How Long-Term Community Engagement is the Best Road to Success for Social Enterprises

The acrobat on stage contorted her body into an impossible angle. She wrapped her toes around the string of her bow, prepping the arrow. The flexible young woman leading her circus troupe took a dramatic pause. Next to me, my niece’s body tensed; I heard her sharp intake of breath. The tension mounted in the audience. In a blinding flash, the acrobat released the arrow, piercing the balloon across the stage. The circus had spent two hours telling the story of Cambodia’s sad and bloody past. By popping the balloon, she had symbolically eliminated the evil forces and death brought by the Khmer Rouge that reigned over Cambodia during the 1970s.

After the show, my niece bubbled with questions and energy about the meaning behind the performance. She and I were travelling together through Southeast Asia, and we had both made the decision to spend our last days in Cambodia. Travelling with a child had changed my focus during our trip. While I am passionate about responsible tourism, bringing her along meant I had to marry the twin goals of using travel as an education, while also finding fun ways to create an engaging learning process. When I passed a faded, full-color poster for the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus in Battambang, Cambodia, I knew we might have found a fun activity for the evening. I hadn’t counted on finding an evening filled with history, culture, and social responsibility.

Phare Ponleu Selpak is an educational children’s art NGO in rural Cambodia. On the surface, they offer tourists in Battambang and Siem Reap an evening filled with acrobatics and circus skills. Under it, the organization demonstrates the deep impact a single organization can have on the community they support. Phare started as a way to use arts-based community development to support former Cambodian refugees. Over the course of three decades, the organization grew their impact and mission through community feedback. Phare provides free services to the community that range from social services to performing arts classes. It’s this piece of Phare’s story underscores a larger part of of the travel narrative. Beyond supporting local businesses, travel gives us the opportunity to use our spending power to support those organizations positively impacting local communities.

Over the years, as the skills of Phare’s students grew, they began offering circus shows to the local community, and to tourists passing through. As the shows grew in popularity, the circus troupe began performing all over the world, giving the students an outlet to share their story — giving them a way to share their country’s history through art.

There were deeply serious moments throughout the circus performance my niece and I watched. The young acrobats simulated the bloody five years that the Khmer Rouge ruled the country. Then, they showed lighter moments of jaw-droppingly good circus skills. Alongside this blended show of circus skills, music, and art, the haunting storyline told of Cambodia’s sad past and all-too-recent genocide. I loved the performance. It broke my heart, but I loved it. The young adults showed incredible, well-honed talent. But more than that, the performance showed the payoff from Phare’s 30 years working within the community.

One refrain I often hear from travellers is that they simply don’t know how to travel responsibly.

And while accommodation choices and transportation play a role, so too does the power behind each tourism dollar spent in a destination. It’s harnessing this spending power that lies in my advocacy work for social enterprises. Businesses with an underlying social mission run in every corner of the world and support a gamut of causes and issues.

There’s a perception with many that responsible travel is a very serious matter — serious in a way that implies is difficult to make impactful tourism choices. The issue of sustainable, responsible tourism is serious — speakers from the WTTC’s recent Global Summit highlighted many of the issues facing Travel & Tourism in the coming decades. But for travellers, the actual act of travelling responsibly doesn’t have to be imbued with the hefty weight that many first assume. Responsible travel doesn’t look like any one thing. Some aspects require deep research, others require a sense of curiosity that allows you to see a faded poster for a local circus and take a leap of faith. Over the past months, we’ve looked at the role social enterprises play in responsible tourism — from learning about Maasai culture to understanding fair-trade pipelines. It’s a varied form of tourism filled with nuance. It can also be filled with fun.


Considering a Visit to Phare Ponleu Selpak?

What: Phare is best known for their circus performances in Siem Reap. They have a range of shows. Each show shares a different aspect of Cambodian culture and history. They also have a strong focus on visual arts education, and exhibit the children’s artwork at the shows. Travellers in Battambang are able to tour the community compound and learn more about their mission and activities. And for the adventurous, they offer circus skills workshops for visiting groups.

Where: Phare has exhibits and/or performances in two Cambodian cities: Siem Reap and Battambang. Their main community compound is outside of Battambang, Cambodia.

When: Phare runs nightly circus performances in Siem Reap, and three times per week in Battambang. Booking show tickets in advance is a must. The art exhibits in each city are open year-round. The troupe occasionally tours internationally, and those tour dates are always listed on their site.

* All photos courtesy of Phare Ponleu Selpak


Written by Shannon O’Donnell as part of our social enterprises series.

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