Books in Lotus Cafe Battambang Cambodia
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Cambodia: the circus and plastic – Eco-tourism

I have fallen in love with Cambodia. We have been here for over two weeks, and I feel rejuvenated in a way that I find difficult to understand or articulate. I am trying to work out why Cambodia has enlivened my spirit.

The intense oranges and greens of the landscape and the solid temples, mixed with a touch of French colonial culture, have captured my heart. 

Old art, drawings, and paintings sit on Cafe walls as a silent testament to an age before the Khmer Rouge. It feels like being dropped into a warm, soapy bath that smells of jasmine, but it is not like that at all.

Our trip to Southeast Asia has lasted nearly three months. In Siem Reap, the temple town, we have met travellers from Australia, China, France, and a few Russians and Brits. We have visited Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, and we are now in Battambang, a town full of artists, it seems. 

Angkor Thom faces Cambodia
Angkor Thom Faces Cambodia

Being surrounded by free spirits is part of why I feel joy.

As we have visited some tourist sites, sustainable tourism keeps popping into my mind. Beside the treasures of Cambodia, is plastic, piles of it. We pass by in Tuk-Tuk’s and turn away from the rotting food oozing out of plastic bags by the roadside. Discarded water bottles block shallow rivers and waterways.

Rubbish and offering table Cambodia
Rubbish and offering table Cambodia

Small children beg at temple sites, offering to fan a tourist for a few seconds in return for a Cambodian note that says 1000 (worth about 25 cents). I watched as a few Chinese and Cambodian tourists handed over dollars and other notes to children, perpetuating their dependence on tourists.

The Cambodian people are a mixture of contrasts. Older people are willing to talk about the Khmer Rouge horrors. Some people I have spoken with recognise the older generation is dealing with Post Traumatic Stress without much mental health support. Other people express disappointment in the new generation’s perceived lack of culture and interest in history. Cell phones sit comfortably with dirt and poverty. What is next for Cambodia is anyone’s guess.

One initiative to help local young people is based in Siem Reap. It is called the Phare Circus. Circus performers use theatre, music, dance, and circus arts to tell Cambodian stories and historical, folk, and modern short dramas.

The show we saw was called “Same Same” and played with the idea of the foreigner and Cambodian living side by side. Wearing masks and climbing high, the performers playfully enact the reactions of the drunk visitor or what happens when the electricity goes off. The show contrasts cultural norms around food, dating, and gender roles.

Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) was founded in 1994 by nine young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the camp, they took drawing classes and found art to be a powerful tool for healing. When they returned home, they began offering free drawing classes to street children. Soon, they opened a school, eventually offering formal K-12 education and professional arts training in visual arts (illustration, painting, graphic design, and animation), theatre, music, dance, and circus.”

More than 1,200 pupils attend public school daily, and 500 attend vocational arts training programs. All programs are offered for free.

Cold, shiny, reusable water bottles advertising the circus are handed out to those who pay for an expensive seat. Along the side of the bottle is a list of locations where you can refill the water bottle instead of buying non-reusable plastic containers. It was a helpful message, bringing the problem of plastic and youth education together. The circus initiative is an eco-tourism that made me feel hopeful about the contrasts. A friend told me recently that being inspired is better than feeling hopeful, and I am finding the changing face of Cambodia to be an inspiration.

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