Behind the Smile with Craig Dodge, Phare Cambodian Circus
I didn’t start this business. It is the business extension of Phare Ponleu Selpak Artist Center, an NGO school founded in 1994 that provides free academic and artistic education to underprivileged Cambodian youth. The school created Phare, the Cambodian Circus in 2013 with dual missions: to provide well paying jobs to the students and help financially sustain the education and social outreach projects of the school.
I learned about Phare when I was working for a bike tour operator in Siem Reap, and had the opportunity to experience several shows, introducing it to our overseas travel agent partners. The more I saw the shows and learned about the program, the more touched I was with the project. Phare asked me to join them in September of 2013 to help build their sales and marketing program. I’d worked 20 years in the travel industry, mostly in sales, so I thought what a perfect opportunity to put my selling experience to use really making a difference in people’s lives.
So I ran away with the circus.
What is it about your location that makes you and your customers smile?
Phare, the Cambodian Circus is located in Siem Reap, Kingdom of Cambodia, known as the home of UNESCO World Heritage Site and Wonder of the World: Angkor Wat and Angkor Archeological Park. Two things about this destination that make me smile. First it’s the unbelievably friendly Cambodians I meet when I’m biking around the countryside. They are awesome. No matter where I am, villagers come out and greet me with big smiles on their faces. Second, every time I bike past one of the Angkor temples, a smile comes to my face as I consider that these Wonders of the World are in my back yard.
Can you tell us more about the Phare Cambodian Circus?
Let me also share a brief intro to the circus and the NGO school behind it.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus is Siem Reap’s most unique, authentic top rated (TripAdvisor) evening entertainment.
More than just a circus, Phare, the Cambodian Circus (www.PhareCambodianCircus.org) performers use theater, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories; historical, folk and modern. The young circus artists will astonish you with their energy, emotion, enthusiasm and talent.
Phare artists are students and graduates from Phare Ponleu Selpak’s (www.phareps.org) vocational training centre in Battambang. The association was formed in 1994 by 8 young men coming home from a refugee camp after the Khmer Rouge regime. They were greatly helped by art 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 theater 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 will take them out of poverty and give them self-respect and freedom.
What is it about the circus and the shows that makes your customers smile?
Rarely is helping people so much fun.
Phare, the Cambodian Circus performances leave guests feeling a special sense of elation. Every story has an element of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, such as conquering the fear of ghosts, surviving Khmer Rouge or overcoming discrimination and bullying. The stories were created and developed at their school, so in a way, the artists are sharing with you a part of their own lives. The energy, enthusiasm, determination, dedication, talent and raw athleticism of the artists is enough to astonish audiences, but understanding the unbelievably difficult social and economic circumstances from which they come will blow you away.
You’ll smile with anticipation as you arrive and see the colorful lighting and the authentic red big top. You’ll smile as you browse the unique original artwork of Phare students in the Phare Boutique or enjoy a drink and a meal in Phare Cafe. You’ll smile in amazement during the show and smile for photos with the artists after the show. And when you leave, you’ll smile thinking of how much fun you just had while making a huge difference in those young people’s lives.
Can you share an experience with the circus that made you smile?
Besides nightly performances at the big top in Siem Reap, Phare also performs at private events throughout Cambodia. One very special event was last year’s Christmas Eve performance at Song Saa Private Island.
A visit to Song Saa is an amazing experience for anyone, but the reactions of some of our group moved me to tears. It was the first time for 3 of them to ever even see the ocean. It was very powerful just to see their reactions., and to feel that I played some part in them being able to go there.
The show was awesome. The whole resort was mesmerized, from the guests to the staff to the management. One year later, we still get guests who tell me they came to our show on the recommendation of the staff at Song Saa.
We’re preparing the Christmas Eve show for Song Saa this year. That makes me smile.