Battambang and the circus

From here it was to Battambang. An interminable and non-descriptive journey if truth be told, but finally salvation arrived in the shape of the Sanctuary hotel, just outside the centre. A funny place: ostensibly perfect, a nice pool, decent size rooms, bamboo shaded seating area… but it was missing something we never quite put our fingers on. Be that as it may, it was a good one night pit stop, and after a quick chlorine intense swim, we left for the Monday evening performance of the wonderful Phare Ponleu Selpak circus. This admirable foundation was set up almost 15 years ago to support through the arts a remarkable number of underprivileged children in severe poverty, open to drug, sexual and domestic abuse, with little future open to them other than or near slavery work conditions in Thailand. They take them in from a tender age, offering kindergarten, a dance academy, circus arts training and art tuition, offering them much needed despite from their very difficult personal circumstances. Cambodia sadly remains a deprived country and still a very difficult place for many children to grow up with any prospects whatsoever.

The results of Phare Ponleu speak for themselves: a hot, sweaty and shabby ‘big top’, equipped with a few fans and bare wooden benches for perhaps a maximum of 150 audience, a group of young students baring their artistic hearts and souls as they worked through their moving, well executed program. They made mistakes, their props were minimal, their costume basic: but their wonderful characterisations, their incredible effort, emotion, teamwork, trust, humour and above all, joy in their performance, was felt by each and every one of us. It was a tribute to the power of personal determination, and the arts, to free the human spirit, at least for a while, despite the odds. We were deeply moved and incredibly impressed: congratulations to you all.

Dinner was then one of our Cambodia best: some absolutely delicious ‘bao’ and Khmer curry at Jaal Bai, a great place run by some young, fun Cambodians. The following day heralded a tour of old colonial Battambang, which was hot, and not our favourite: actually, we think we screwed up and didn’t see most of the places we were supposed to. But frankly it didn’t matter, it was so blisteringly hot that even the right route, if it exists, wouldn’t have been massively appealing that morning. Then, the start of our temple run began: a 43 degree (no joke) climb from the lake below up almost 400 enormous vertical steps to Phnom Banan temple. Dad wisely stayed below with a large beer, watching the lake and the food sellers, while we melted our way up to the top. A group of romantic, albeit badly kempt Buddhist ruins, three extra degrees heat and an excellent view was our reward. After a prayer and offering led by kind and a suitably wizened lady at Buddha’s feet, we were damn ready for that beer below, and gladly suffered the next sweating descent to relative cool. After all, this is nothing compared to the three days of Angkor ahead….


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