the results of which have been quite dramatic.
Today, more than 500 students have graduated from the performing arts schools, almost double those enrolled in and graduating from public schools, with several performers going on to travel around the world, even performing with the prestigious Cirque de Soleil among other luminaries. The troupe in Siem Reap is picked from some of the most talented performers. They perform a unique blend of traditional Khmer stories, dance, and acrobatic circus arts each evening, and have become the most popular draw in town.
The performance troupe writes and plays their own traditional musical accompaniments, and many of the performances focus on the horrors and effects of the war-torn past, yet all reveal plenty of optimism for the future and personal triumph of the human spirit.
Phunam, the sole actress in the Sokha dance performance, typifies the Phare success story. As a child, she picked scraps from a garbage dump to help support her mother and siblings. Her childhood is filled with untold suffering, and yet you’d never realize it watching her today. She has toured much of the world, speaks very good English and French, and is strong and confident. In a still traditional country, where women are seen as loose if they engage in lots of physical contact with men, Phunam has had to resist family and social pressures to stick with becoming a contortionist and circus star. She proudly tells visitors coming to praise her after the show that times are changing, and that she’s proud to be a role model to young Cambodian girls as someone who’s lifted herself up.
The entire Phare circus is a feel good event, as the performers really are fantastic, the proceeds all go to a great cause, and it is quite obvious that everyone involved is quite proud of what each one is doing, in an effort to make Siem Reap and Cambodia a better place.
While the circus might be the top entertainment in town, it isn’t the only one. Siem Reap is also having an incredible food renaissance that is a visual art of its own. This year, Cuisinee Wat Damnak, a small upscale restaurant, here became the first Cambodian eatery to be featured in the prestigious San Pellegrino Best 50 Restaurants in Asia list, and plenty of other unique spots are now making their mark.
Over near the night market, Davy Blouzard, a Frenchman, and one of the owners of the Bugs Cafe (Tel. +855 (0) 17 764560, www.bugs-cafe.com), discusses tarantulas with his head chef Seiha Soeun, who worked at the Sofitel in Phnom Penh. Combining the market favorite, local insect treats, with gourmet French techniques has proved wildly popular at this new tourist friendly institution, where curious epicures can check out scorpions and green papaya salad, tarantula donuts, insect skewers, and silk worm chocolate fondue from the insect tapas menu. It might sound a bit ghoulish, but the bugs are actually great, and don’t worry, the stingers have been removed, so you’ll be getting more bug than bite.
Farther across town at Georges Rhumerie (Tel. +855 (0) 96 8617448, www.georges-cambodia.com), a father and son team from La Reunion Island have continued their age-old tradition of making home-infused rums, using a variety of local spices and ingredients, from kaffir lime to passion fruit. The fine rums are served as shots, mixed into cocktails, or paired with the fabulous Creole cooking that is the staple of owner Georges’ homeland, which is an eclectic melange of African, Chinese, French, and Indian influences. My tasting platter included badia (Yemeni version of a felafel), samosas stuffed with cheese, and homemade bouchon sausage served as dim sum. The restaurant and bar also does 6-course set dinners with rum pairings, and the popular rums, packaged in colorfully labeled bottles, make great souvenirs.
Another great local spot is the pleasant Mie Cafe (Tel. +855 (0) 012 791371, www.miecafe-siemreap.com), run by Pola Siv, an amiable young Cambodian chef extraordinaire, who gained experience studying at the Swiss School of Hospitality and working at the Michelin-starred Domain De Chateauvieux in Geneva before returning home to put European gastronomic touches onto traditional Khmer dishes. Standouts include the grilled prawns in amok butter with eggplant, coconut milk, and dried ham, or the carpaccio of fresh snakehead fillet cooked in fresh citrus juice with spices, served with a poached egg tempura. The food is truly outstanding, and the restaurant is located in a charming old traditional Cambodian house just on the outskirts of town.
While those temple sunrises are still pretty nice, there’s a lot more beckoning in Siem Reap these days, enough to keep intrepid travelers returning a few times over.