Inner Circle

The Elephant, The Lingas and The Circus

Yeoh Siew Hoon discovers how entertainment uplifts Siem Reap.

The Elephant, The Lingas and The Circus
The view is amazing from this elevation and as you look around the dense jungle, you wonder why ancient kings insisted on building huge monuments in such hostile and inaccessible territory.

Several years ago, a tour operator friend told me about a temple two hours outside Siem Reap that had an ancient elephant.  To get there, you had to pass a river with a thousand lingas – an image that stayed in my mind for a long time.

During my last visit to Siem Reap, I decided it was time to see this place for myself.  Phnom Kulen is a mountain about 50 kilometres from downtown Siem Reap; nestled among the hills is Elephant Pond, whose ruins date back to the ninth century.  It’s an hour’s drive followed by a half-hour motorbike ride to the site of the ruins. 

The motorbike ride is fun.  You sit pillion and hold on for dear life as the rider weaves in, out and around the dirt trail.  “Hold tight,” he says.  You’d better.  He’s like Evel Knievel on a scooter.  There are moments when you have to duck so your head doesn’t hit the branches, and some when you have to lift your legs so your shoes don’t get splashed.  There are also times when you have to get off the bike to walk because the path’s too narrow and steep – but it’s all part of the adventure.

The reward at the end of this journey is seeing the mighty elephant statue flanked by several lions – they are in good shape considering their age.  The view is amazing from this elevation and as you look around the dense jungle, you wonder why ancient kings insisted on building huge monuments in such hostile and inaccessible territory. 

Back among the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, we are taken on a river cruise – and our guide has arranged champagne and canapés on-board for us.  A perfect way to end the day watching the sun set on one of Asia’s most magnificent historic sites in a gently rocking gondola. 

In the evening, we take a walk to the big top of Phare, The Cambodian Circus.  I was curious to see the performance, having heard so much about the good work being done by the Phare Foundation to take children at risk off the streets and train them to be artists, musicians, performers and dancers. 

The show is not only clever – the acrobatic feats are amazing, and require plenty of courage and talent – but is also very entertaining.  What I like most is the local flavour of the story, music and dance.  The performance that night was called “Tchamlaek” and tells the story of an ailing father who dreams of owning a big house, and depends on his son to make the dream come true. 

Phare is known for depicting local themes through street art.  In Battambang in 1994, eight young Cambodian refugees started the organisation for entertainment, to take people’s minds off their sufferings after the Khmer Rouge terror. 

They used street art to educate villagers about land mines and diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, and to teach children the basics of hygiene.  Today, the PPS School of Art and Social Centre in Battambang teaches 1,400 kids visual arts, dance, drama and music every day. 

The next morning, I caught up with Dara Huot, the Siem Reap-based director, who told me, “Phare is not an orphanage; it’s a school association that identifies children from areas of risk and teaches them circus skills, theatre performance, music and a range of visual arts.”

Dara’s task is to make the Cambodian Circus a self-sustainable social enterprise by generating revenue through its performances, corporate events and merchandising.  So next time you are in Siem Reap, make sure you catch The Circus, The Elephant and The Lingas. The life-changing experience not only impresses, but will open your eyes to how entertainment has improved the quality of life for locals. 

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