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Experience Cambodian Arts at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, Cambodia

Come one come all to the Battambang circus! With awe-inspiring acrobatics, hypnotic music rhythms, and even traditional Khmer dancers, the circus at Phare Ponleu Selpak is a must-see performance for anyone traveling to this region of Cambodia.

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Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA), otherwise known as “Brightness of the Arts”, is an NGO dedicated to artistic education. They are especially famous for their circus school and performances.  PPSA was founded in 1994 by a group of nine refugees and one French artist who were inspired to help rebuild Cambodia through arts education and therapy.  In the organization’s first years, they only offered drawing classes that gave impoverished and war-torn children a chance to express their emotions through an artistic outlet.  Two years later, a music school was added to the campus, and then in 1998 the circus program was developed. Today PPSA hosts a kindergarten, dance school, drama program, circus training school, traditional and modern music classes, graphic design, animation, and a variety of other visual arts programs.  All of the students attend these programs for free, and for those who need extra assistance, PPSA’s social workers give additional support.

PPSA is not only an amazing educational opportunity for local young people, but it is a place where tourists can come to observe local Cambodian culture. Four times a day, visitors can tour the campus and watch the artists in action. The morning tours are at 9:30am and 10:30am, and the afternoon tours are at 2:30 and 3:30.

If visitors want an even deeper perspective into Cambodian culture, it is possible to sign up for either a half-day or full day workshop. PPSA offers workshop courses in visual arts, circus arts, traditional instruments, modern music, traditional dance, and breakdance. The full day workshop includes three courses, snacks, a traditional Khmer lunch, a circus ticket, and a traditional Khmer dinner. Guests also will have the opportunity to visit the artist gallery and boutique shop. For the half-day tours there is both a morning and afternoon option. Both tours include a traditional Khmer meal and two workshops, however the afternoon tour additionally includes a circus ticket. For more information on pricing and availability you can check PPSA’s webpage: http://phareps.org/art-workshops/

By taking these workshops or tours of the campus, you can gain a firsthand experience of how PPSA operates, while also achieving a first hand perspective into Cambodian culture. Furthermore, the cost of these programs helps to support the free education for Cambodian students, salaries of the teachers, and equipment for the facilities.

Though the tours and workshops offer fantastic insights into the lives of Cambodian artists, one’s trip isn’t complete unless you attend one of the circus performances held in the big top.

Four nights a week a circus show is held at 7pm.  There are five shows in total, but usually one out of five will be on tour in France or somewhere internationally. Most hotels or hostels in Battambang will have a printout of the monthly circus schedule, but if one is not available you can check the events page on PPSA’s webpage here: http://phareps.org/events/

Doors open at 6:00pm, so you can visit the campus early, as there is a bar to buy beer, sodas, water, and snacks. There is also a gift shop to buy souvenirs made by the artists. Finally, visitors can also peruse the gallery to see the art produced by the students.

Each Circus show is a unique experience. For more information, you can read my reviews of each of the shows:  

Cabaret:

In this show the cast puts on an effervescent and lively performance that gives a glimpse into Cambodian culture. Wearing brightly colored costumes, the cast portrays a youthful spirit coupled with flirtatious antics. The show is comprised of a few skits mostly revolving around the cat and mouse type chase of young love. The male characters try to woo the affections of the girl cast members by impressing them with their acrobatic, balancing, or juggling skills. The girls also show off their amazing contortion and gymnastic skills.  My favorite part of the show was the impressive acrobatics, especially when they made human pyramids. There were times where the cast made me so nervous that I almost covered by eyes as they attempted some challenging gymnastic and balancing moves.  

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Tchamleak:

The word “tchamleak” translates to bizarre or weird, so this show definitely encompasses the unordinary.  Throughout the performance, the actors use incredible acrobatic technique mixed with exaggerated makeup and facial expressions to depict this strange tale.  The cast’s use of embellished emotions and antics made the show so humorous, that there were points where I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. One of the best parts of the show is when the two sons, who play clowns in the show, get into mischief and trouble when trying to solve their family’s problems. The children seek advice from a witch doctor who forces children do bizarre tasks to help cure their father.  There is even a point in the show where the family blasts off to outer space to dance on the moon. Though this show has a strange plot, it is one of the most entertaining and humorous.

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Phumstyle

The performance, Phumstyle, is about a city a boy who returns home to his village after living in the busy metropolis. Throughout the show, it is apparent the city boy has forgotten some of the ways of village life, so the residents are quick to remind him of their traditions.  The city boy attempts to woo the heart of a village girl, and he must return to his village roots to impress her. I really admired the female character of this show, because she is stubborn and unwilling to be impressed with the city boy’s antics. The relationship they build throughout the show, made this performance entertaining. Though the acrobatics were impressive, the cast did equally as well with their storytelling abilities.

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Chills:

One of the funniest shows PPSA has to offer, Chills is a mix of ghost stories with a comedic twist. In the show a group of schoolboys become obsessed with reading spooky ghost stories. However, each time they read a story, ghosts are summoned and haunt the school children. Terrified, the boys do whatever they can to rid these ominous spirits. My favorite part of the show is then the ghosts control the boys and cause them do dance and do impressive acrobatic tricks.  I also really enjoyed how this show reflects on the local Cambodian people’s belief in spirits. The locals show deep reverence and respect for these spirits to avoid being haunted. It is common to leave out offerings or pray to these spirits asking for help our guidance.  In the story of Chills, the boys are skeptical and are unsure about how to deal with ghosts, but eventually they learn how to balance their energy to live peacefully among the spirits

Chills 1

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Influence.

In this performance the theme deals with the corrupting influence of power. The show begins with a really creative but abstract opening where the performers act as various types of insects covered by grass mats. With the sound of drumbeats echoing in the tent, the strongest bug slowly eats the others, growing bigger and bigger, until there is only one huge monster bug, and a small prey. The big guy chases the little guy around the stage, but when he pounces, the small one fights back and somehow defeats the larger bug. This theme continues throughout the rest of the show.

As the show progresses, a village gathers on the stage, but one man rises to power above them all. At first, the villagers love him, but then he turns violent, forcing his adoring fans away from him until he is alone. Only then does he realize the mistake he made. Influence was an unexpectedly poignant show, but in the end, I felt hopeful and moved.

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If you are traveling to the province of Battambang, I highly recommend visiting PPSA. By going on a tour, taking a workshop, or attending the circus, not only will you have a memorable and authentic glimpse into Cambodian culture,but you will also be supporting and contributing to the arts education of over 1000 students at PPSA.

About the author:

Caroline Hosey is a freelance author and photographer based in Taipei, Taiwan. Check out Caroline’s blog, http://www.gritsandrice.com  to read stories and travel advice about living and working in Asia.

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