Phare, The Cambodian Circus has only been on the performance art scene in Cambodia since early 2013, but already they’re well on their way toward changing the lives of Khmer youth. Using performance art as a means for social change, the team at Phare are all about creating avenues for tourism-supported local development – a mission they share with Buffalo Tours. With this installment, Emily Martin of the Phare team talks about how the arts are helping to rebuild a country once on a brink.
Not long ago, Cambodia was home to some of the most diverse and abundant arts and culture in Southeast Asia. Music, dance theatre and cinema was at the heart of Cambodian culture and the soul of Khmer people. There were singers on every corner, musicians in every village and a dancer in every child. Art flourished. But in what has since been considered one of the most tragic eras of genocide the world has ever seen, the Khmer Rouge wiped out almost 90 percent of the country’s monks, intellects and artists – and the country’s vibrant culture of art with them.
Following the years after the Khmer Rouge, only 10 percent of this population of artists and intellectuals were left to rejuvenate a culture that was almost wiped out. Despite insurmountable odds, Cambodian arts have returned with renewed energy – and for many visitors to this fascinating Southeast Asian country, this rebirth of the arts is one of the most inspiring things to witness with your own eyes.
Even if you are only in Cambodia for a short time, the most eye-opening experience to have in the country is to witness this rise of performance and fine arts firsthand. Through performing art, music and visual art you are able to witness not just the past and traditional aspects of a culture, but the present day situations and the dreams for the future. Art allows a traveller to access things and learn things that would otherwise be hidden by time.
Some organizations are helping these same travellers do their part in supporting the re-emergence of the arts in Cambodia. From visual and fine arts to performance, dance and music, these are the organizations that are helping create a brighter future for the Khmer people.
Cambodian Living Arts and Artisans D’Angkor are both Cambodian organisations which have focused on reviving and developing the traditional arts of the Khmer people. Cambodia Living Arts focuses on the performance with shadow puppetry, Apsara dancing and traditional music. There is a particular beauty in watching these performances knowing that they were almost lost forever.
Artisans D’Angkor focuses on visual and fine arts by supporting artisans skilled in woodwork, stone carving, silk making and crafts. They have workshops which are open to the public for free tours with an English speaking guide. It is here that you can see the artisans at work and pick up souvenirs that are both authentic help to revive ancient Khmer Arts and Crafts while improving the lives of thousands of people living in rural areas. Today they employ over 1300 locals.
Art also allows people to tell their stories in a way that portrays feeling and emotion unattainable by reading travel books and snapping photos. For Cambodians, art serves as a way to share their traumatic history and revitalized culture in a compelling and interactive way. At Phare, The Cambodian Circus, these stories are shared through the flair of circus artistry. Tumbling, stunts, acrobatics, music, art and theatre are blended together to share Cambodia’s recent history and current social realities in way that leaves the audience uplifted and seeing the true tenacity and beauty of the Khmer.
Plus, these artists have come from incredibly difficult social and economic backgrounds – some are survivors of physical abuse, trafficking or addictions. Working with the circus provides a healthy outlet toward artistic expression and social growth for the communities they come from.
The Social Impact of Art
Another way to learn about modern day Khmer culture and locals’ worldview is to visit one of the many art galleries in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh – Cambodia’s largest cities that are hubs of artistic growth and development. Xavier Gobin of Phare Circus has lived in Cambodia for 7 years, coming from a background in professional ballet.
“I lived in a very rural area of Cambodia in 2007-2008 and experienced the very monotonous life of the villagers there. There, I could measure the importance of any artistic act, I realise how the fact of staging a short piece, a small choreography with children, displaying a movie on a white sheet, was participating in a huge breach in the day-to-day routine, where no leisure or distraction to help the villagers to escape mentally. Therefore, the essence of art reappeared to me: being a transposition of life, bringing a new perspective, reviving the metaphysical nature of humans. Art as it is practised in Cambodia contains this vital and essential dimension. Art in this country is raw, honest, straightforward, urgent, and not intellectual – it is a beautiful experience to taste the living desire of its people.”
In other words, not only is art a must-do activity in Cambodia because of the joy and education in watching, visiting and seeing it – but it is also an incredibly effective way to give back and support the development of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
By seeing a Phare circus show, buying that elephant carving from an organisation like Artisan’s or even just walking through an art gallery in Phnom Penh or Battambang and showing interest you are automatically encouraging and supporting the continued use of art for story-telling, enlightenment, development, sharing history and dreaming. All of it goes back to creating a brighter future for the country even after you board your flight home.
Create a customised itinerary with us and find out how your tour to Cambodia could be one step closer to the country’s brighter future. Check out our Cambodia highlights itineraries or create your very own bespoke Cambodia itinerary from scratch.