Its been just a few days since I arrived in Cambodia to spend time with arts organisation Phare Ponleu Selpak, and already my brain is full up of so much new.
Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Battambang, which is in the North East of Cambodia, and home of Phare Ponleu Selpak. I was told that not many tourists make it out to Battambang, which is a shame. With its dusty roads, loud street noises, crazy traffic without any rules and street side food carts every where you look, this place excites me and wakes up all of my senses. I’m definitely not in Sydney anymore.
Before making it to my hotel, I spent my day at Phare being introduced to way to many people to remember anyones name, being shown around the organisation and spending the afternoon with the awareness theatre troupe who were rehearsing their safe migration play. As I don’t happen to speak Khmer I didn’t understand a word, so I was happy to find that I could understand a lot of the play through its movement, plus some interpretation. I will spend the rest of my week with the troupe, 8am-5pm everyday through to Friday where they will perform a dress rehearsal to the rest of the school. But I will will talk more about this in a later post. First, I want to tell you about the inspiring history of Phare.
Phare Poneu Selpak, which translates to ‘the brightness of the arts’ was first thought up at the Site 2 refugee camp in the late 1970’s. During the time of the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodian’s fled to the Thai/Cambodian border to seek refuge, and it is here that 9 children who attended drawing classes had the idea to set up the organisation to help other children deal with the trauma of war. Along with their French art teacher Phare was established in Battambang in 1994 and has since grown from its early idea into a thriving Internationally recognised school.
Phare is made up of 4 parts. First there is the regular public school. Not only does the school provide free education from kindergarten to age 18, but they even provide loans to families who struggle to pay for basic schooling needs such as uniform. Along side the school the campus compromises of the Visual and Applied Arts School, Performing Arts School (including theatre, dance, music and circus) and the Social Support and Child Protection Unit. Artistic practice is at the heart of the formal education, with Phare tailoring to each child’s individual need. As you walk around the campus it feels like such a creative environment, with the air filled with music from the outdoor music classes and you can peak a glimpse of circus practice through enormous open doors.
Helping keep the organisation afloat financially is their social enterprise – the Phare Cambodian Circus. Performing most nights under a big top in Siem Reap, plus a few nights a week in Battambang, Phare’s circus is one of the top attractions in Cambodia. I even heard someone recommending it on the plane. My first night in Siem Reap I headed along to see it myself and was blown away by the talent. Seriously, body parts were bent into positions I never know possible the strength of the performers was mind boggling. Not only that but the whole 1 hour show was incredibly charming, telling the story of a group of school children who run in to some ghosts.
Phare Performing Social Enterprise has three complimentary social missions: Provide gainful employment to Cambodian youth from difficult social and economic backgrounds, financially sustain Phare Ponleu Selpak and support the rebirth of Cambodian modern art.
I look forward to delving in deeper to this organisation as from its very rich surface I feel there is a lot for me to learn.