Upon journeying from Laos to Cambodia, a change in atmosphere became immediately apparent.
Whereas the people in gorgeous Laos are undeniably poor, they seem happy and relaxed. A friend there joked that ‘PDR’ in the country’s name stands for ‘people don’t rush’ (something I found annoyingly accurate in terms of South East Asian bus drivers lacking any sort of urgency whatsoever).
I think a lot of this feeling in Cambodia can be traced back to the shocking and devastating genocide that took place just 40 years ago, killing one-quarter of the country’s population.
I won’t go into detail about the disgusting measures taken by Pol Pot to drag the country back to ‘Year Zero’, as I would urge anyone to find out for themselves, if possible by visiting The Killing Fields just outside the capital, Phnom Penh.
The genocide meant that the small country was overcome with torture and execution, as educated, middle-class city dwellers were forced out and forced to work (literally to death).
Money became worthless, religion was banned and any sort of freedom became as elusive as a family not affected by the horrors. I can’t put this adequately into words, but the moving sights and audio recordings at Choeung Ek can.
A devastating consequence of the Khmer Rouge was the number of children left parent-less and income-less in Cambodia today. This is scarily obvious just from a night or two in the country’s capital where you won’t fail to see young people begging, selling wares and even resorting to prostitution on many a street corner.
In fact, plentiful social problems stemming from the Cambodia’s traumatic history mean that an estimated 35% of the country’s 15,000 prostitutes are under 16. And even if this this industry is not one fallen into by young people, there are few opportunities in the impoverished, infrastructure-lacking country. (For an informative, harrowing read on the problem, look here).
Various youth projects have sprung up, from non-profit restaurants training up young people, to foundations helping with everything from trafficking to AIDS. The one I want to draw attention to is Phare, a Cambodian circus in Siem Reap.
I was recommended the circus by some travelling friends in Laos, and some initial research quickly showed how valuable its mission was.
Not only does Phare aim to contribute to the rebirth of Cambodian modern art post genocide, but all of the performers in it are young people from the streets and orphanages. They learn the art of dance and music at an association in Battamban, which offers free education and the chance to earn a living wage.
The results are spectacular.
The circus offers nightly performances for just under 20 USD. The show I saw was called Chills, which succeeded in giving me them. The performers were incredibly talented, and with the help of subtitles, spent just over an hour enthralling the audience with a high energy, brave and very artistic show.
All the shows are based on Cambodian culture and, in this case, translated loosely to a light-hearted story about ghosts and confronting one’s fears. The mixture of music, dance and acrobatics was truly outstanding and so worthwhile.
The best part? It gave the kids a chance to just be kids. They were fun-loving, very cheeky and prancing around joyfully. For a country so devastated by decades of civil war and hardship, this was the most heart-warming aspect of all my time in Cambodia.