The majority of my current Round the World journey focuses on places I haven’t been to before. But there was one location that my husband and I loved so much when we first visited over five and a half years ago, that we wanted to return – Siem Reap, Cambodia. Something about Siem Reap, that I can’t quite put into words, captivated us years ago. We didn’t expect it to be the same, as the town had been a booming construction zone in early 2009, but we wanted to witness the changes firsthand and maybe recapture some of that original magical feeling.
We arrived in Siem Reap the same way, the small international airport. On our first visit we flew because we were pressed for time, this time we were just loathe to spend 9+ hours on a Cambodian bus. The road from the airport to town is now lined with giant, fancy looking hotels that are neither convenient to the temples nor town and I imagine fill up with bus loads of package tourists who have no interest in actually experiencing Cambodia.
In town the first thing that struck us was the roads. What had been block after block of packed red earth was now proper pavement. The quaint, dusty town that we had fallen in love with was now a proper Cambodian city, throbbing with twice as many Western tourists despite it being the low season. The extra years of separation from the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule have seen Cambodia become firmly ingrained on the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit.
The growth isn’t all bad (obviously it’s great for Cambodia). It has led to such a proliferation of boutique hotels that we were able to score an amazing deal on a wonderful room on the East bank of the river, where the quieter, sleepier Siem Reap of old can still be found. New restaurants of all ethnicities and for all budgets are also more abundant. More Cambodians seem to speak more English as well, which comes in very handy for us.
Two of our favorite places in town became so popular and crowded that much of their appeal has worn off, but in exchange they now have numerous locations we can visit to find a little more solitude. The Blue Pumpkin cafe has gone from one location to five in Siem Reap, along with another half dozen locations in Phnom Penh. The fish foot spa was a novelty in the back corner of the night market then, now you can’t walk a block in the market/pub street area without passing at least one fish tank. Sadly our plan of picking an empty fish tank in which to dunk our feet failed miserably, because once others saw us do it, it became a viable option for every passing tourist. Within ten minutes, we were sharing our fish with seven other people.
Of course you don’t come to Siem Reap for desserts and fish pedicures, you come for Angkor. Our attempts to capture the magnificent sunrise over Angkor Wat were thwarted by clouds on our last visit, so we made the pre-dawn pilgrimage again. The horde of tourists was thicker than last time (I can’t even imagine what it must be like in the high season now) but at least the sun made its glorious appearance for us. Having spent $40 on a three day pass we spent the following days visiting Banteay Srei for the first time, and returned to some of our favorite spots in Angkor Thom.
But the thing that we loved the most about Siem Reap this time around wasn’t the temples, the most prominent site and symbol of the Cambodia of old. This time around it was the circus, Phare the Cambodian Circus, to be more precise. To me Phare represents the new face of Cambodia, its youthful and hopeful future.
Phare began in 1986 as an arts therapy program for refugee children, who had fled their homeland due to the Khmer Rouge. When the refugee camps finally closed, a group of 9 decided that there was still a need for arts therapy to help children affected by the conflict and they opened a small program in Battambang in 1994. As years passed, the program grew to include performing and musical arts, a government run public school of 900 students, a library, and social support services for especially vulnerable children. Out of the performing and musical arts program, the circus was born.
Phare is unlike any other circus you’ll ever see. First off, it’s better. I’ve seen all kinds of live shows including several Cirque du Soleil performances and traditional circuses and none had me as captivated as Phare. Secondly, these are some of the youngest performers you’ll see, from around 15 to 20 years old and all from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is these youths that bring the intense energy and spirit to the show through their acrobatics, dancing, music, and even facial expressions. Lastly, each performance tells a uniquely Cambodian story, one of struggle and overcoming, but does it in an entertaining and engaging way. Where many high profile Cambodian sites can be depressing, Phare is uplifting and plain old-fashioned fun.
Cambodia has a very dark stain upon its very recent past, but rather than using that as an excuse, Phare and hundreds of other groups are using it as an opportunity to set a new course for Cambodia’s future. A future that embraces thousands of years of arts, acknowledges the atrocities of recent violence, and moves forward with the energy and optimism of its youthful population.
So if you find yourself with no more than a day in Cambodia (first of all I’m sorry for all that you’ll miss), spend it in Siem Reap. Catch one of the world’s most amazing shows as the sun rises over Angkor, illuminating hundreds of years of history in a matter of minutes. Then end your day with one of the best live shows in the world today, Phare the Cambodian Circus, to experience the amazing performance and people that are the bright, shining future of this nation.