Monday, September 17, 2012

Phare Ponleu Selpak: Not Just Any Circus

The evening of our arrival in Battambang, we had plans to go see the circus. I hadn’t been to a circus since I was a small child, and my memories of it involved the stereotypical big tent, three rings, animals, clowns, jugglers, and maybe a few tumblers thrown in just for fun. I had an idea that this circus would be different when Jeff pointed out that some of its former members now are part of Cirque du Soleil. My thoughts: “Oh, this is going to be more of an acrobatic circus. Cool!”

The show did involve amazing acrobatic feats, and they indeed were very cool, but it turns out that this circus is even more than that. This circus was Phare PonleuSelpak.

Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO; often called simply “a charity”) that was started in 1986 in a refugee camp near the Cambodia-Thai border. From the website: “The idea of a creative association, which would use art and expression to help young refugees overcome the trauma of war, emerged from drawing workshops held for children in the camps. This original idea continued after the refugees returned to their homeland, and PPS was formally founded in 1994 by a group of former Site 2 [Refugee Camp] children.” Phare Ponleu Selpak is centered in Battambang and currently serves over 1,000 children in various ways. Some attend a public school that is sponsored by the organization; others receive free medical care and meals; and many have access to a library and leisure center. But those are not the things for which PPS is most widely known.

PPS is known as a training center for artists, musicians, actors, and circus performers. During our time on the PPS campus, we experienced the results of training in all of these areas.

Upon our arrival, we first were ushered into a building in which original artwork was displayed. The work consisted of pencil drawings as well as paintings, using a variety of mediums and styles. I so wanted to take pictures of the art, but that just felt wrong—the work was for sale, and it would have been too much like stealing to create a digital copy rather than purchase the original—so I took pictures* only of two huge sculptures that were displayed in the rafters. These sculptures obviously paid homage to the circus school, which attracts so many paying visitors to the campus. A friend purchased small paintings of Buddha faces carved into stone, as well as a set of paintings of Ta Prohm. I came close to buying a painting (or two) of traditional, raised Cambodian houses, and I also gravitated toward one of the Ta Prohm paintings, but I realized that we purchased so much papyrus in Egypt, and we’ve already purchased or planned to purchase several other pieces of wall art here, that we simply won’t have wall space for much more. So I resisted the urge … I’m still not certain that was the right decision!

After we browsed in the art gallery for a while, it was time to go to the circus pavilion. This area was a relatively small, open-aired structure: a flat paved stage, with curtains hiding the backstage areas behind it, a small musicians’ area beside it, and bleachers in front of it, all covered by a roof supported by poles, on which hung the necessary spotlights. Not a particularly impressive setting for what turned out to be a very impressive show. 

Even after learning that the circus is more acrobatic than animal, my expectations turned out to be too low. I expected spectacular feats, to be sure, but I expected acrobatics, and that was it—maybe I’m just revealing that I’ve never seen a Cirque du Soleil show, but it didn’t occur to me that there was more to it than acrobatics. This was so much more than acrobatics. This was drama, set to music, accompanied by the creation of original paintings, and telling the stories both of one woman and of a nation.

The show started with an old woman hobbling out onto the stage. She was bundled up against the incessant chill that her old bones probably felt on the warmest of days, wearing glasses, and carrying a book that she obviously treated with great love and respect. As she sat down to read, however, she fell asleep … and the story began.

Several young men ran onto the stage, and with loving tenderness, they began to rewind the clock. Away went the book. Off came the glasses, then the scarf. With each article that she no longer needed, the woman straightened, became more energetic … became younger, until at last there was a young girl sitting there. The girl hopped off the stool and started playing with her friends, at least until the teacher came in and forced them back to work.

Meanwhile, off to the side, an artist unobtrusively painted a serene Buddhist monk, in his bright saffron robes, on a previously blank canvas.

The  show continued with snippets of the girl’s life. We watched her grow into a young woman, start dating, have children, become a teacher—each phase marked by exuberant, awe-inspiring feats of balance and agility by both the girl and those around her. Along the way, we saw a night when she was tormented by demons—a night when she almost died, and the serene monk was covered over with black and spattered with red. A night when her country was ransacked and her life was endangered by the Khmer Rouge.

We also saw the dawn, when the young woman rose from her bed, triumphant merely because she still breathed. On canvas, we saw a tranquil farm on a dirt road—and we saw a city rise in the background, the brown dirt road transform into the black of asphalt, and street lights appear. We saw peace and hope return to the country, and to her life.

Eventually, we saw the young woman grow old. We saw her grow bent and frail. And we saw the tenderness with which her sons treated her as she released her cares and her frailties and passed on from this life.

We saw this woman’s life story. We laughed at her childhood antics, we feared for her life, we rejoiced with her when she fell in love. We shared her pride as she watched her children (or maybe her students) grow and develop and fulfill their potential. We felt a quiet sadness at her passing, and yet recognized her satisfaction at a life well lived.

All of this without a word.

That was Phare Ponleu Selpak.

*None of my pictures turned out very well. Even in the art gallery, which was well lighted, the rafters were a bit dark. And during the performance itself, of course it was dark, and flash photography was not allowed because it could distract the performers. The combination of low light and quick motion meant that these photos by far are not the best pictures I’ve ever taken.

Battambang series:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: Battambang Resort

Our bungalow at Battambang Resort, as seen from the restaurant

This past weekend was a long one, thanks to Labor Day, and a very good one, thanks to the embassy’s Community Liaison Office (CLO). The CLO organized a trip to Battambang, and our family took full advantage of this lazy-person’s opportunity to see more of Cambodia without putting in any of the work to plan the trip. Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city, but unlike the other major population centers, it retains the feel of traditional Cambodia—it doesn’t attract as many expats as Phnom Penh or as many tourists as Siem Reap. There are some temples worth seeing and a couple of tourist attractions that are unique to Battambang, and I hope to talk about these in a future post, but this post is all about the resort.

The approach to our bungalow

Battambang Resort just opened in January 2012, but it already has a reputation for excellence. As far as I can tell, the reputation is well deserved. The resort is owned by a married couple, who were readily available and engaged in making sure every need and want was satisfied. The staff was friendly—especially toward Alexa, as Cambodians in general love children—and did everything in their power to make our stay pleasant.

Sleeping area--after we'd used it, so not as tidy as it was at first

Our group booked the entire place, which consists of four bungalow (or lake view) rooms and maybe six standard (or garden view) rooms. Jeff, Alexa, and I stayed in a bungalow, assuming that we’d have more room for Alexa’s peapod in a bungalow than in a standard room. I don’t know if there would have been room for it in a standard room, but there was no problem fitting it into our bungalow. The room itself was clean and comfortable, and nicely furnished. It had the tile floors that are characteristic of Cambodian structures and a neutral color palette that felt clean and relaxing. The bathroom area was large, with a separate room for the toilet and a very cool shower—it was made of cement, was round, and had a rainfall showerhead, as well as a hand unit that could provide more water pressure when needed. The shower also had a skylight, which was practical, as the power was out throughout the city for the full day on Saturday. In fact, the large windows and patio doors, as well as the high windows in the water closet and even the frosted windows beside the sink ensured that there was plenty of light throughout the room even without any electricity. Jeff assures me that the bed was very comfortable—I found it to be too firm, but I know that I’m in the minority when it comes to sleeping preferences; most people almost certainly would say that it was just right. The room also had air conditioning and a ceiling fan.

View toward the bathroom (yes, those are Alexa's pink shoes)

 The other major feature of the resort was the restaurant. We ate all of our meals there, rather than taking the 10- or 15-minute tuk tuk ride into town for meals. Breakfast was included in the price of the room, and we could choose from four pre-set menus: the Bakery Breakfast (pancakes, French toast, and various other breads), the American Breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausage, and various breads), the Healthy Breakfast (fruit, yoghurt, cereal, and various breads), or the Asian Breakfast (I didn’t consider this one seriously enough to remember what was included), all of which came with coffee or tea, orange or apple juice, and butter and homemade dragonfruit jam as needed. Jeff and I ordered the American Breakfast for ourselves and the Healthy Breakfast for Alexa, and we all went away very satisfied. For lunch and dinner, there were sandwiches, salads, western meals, and Asian meals. During the course of the weekend, I tried one sandwich, one cheeseburger, one wrap, two Asian meals—sweet and sour pork and chicken with cashew nuts—and one dessert. All of it was very tasty and reasonably priced. The Asian meals were a little spicier than expected, but they still tasted good. The quality of the food undoubtedly was enhanced by the fact that a lot of it, including the rice, is grown in the resort’s garden and therefore was much fresher than the fare to which we Americans are accustomed. Even the potato chips were homemade!

Vanity area in our bungalow

Service at the restaurant was good. The staff was responsive to requests in those rare circumstances that our needs were not anticipated. There were a couple of meals where it took a while for the food to be prepared, but that was because the kitchen simply was overwhelmed by our large group all ordering at the same time. In most cases, an entire resort’s worth of guests probably do not order meals at once, and during the times that we were able to set our own schedules a bit more, and therefore spread out our meals, service was reasonably paced. The staff also was open to taking orders in advance and to preparing food for take-out, which proved convenient for our bus ride back to Phnom Penh.

The restaurant, as seen from the pool

 As a side note, there is a generator for the kitchen, and the seating area has lots of natural light (it’s covered but has no walls), so the restaurant remained open even with the power outage. The staff also had no problem with one family storing their babies’ bottles in the restaurant’s refrigerator during the outage or, for that matter, the rest of the time, in case of further power outages.

The pool

The resort grounds were beautiful, to put it simply. The pool was right beside the restaurant, with a lake on one side and the garden view rooms on the other. Fruit trees and flowers grew everywhere—I took a picture of a banana tree while sitting at lunch one day, and I have some gorgeous pictures of Alexa walking along the flower-bordered path to our bungalow. I did not ask for a tour of the gardens, though now I wish I had—I would love to have pictures of the rice field, the herb gardens, and the fruit trees.

Spirit house near the front desk

The owners also happily arranged for rides to town, tuk tuk tours of the area, and tickets to the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus. There was a small gift shop where several of us purchased Kampot pepper, lemongrass, oil burners, or wooden canisters, Buddhas, or other carvings, all at reasonable prices.

View from our window

 And, finally, speaking of prices: Battambang Resort may cost a little more than other hotels in Battambang, but it's well worth any slight increase in cost. By western standards, the prices are incredibly reasonable. Depending on the season and room type, prices range from $45 to $75 a night for a garden or lake room. (Apparently there also are or will be family rooms/suites available at a higher cost, but these did not seem to be in use during our stay.) Breakfast and wi-fi are included in the price. I don’t recall the exact prices of other meals, but most of them were $5 or less.

Elephant statues that Alexa loved

Bottom line—I highly recommend Battambang Resort. Whether you’re in the area for business or pleasure, whether you intend to spend your days sightseeing or lounging around the pool, Battambang Resort is a great place to make your home base.

Battambang series: