Guinness World Records has recognised the more than 24-hour online circus by Phare Ponleu Selpak’s performers on March 7, 2021 as “Longest Circus Show”. The online circus was organised as a last ditch effort to raise enough funds to survive the down turn in tourism caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Guinness World Records, which lists both human achievements and the extremes of the natural world, has confirmed that Cambodian non-profit Phare has set a world record with its pandemic-defying “Longest Circus Show”.

The confirmation makes it the sixth Cambodian world record, and the first since 2018. On November 17, Phare formally announce the record at a live multimedia event.

“This is a special day for us. We set ourselves a challenge that seemed impossible, during the most difficult period Phare and Cambodia have gone through in 40 years,” said Khuon Det, co-founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak.

“We did this for our students and for Cambodia, keeping arts and education alive for hundreds of children. Many people have told us that the 24-hour circus provided inspiration at a dark time,” he says.

Phare submitted 26 videos totalling 25 hours and 131 pages of evidence, including timesheets and reports from reliable witnesses such as monks and teachers.

After more than a year, Guinness confirmed that Phare had claimed the world record and is “Officially Amazing”, said a Phare press statement.

Despite being a small organisation in a small country, Phare has achieved something that world famous names like Cirque Du Soleil and the Moscow State Circus haven’t, putting it on the global map, it added.

Because of the travel restrictions that were in place at the time, it would have proven impossible to have a Guinness representative attend the event and give an immediate verdict.

Conditions were strict to challenge for the world record, including that the performance must last over 24 hours, all performers must be paid professionals, acts must not be repeated, and independent witnesses must be present throughout.

Phare cited Guinness’ confirmation of the news. They said: “Phare has taken innovative steps in the last decade to avoid dependence on handouts by creating a popular animal-free circus and tourist attraction which funded their life saving programmes.”

“Covid-19 was a catastrophe as it meant performances and tourism came to a halt. Phare were desperate for funding and despite not having wealthy support networks or fundraising budgets, came up with something truly creative to grab attention,” said Guinness, adding that “the idea, drawing on the same creativity and resilience with which Phare was born, was to achieve a Guinness World Record.”

A full day of laughs and hard work

The show in March 2021 lasted 24 hours, 10 minutes and 30 seconds and included 90 professionals performing acts from 31 performances from Phare’s 20-year circus history, including acrobatics, magic, dance, theatre, clowning, music, contortion, singing puppetry, breakdancing, live painting, unicycling, fire acts and more.

The performers took to the stage in shifts, grabbing short naps between acts, according to Phare. The event was watched by live audiences in shifts, with more than a thousand taking their turn.

A Phare press statement said that almost a million watched online and the event raised more than $150,000, helping the organisation survive the 50 per cent drop in income it faced as a result of the pandemic.

“We’re so proud of our performers and the staff members who came together to make it happen. We’re grateful to Guinness for confirming that we have set the world record, and for their flexibility in allowing us to make the attempt during the pandemic,” said Det.

“We still face huge financial challenges at a time when tourism hasn’t fully bounced back and the world economy is struggling, but this record helped us keep our doors open and will hopefully grab the attention of people who might donate to help us keep going,” he continued.

“We planned the world record attempt as a way to raise funds to keep the non-profit open during the pandemic – but it did even more than that. It brought all Phare people together as a team and provided them with hope at a dark time,” said Osman Khawaja, executive director.

“I’ve even heard from many Cambodians that it did the same for them,” he says, adding, “I really think this Guinness World Record is a huge win for all Cambodia.”

Khawaja said a circus always needs an audience, and so many Cambodians came to the Phare’s big top in Battambang or joined them online to cheer them on. This latest recognition is a wonderful way of getting people around the world to pay attention to Cambodia, realise that the circus is open as a tourist destination again, and hopefully come and visit.

“Of course, at Phare we can now say that our circus is the only show in Cambodia to have won a Guinness World Record so we will definitely be using it to try and attract people to our wonderful circus!” Khawaja told The Post.

Phare is back performing its shows in Siem Reap and Battambang, and even has a circus running right now at the Factory in Phnom Penh. Khawaja warned that the full recovery of tourism is going to take a long time.

“Now that our school and programs are fully operational, the need for funds is much higher than what we are earning from our shows, so we still need the support of donors and sponsors,” he said.

Phare said an innovative online event celebrating the win, showcasing Phare Ponleu Selpak’s work, and supporting fundraising will take place on December 11. It is a free hour-long musical circus adventure and multimedia event open to all.

“We would really love everyone to join our next online extravaganza on December 11, when we have a very special show – our biggest since the 24 hour circus. It’s going to be a chance to show off our creativity. It’s such an innovative event,” added Khawaja.

The passion of a clown

“It was an incredible experience to be on stage knowing that the whole world was watching Cambodia set this record,” said Heng Dara, Phare student, performer, acrobat and clown.

He explained that he shared the stage with his older brother, who is also a performer, and all of the circus students he grew up with. They are like a big family, and even though it was hard to keep going until the end of the day-long show, they made it together.

“Phare helped my family and I escape poverty and I have found my true passion. I love Phare and I want them to continue doing what they do, for all of the kids who are like I was. That’s why I urge everyone to donate to keep the school and circus alive and bring hope to others,” said Dara.

The 24-hour event, sponsored by local mobile provider Cellcard and run in partnership with sister organisation The Cambodian Circus, won 13 international awards for the creativity shown in raising awareness and funds.

These include 4 Stevie International Gold Awards, including Best Cultural Event and Best Communications Campaign, and Most Innovative Event at the international Fundraising Everywhere Awards. The Guinness World Record is the most important accolade, completing an incredible journey.

“Why are my tears flowing like a river? I feel so blessed! I am proud of you all,” said Ya Nuon, a Cambodian who witnessed the event.

As well as Cambodian viewers, global circus fans from dozens of countries including the USA, Ukraine, Japan, Canada, UK, France, Greece, Turkey, China and Australia joined the event via online events, YouTube and Facebook Live.

“You gave the people in your community and around the world a once-in-a-lifetime show!” said Natacha Kim, from France, on Facebook. “You are a model of the resilience and courage of the Khmer people.”

This is the sixth record set by a Cambodian organisation in history. Other Cambodian world records include the longest woven scarf, biggest sticky bun, longest alphabet in the world and – of course – the largest religious structure, Angkor Wat.

The most recent record was set in November 2018, when a 87.3m wooden boat built by the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest dragon boat.