A circus with a purpose: The healing power of Phare

Phare Circus has built a successful travel experiences business around a social mission of uplifting and empowering Cambodia’s youth. Hear their story at Arival Activate|Bangkok 2023

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Imagine growing up believing that your sole destiny and purpose in life was to follow cows to pasture. No dreams of space exploration, fighting fires, or becoming the next president. For people in Western developed countries, it’s hard for us to really understand the sense of hopelessness of somebody growing up poor in rural Cambodia.

However, Phare Circus in Siem Reap is doing something to remedy this.

Most tourism experiences are born out of a desire to share a passion or entertain travelers, but Phare Circus was born out of a much bigger need: transforming the lives of young Cambodians. With a mission of using art to heal, Phare was established in 1994 by nine young men, refugees from the Khmer Rouge, with the help of a drawing teacher from France who showed them how to use art as a therapeutic healing modality.

The school initially started with drawing classes and later expanded to include other art forms such as dance, music, and theater. It didn’t take long for the school directors to realize that some of the students possessed genuine talent, which led to a shift in their thinking.

“It went from just art therapy and revival of the arts to, “Gee, maybe we can make a future for them that didn’t exist in Cambodia before”. That was when the idea for the circus came up,” shares Craig Dodge, Director of Sales & Marketing at Phare.

OPERATING FROM A PLACE OF PURPOSE

Following cows to pasture is truly what most Cambodian children believe they will be confined to doing the rest of their life. But breaking out of the cycle with the help of the school and circus allows them to see they can do more in this life, even if it’s not directly related to the arts. “They suddenly realize, I don’t have to follow cows, but what I’d really like to do is be a chef.”

Phare Circus is setting the example of what purpose-driven tourism has the potential to be. Dodge declares, “We believe very strongly that you can have an excellent experience while traveling and at the same time make a positive impact on the community. I think that’s what’s needed more everywhere, but especially in a developing country.”

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ACTIVATING TRAVELERS THROUGH AUTHENTIC STORYTELLING

When you think of a circus today, images of tigers leaping through fiery hoops, or the enchanting worlds of Cirque de Soleil may come to mind. However, Phare Circus stands apart with its foundation in authentic storytelling. The artists craft their performances based on their own lives, taking audiences on a journey through the experiences that shaped them.

“So, when you see it, you realize you’ve seen something quite real. They’re performing from their own lives, from their own experience, from their heart. So, when you walk away from that, you can’t help but be gobsmacked.” 

And with its smaller venue, there’s a sense of intimacy that develops and you feel like you’re a part of something, rather than just observing. “When people understand those backstories, things change. It’s not just a circus anymore.”

Phare Circus stands apart with its foundation in authentic storytelling.

CREATING A MORE INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

Upon realizing that people desired a more interactive journey, Phare Circus made significant changes to their pre-show food service. They converted their usual sit-down café into a lively Cambodian street food market, complete with food stalls placed throughout the venue. This transformation created a more captivating atmosphere, allowing visitors to observe the food preparation, engage in conversations with the chefs, and savor a unique range of cuisine.

“In addition, we introduced a special offering called ‘Phare Insider,’ where individuals can pay a little extra, arrive early, and embark on a backstage tour. We provide them with an introduction to the program and the opportunity to witness the behind-the-scenes areas such as the technical air work sections, costume work areas, makeup, and more,” Dodge shared.

CONNECTIVITY & WORD OF MOUTH

Over a decade ago, Phare knew they wanted to integrate with popular online booking platforms, but they were struggling to get the attention. “When I go to Arival and I look at who’s participating there, it’s so many of the people who were with us in 2013 that got us on board with the right platforms. Stephen Joyce (of Rezgo at the time) and Baidi Li (of Go City) were the ones who really pulled us in and showed us how it was done. And I just can’t express my appreciation enough for all they did.” 

Establishing connections with individuals capable of guiding them to the right platforms proved vital to Phare’s success. Nevertheless, Dodge acknowledges that exceptional word-of-mouth cannot be substituted. 

And what propels Phare’s word-of-mouth? Making a profound impact. “The more we can get that message out, then the more impactful the experience is, and the more people will talk about it.”

Phare Circus setting the example of what purpose-driven tourism has the potential to be.

 LEARN MORE ABOUT PHARE’S COMMUNITY IMPACT & SUCCESS AT ARIVAL

The pandemic hit Cambodia hard, but the Phare performers are a determined bunch. Instead of focusing on what they didn’t have during the last 3 years, they channeled their energy into something miraculous and set the world’s record for the longest circus performance: 24+ hours of a continual circus performance in the midst of uncertainty.

It is this resilient spirit and newfound hope that they carry with them into the future and spread to everyone who attends their shows. And while recovery will take time, Dodge is optimistic that they will return to pre-pandemic levels soon. Join Craig Dodge at Arival Activate|Bangkok this year, where he will share more stories of Phare’s incredible operation.

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