On Sunday night I decided to go to the Cambodian circus. I had found it on TripAdvisor as a “must see,” and it’s been a while since I’ve last gone to a circus. Two Malaysian girls from my room at the hostel were also going, so we decided to split a tuk-tuk ride there. The tuk-tuk driver offered us a price of $4 total to take us there, wait for the show to be over, then bring us back. This is when I realized how hugely I had been ripped off before. Most of the times that I overpaid I knew I was getting ripped off, but I have such a hard time bargaining over a difference of $3 when I know it means more to those people than it does to me.
Anyhow, the circus experience was phenomenal. Our tuk tuk driver wasn’t familiar with where it was, but I was able to use Google maps on my phone (despite not having service or wifi) to navigate us there. The two girls, the driver, and I were all pretty blown away that we were able to find it like that.
The venue was a traditional circus tent with seating to accommodate fewer than 200 people. There were three ticket options ranging from $18-35, but we booked the cheapest because we figured it wouldn’t be too bad. I’m actually glad I didn’t spend the $35, because we were still seated right up against the action.
The Phare Circus is a product of an NGO that allows underprivileged kids to attend performing arts school for free. It was created after the fall of the Khmer Rouge for a way for kids to heal from the hardships they’d experienced. The proceeds from the performances go back into keeping the school up and running.
The show lasted about an hour and a half. There was a projector screen with translations into various languages so everyone could keep up with the dialogue of the show. The storyline was about a disabled man who came to a village and was ridiculed by everyone, so he asked the gods to turn him into a beautiful woman. Once he was a beautiful woman, he tempted all of the men in the village, and everyone wanted the woman to like them. Disease came to the village, and they thought the woman was a curse, so they killed her. Once she was dead, the gods came in and said that they misunderstood the woman’s purpose and that disease came because they were shallow in who they were accepting. They apologized, the woman came back to life as the disabled man, and they all lived happily ever after.
When they first came out on stage, they came out with such booming energy that I felt so excited my eyes welled up with tears. I think it was a combination of exhaustion and excitement, but I haven’t seen someone do that since I took my niece to Sesame Street Live. It’s hard to put my finger on what it was that was so electrifying about their energy. Throughout the story they performed outrageous stunts that kept the whole audience entertained. At the end of the show they offered everyone a chance to go down and meet the performers. We decided not to, just due to the lines. It was a great experience, though, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone traveling in Siem Reap.
The day after the circus I went on a tour called, “A Day in the Life.” I booked online a few weeks in advance because the tour only operates 3 days a week, and they’re small groups. I was picked up at my hostel at 7:45am, and met up with my tour group which consisted of a mother and daughter from Maryland who are a military family currently living in Seol. We got into a van with our guide and a driver. Our guide, Lee, spoke flawless English with an Australian accent.
Lee told us about the tour company (Beyond Unique Escapes) and the nonprofit HUSK Cambodia. HUSK is an amazing nonprofit that focuses on improving the lives of people living in rural villages. They have built schools, implemented water filtration systems, they build houses, and so much more. Our first stop on the tour was at a market about 3 miles outside the city of Siem Reap. We walked around to pick out ingredients for the lunch that was going to be prepared later in the day. The market tour felt a little bit uncomfortable, because everyone was staring and they weren’t smiling. When I asked Lee about it, he said that it’s because the people aren’t used to seeing foreigners and they were probably scared.
After the market he took us to a Buddhist pagoda, where we walked around and learned more about the Buddhist culture in Cambodia. The pagoda had a school for boys, which prompted me to ask Lee about the girls. He said that the girls traditionally stay at home and learn how to be a wife. They’re not able to become monks anyway. That is where HUSK foundation comes in, as they’ve setup a school within the village with free access to over 400 children. We learned some startling statistics about the children attending school in Cambodia. The most amazing piece was that in the high tourist season, 75% of the school kids leave the village to sell souvenirs at the temples. Lee told us that it is important not to give money to the children, because it only adds to the begging cycle. The HUSK school is 100% taught in English by volunteers. They don’t have enough resources to have a proper school schedule for everyone, so the age groups rotate on a schedule of three classes per week for an hour and a half each class. It was really startling to hear how little access to schooling the kids have, but amazing to hear of foundations such as HUSK that were there to help.
From the pagoda, we went to each pick out a fruit tree. I guess a tree was included in the price we paid for the tour. They were grown by a local farmer, and we were going to plant them in the house of a local family. I picked a custard apple tree, and then we got onto carts being pulled by cows to get to our next site. We met a local family who taught us how to weave together palm leaves to fix a wall of their house. In total we weaved 15 panels, and it felt like we actually helped the family. They seemed very grateful, and it didn’t seem at all like we were being intrusive tourists. We planted the trees and headed out, but not without being profusely thanked by the family.
We got to meet some local women sewing stuffed animals to sell as fair trade handicrafts. The nonprofit provided them with the materials to sew, and they directly received a part of the proceeds from the sales. The building that they were working in was constructed using plastic water bottles packed with plastic bags, and was built by a school group from Canada. All of which was organized through HUSK. I can’t overstate just how much this foundation was doing to directly benefit the people of the village.
I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty during the entire thing. A big part of me regrets the decision to teach for profit in Phuket. After I saw the lack of schooling available to the kids in Cambodia, I wished I would’ve spent the last 7 months of my time helping them instead.
Before I decided to go to Phuket I had been accepted to serve in the PeaceCorps in El Salvador. My main priority was to make a difference and gain cultural experience in return. After applying, but before being accepted, I backed out. I think what made me change my mind was the lack of individual freedom and the 28-month time commitment. I am content with my decision not to go, but there’s still an ounce of regret there. In Phuket I had all the freedoms of a 25-year-old Westerner, and I stayed for an ideal amount of time. The main problem is; I wasn’t working to improve the livelihood of an underprivileged community, which was something that originally spurred my desire to travel abroad again.
It’s a complicated balance, I guess. I know this is not my last trip abroad. There are endless opportunities to volunteer abroad for shorter timeframes, and I know now that I’ll just need to seek them out next time. Just a learning experience, I guess.
Getting back on track though…
The tour felt less like a tour, and more like an insight into the efforts of HUSK Cambodia to improve the lives of underprivileged communities. It was an inspiring and humbling day.
The next day I left for Bangkok, where I am now. There will be a whole new post on the Thai New Year coming up soon, but I’m done writing for now. J
Also, I am heading to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam tomorrow at 11am. Everything is moving so fast it is getting hard to keep up with all that I have to say throughout these travels!
I have my laptop connected to a wifi hotspot from my cellphone, since I am trying to use the last remaining data on my Thai SIM card. I was able to upload a lot more pictures, so make sure to check them out!