28 August 2020
Back to the Circus
You will never forget your first night at Phare the Cambodian Circus. You will probably never forget any of them.
My own first night at Phare (pronounced "far") came at a time when I was considering never writing again. From April through May 2010, then January through June 2014 I blogged about a festering political crisis in Thailand that involved street protests that tied everything at home and at work into knots for millions of people. This began with a military coup, ended with another, and very nearly culminated in a civil war. My loyal readers outside Thailand were unable to find the truth about anything on TV or online, so I blogged incognito in what became daily episodes, received plenty of fan mail, plus a few death threats. Looking back at all of this, I wonder how I survived it.
Somewhere near the end of this madness, I joined friends from San Francisco on a trip to Siem Reap from Bangkok, where I lived before relocating to Cambodia. I had heard about a "circus" but was not really interested in seeing something like that. But, during this trip, Rath, my adopted son, insisted we go. It was an evening that changed my life. At some point during the first 20 minutes it was clear to me that I would be writing about Phare the Cambodian Circus, and quite possibly a lot. Most people who write choose their stories very carefully. If you are truly lucky, the story chooses you, and that was my lucky night..
Phare is not circus as you know it. There are no clowns, animal acts or pretty girls shot out of cannons, no calliope, and no lion-tamer cracking a whip. Instead, imagine that Cirque du Soleil was born in a rural Cambodian village, and produces edgy and deeply-moving 90-minute-long stories that are steeped in culture, with music provided by an ensemble of traditional Khmer instruments. Phare's stories are told under their "big top" in Siem Reap with dazzling acrobatics, contortionists, juggling, fire, dancing, passion and sweat by casts of talented artists in their early twenties who have trained for a decade to perform internationally.
The circus is the sole source of financial support for Phare Ponleu Selpak, a school that provides free education to about 1,200 young people who study graphic arts, painting, theater arts and circus in Cambodia's second largest city, Battambang. Most of the students have been rescued from abject poverty and go on to be successful in their craft. I have met and interviewed many of these kids who were picking through garbage for something to eat when they learned about the school. Their lives were turned around by a circus.
My first show was Sokrias ("Eclipse"), a story about a young man who is rejected by his community because he is crippled and disfigured. Two angels turn him into a gorgeous woman (Darika loves this part), and later back into a man, minus his birthmarks and limp, and he is eventually welcomed with open arms. I was so moved by this performance that I was soon imbedded with the cast for about a month so that I could tell their story. Ultimately, I wrote stories for several major newspapers and magazines. One final story seems to be percolating in my head while I shave, kneed bread, and water the garden.
There are practically no visitors to Siem Reap as Cambodia's lock-down strategy to survive the pandemic continues. We are almost completely closed off from the rest of the world. (More about that below.) Museums and other entertainment venues were closed by the government, including the circus. But recently they Phare was allowed to reopen for shows two nights a week. I was thrilled.
Both Veasna and I now have "circus cards" that allow us to see shows as often as we like through October. We go on Saturdays and took his younger brother from Phnom Penh last week. It has been such a pleasure to see Veasna enjoy his first circus experiences. We are both busy, so this is one of the only regular outings we have together. Shows are high-octane and leave audiences ecstatic. The messages Phare always deliver are always optimistic, leaving us feeling uplifted at the end of a week of work during what has become a seemingly-endless period of uncertainty. At the "street food" tables just outside the tent we are actually making new friends and feasting on $1 treats and cold beer before the show. You can buy popcorn to take inside.
Our favorite show so far this month was White Gold, which is all about rice, around which all life in Cambodia revolves. White Gold is about the value of sustenance and how it can represent greed and toil. At the beginning of the show, two of the cast members "draw" a mandala (a sacred/magical geometric design shown above) on floor of the ring with rice. Later in the show, it rains rice. We also saw a performance of Sokrias that included many of the cast members I got to know six years ago. Some of us are a just a bit bigger around.
One friend and former Purple Dragon customer, Wendell Johnson, also lives in Siem Reap now. He loves the circus so much that he often goes both Friday and Saturday nights. Wendell has also brought the families of some of the 17 tuktuk drivers from the hotel next to where he lives. There is no work for them until both the hotel and the country reopen. He takes care of their meals, haircuts and circus nights. Most Khmer people have never seen Phare's shows. Indeed, Wendell's tuktuk drivers have spent many evenings waiting outside the tent to take people in the audience back to their hotels. Open seating is only $10 (kids are free) through October, which is still far beyond the means of most local people. But you can help! You can donate one or more $10 adult admissions, which also allow a child to enter free.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on Siem Reap, a town that relies almost entirely on tourism. Most hotels here are closed, and many will never reopen. Far too many people are not able to work and their families are relying on food donations as greedy banks repossess their motorbikes. Not only is the circus a national cultural treasure, it is one of Siem Reap's biggest employers and they are in danger. You can help save them in several ways, including making a donation. You can buy a circus card for $60 as a gift for a local circus fan. (Wendell or I can suggest a name to go on it if you like.) Donate $500 and you get three nights at Villa Khursani free, daily breakfast, and a night at the circus with Veasna and me once Cambodia is open for business again.
A night at the circus is pretty safe. Your temperature and contact details are taken on arrival. Masks are required. Seating is mindful of social distancing since fewer than half of the seats are filled.
Our "Staycation" Update
We passed the seven-month anniversary of our "staycation" just four days ago. For me, it began with slippery floor in a supermarket that resulted in broken hand and foot bones, a spinal trauma and broken glasses on January 24th. It was my right hand that was injured. Since my knees are really bad (I am waiting for new the grow-a-new-knee pill being tested in China) I walk with a cane, which I operate with my right hand. That became a dilemma. Veasna moved in a week later.
Veasna and I have come to understand that the form of modified self-quarantine we observe is the new normal. I get out of the house no more than every other week to shop, do errands and maybe have lunch at Elia, my favorite little Greek restaurant. Veasna works all day in a fairly controlled environment and has graduate school classes seven nights a week online. Over coffee together every morning we discuss what we have each read in that morning's New York Times. Inevitably, that leads to discussions about words that are new to him, which I enjoy discussing immensely. We have cocktail hour and dinner after his classes. He is open to just about everything I cook, often chooses pasta over rice, and makes the flat bread we load up with home-made humus, salad ingredients, and home-made falafel on weekends. When he irritates me I remind myself that I am incredibly lucky to have his love and companionship. I cannot imagine living without him. I am sure I irritate the hell out of him, too, but we have martinis with giant olives for that.
It is tragic to think that some people have never had a loaf of bread straight from the oven, sliced while still steaming and slathered with butter. We have been on an eating binge since January, as you might have imagined from the last few blogs. I spend most of my morning preparing for dinner, and it is usually something over the top. Consequently, we are both putting the bathroom scale through varying degrees of agony. The bad news is my six-quart KitchenAid mixer died a few days ago, after 23 years of service. That means I will not be baking bread every morning, which will also make butter last about twice as long.
Honestly, I am positively bereft about the mixer. I saw the identical model at Central Chidlom in Bangkok for about $1,200, which is crazy. KitchenAid sells them on their website for around $400. Getting one to Bangkok or even Siem Reap, however, would probably cost the equivalent of my monthly Social Security check. If you know any generous soul who plans to fly this way in business class or first, please ask if they can carry a box for me. They will get a bread-making class and my secret recipes for sourdough rye bread with caraway seeds and my flavorsome potato bread. A loaf of either manages to disappear by the next morning, except for the last slice or two that become croutons.
Southeast Asia's Travel Prospects
We are not the only ones here who are soooo over this pandemic. I badly need a shopping/dining trip to Bangkok. However, the prospects for that in the immediate future are grim.
As of today, Cambodia has had 273 detected cases, and only five of those are active. There have been no deaths.
People here wear masks and you see hand sanitizer everywhere, like supermarkets and post offices. Restaurants have not been closed, but getting a decent massage is pretty difficult. Many restaurants deliver free. Most foreigners we know in Siem Reap are staying at home and keeping mostly to themselves, just as we do.
Except for the border with Vietnam, which can be crossed only by Khmer and Vietnamese citizens, all borders are closed. There are about five flights a week from Seoul, Taipei and Shenzhen to Phnom Penh. Siem Reap is open only for very limited domestic flights.
Anyone can visit Cambodia if they can get on a flight to Phnom Penh. However, there are hoops to jump through. You will need a certificate for a negative Covid-19 test taken 72 hours or less before your flight. You have to make a US$2,000 deposit with the government on arrival (cash and/or credit cards, marked down from $3,o00), take another test on arrival, and buy an insurance policy when you arrive. You must quarantine overnight in a hotel in Phnom Penh and pay for transportation, room and meals. If anyone on your flight tests positive, everyone who arrived on that flight must quarantine for 14 days. If not, you are free to travel around Cambodia the following day. If you get an "ordinary" visa issued on arrival you can apply for a retirement or "looking for work" visa and stay for up to a year before you need to renew the visa. You take a second Covid-19 test two weeks after you arrive. If you are still negative, you get what is left of your $2,000 deposit back. If you die of Covid-19 while the government still has your money, part of your deposit goes to pay for your cremation. It's a pretty safe bet you will go home with most of your $2K.
We can tell you what today's pandemic plan is in Thailand, but it seems to change constantly. The short answer is that you cannot go there. There are limited flights from Europe and Asia (Saigon is the closest airport to depart for Bangkok).
Thailand has had nearly 3,500 infections and almost 60 deaths.
Non-Thais are not allowed to enter Thailand at this time, except for foreign spouses and children of Thai citizens, foreigners with permanent residents status in Thailand, diplomats and people invited by the government. An exception is made for "medical tourists." So, if you really, really need to visit Thailand before the end of 2020 let me help you arrange a face lift, tummy tuck, knee replacement, or gender reassignment. Elective surgery is very inexpensive in Thailand and hospitals are some of the best in the world.
As of today Vietnam has had almost 850 Covid-19 cases and there have been 13 deaths. There had been no deaths until August, when Vietnam was hit by a second wave of infections.
Since 22 March foreigners have not been allowed to enter Vietnam. Nevertheless, Vietnam Airlines continues to operate international flights to and from Saigon and Hanoi. Foreigners stuck in Vietnam have had visas extended automatically but must leave before 31 August. No future visas are being issued to foreigners.
Laos has had 22 cases so far, and no deaths. International flights are cancelled and borders closed. If you can get a visa and are able to arrive in Los without flying or crossing a border you will be subject to 14 days quarantine.
While not in Southeast Asia, many readers are as interested in Bhutan as I am. They have had 183 confirmed cases (40 of which are still active) and no deaths. Practically all cases were Bhutanese citizens returning home from working abroad--predominantly on a new Drukair route from Abu Dhabi to Paro.
While India and Nepal have reopened for visitors with conditions/restrictions, Bhutan remains closed and has not announced an opening date. There has been an unsubstantiated rumor in Thimphu that the country will remain closed through 2020 unless there is a medical breakthrough of some kind.
As I write this the country has been under stay-at-home orders for about one week. Apparently many locals were not taking social distancing or wearing masks seriously, so Texas and Florida are not alone. Authorities there are implementing punishments for those who break the quarantine, which does not apply to certain essential workers.
BetterBhutan.com's 2020 remaining bookings have all been moved to 2o21. We are pretty sure Bhutan will be open by March 2021, and will be in high demand.
United States of America
As of today there have been 6,048,313 cases and 184,803 deaths, but that will change by the time you finish reading this sentence. Why would anyone want to go to a place like that?
Jerry Falwell is still dead., and Jerry Falwell Junior is out of a job. Word got out about the protracted ménage à trois he and his wife had with the pool boy, during which, as one late-night TV host suggested, Junior "received the Holy Ghost." We want to thank Jerry Junior for so colorfully reminding us of the hypocrisy of fundamentalist Christians, who glorify the family values of Donald Trump and believe that all homosexuals will end up in hell. I hope this will be a reminder to all Christians that "stupidity is self-correcting."
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