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Cambodian Circus Adopts 'No Pain, No Gain' Attitude in Bid to Break Record

Circus artists in Cambodia attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the longest performance. (Photo by Scott Sharick)
Circus artists in Cambodia attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the longest performance. (Photo by Scott Sharick)

Choub Kanha, started her circus career at age 9, recently performed for more than 24 continuous hours in an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for the single longest circus performance.

The goal -- drawing post-pandemic tourists to a long-running attraction in Siem Reap, which is best known for the nearby Angkor Wat temple complex -- left the 25-year-old performer depleted.

“I could not properly move my body and muscles,” she said afterward. “I was exhausted.”

Now, with other circus artists of Cambodia’s Phare Ponleu Selpak, she’s anxiously awaiting an answer to the Big Top question: Did the live-streamed performance that drew more than 500,000 YouTube viewers hit the 24 hours and 10 minutes and 30 seconds needed to set a record?

“We don't have a fixed date for the official endorsement from Guinness, they are still processing our application and it usually takes several months. It is likely we will have feedback by August,” said Morgane Darrasse, media, communications and marketing coordinator for Phare Ponleu Selpak.

While waiting, the circus received three other international awards last month.

Phare Ponleu Selpak took the Gold Stevie in the Innovation in Events category and the Silver Stevie in the Innovation in Communications category, competing against 29 countries in the Asia Pacific Region Stevie Awards 2021. The Stevie is a business award that recognizes organizations and working professionals worldwide.

And the circus won a gold for in the Special Event category of the Hermes Creative Awards, which recognize work based “on creativity and what you apparently had to work with, not against the other entrants in the category,” according to the website.

But it is the Guinness milestone that could be a make-or-break proposition for the circus once Cambodia emerges from the pandemic by drawing audiences as tourists return.

Holding a Guinness World Record just doesn’t happen. There are regulations and evaluations that have evolved since the project began in 1951 as a way to settle pub arguments over topics such as “what is the fastest game bird in Europe.” (Answer: A plover.)

Guinness, a brewer, compiled a book of facts and figures that became a perennial bestseller and now irresistible clickbait. The two businesses decoupled in 2001.

“In our experience, big things get noticed,” says the organization’s site, which has a special section just on tourism and destination marketing.

Going for the record was worth a try. “We had to fight together for survival,” said Bo Ratha, an acrobat with 18 years of circus experience. “We knew we had to make it.”

Bou Ratha, circus artist of Kampuchea Phare Circus. (Image provided)
Bou Ratha, circus artist of Kampuchea Phare Circus. (Image provided)

So on March 7, some 200 Phare Ponleu Selpak performers and backstage helpers began physically and mentally preparing themselves for the circus marathon. After a week of rehearsing, the performers were united as one and ready to perform.

The troupe rehearsed until just before the clock started ticking. They held hands. They focused themselves. They erupted in a loud cheer and began their circus marathon, knowing it would continue into the next day with cameras capturing every feat of circus artistry.

Phare Ponleu Selapak, which has trained and produced artists for more than 27 years, spun off the Phare Performing Social Enterprise in Siem Reap eight years ago to provide jobs for artists. But when the coronavirus pandemic shut off the flow of tourists in the spring of 2020, the two endeavors hit tough times.

Bo Ratha, 30, found himself delivering construction materials for a store in his hometown of Battambang, known throughout Cambodia as an arts center. His boss gave him a week off to rehearse before the marathon and donated to the fundraising effort linked to the live-streaming.

“His gift was a big motivation for artists,” Bo Ratha said of the donation from Reaksmey Construction Material. Mentioning the amount given would be considered impolite, so Bo Ratha declined.

In the marathon, Bo Ratha and his circus partner, Choub Kanha, performed five big segments. The opening one, Sor Kreas (Eclipse), started at 8 a.m. and lasted an hour.

One of their favorite vignettes is Same Same but Different, which is about foreign travelers visiting Cambodia. In it, Bo Ratha and Choub Kanha, playing a Western couple, encounter Cambodian villagers during a sudden downpour.

The Cambodians perform a fishing dance and by the time the rain ends, everyone feels connected.

“It is a beautiful and romantic scene,” Choub Kanha said.

Kampuchea Phare Circus. (Image provided)
Kampuchea Phare Circus. (Image provided)

The marathon performance, however, presented new challenges. Everything demanded focus -- applying makeup, changing costumes, entering and exiting the stage.

Choub Kanha worried about the troupe’s safety.

“We got very little rest. The performance was tough, and it is a 24-hour show marathon,” she told VOA Khmer via a phone call from Battambang province. “I was afraid we could not perform the difficult tricks well, or our artists would face dangers while performing.”

Khuon Det, co-founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak, told VOA Khmer, “We, as organizers, had to keep eyes on timing, transition of each scene, and the safety and well-being of our artists and team.”

Khuon Deth, co-founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak, said Phare had foreseen the obstacles and prepared the alternatives. Phare reserved the understudies for each skill and trick, arranged first-aid kits, a team of medical personnel was on standby in case of emergency or to assist the artists with muscle aches or ankle, wrist or other joint sprains.

Preparations included menu planning so snacks, water and places to nap would be available during the marathon.

“One chopstick is easily to be broken, while a bundle of chopsticks is not,” Bo Ratha said, comparing the collaborative spirit of the marathoners to a Cambodian proverb.

“We were so united altogether. One stage is done, we have to be ready to set another stage,” he said. “It’s five minutes. What else do you think we can do in five minutes behind the scenes, if without unity?”

Huot Dara, CEO of Phare Social Enterprise, said the Guinness requirements included having a 50-person audience throughout the marathon and paying the artists. Going for the record cost $15,000.

The marathon performance integrated new material with older crowd-pleasers for a succession of acrobatics, magic, dance, clowning, contortion, singing, puppetry, breakdancing, live painting, unicycling and fire acts, each accompanied by live performances of classical or contemporary Cambodian music.

Each act contained a chapter in a longer story reflecting Cambodian society, tradition and culture.

Throughout the performance, fans lined up by the hundreds, waiting for access.

“The audiences were queued in long rows, so we set up a white-cloth projection screen in an open field the Phare campus. They sat, keeping [social] distancing. Some breastfed their children and some shooed mosquitoes away to get their children to sleep as they watched our performance,” Bo Ratha said.

“When I see this, I do not know where my heart is hiding,” he added. “It was heart-melting.”