Battambang is a pretty unassuming place. It is easy to walk around, there is very little traffic, and the centre has a nice little café culture that I was happy to make the most of for the couple of days that I was in the small city in the north-west of Cambodia. What I really wasn’t expecting to find here, was a circus and arts school. It seems like a niche area of learning that you might expect to find in the capital city of a country – nevertheless, I was happy to make the discovery as I am a big fan of performance. When I’m at home I visit the theatre a fair bit, I have a load of friends who work as actors, and I’m especially interested in physical work, so circus skills are right up my street. Fortunately, the school puts on regular shows and I happened to be in town for a show of theirs called ‘Chills’.

battambang circus

Right now, it’s full-on rainy season in Cambodia. It’s driving me potty and I almost didn’t make it to the show since it was chucking it down so hard. Fortunately, tuk tuks are never hard to find so I dashed out of the café I was hiding in, jumped in a tuk tuk, and headed for the school, which is a short drive outside of Battambang town. I arrived and found a handful of other tourists who braved the rain and some very welcoming people who showed me into an exhibition they were hosting before the show started.

battambang circus 1

The actual show was nothing short of incredible. I’m not saying that because I haven’t  been to the theatre in ages, or because I felt sympathetic towards the performers because they are teenagers – it was genuinely great. What was really impressive about the performance was the synergy of their circus, acrobatic, and dance skills, and the fantastic storytelling that was on display throughout. A guy doing flips and juggling sharp objects is impressive, but this was all woven into a compelling story, and there were some particularly impressive character actors within the cast. My favourite scene was a courtship ritual between a teenage guy and girl, in which the guy is flirting by showing off his (outstanding) diablo skills.

battambang circus 2

battambang circus 3

Before going to the show, I simply saw a circus show advertised and hopped into a tuk tuk. But there is much more the circus school than this. Phare Ponleu Selpak was set up in 1994 and it works with kids in poverty to offer them a way of living as artists and performers. It was set up by young Cambodians who had recently returned from refugee camps and used art as a way to work through their trauma, and almost twenty years on it is still showcasing the power of art. If you ever find yourself in Battambang, I implore you to see a show by these skilled performers. This was easily my favourite night out in Cambodia and I can’t imagine anybody not being completely taken with the performance and the great work the school does. Do visit the school’s website for more information about their work.

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