Despite suffering through the most difficult period in their organisation’s entire decades-long history throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Phare Ponleu Selpak has triumphed against all odds to win four gold awards at the Stevie International Business Awards (SIBAs).

The Cambodian arts and education non-profit based in Battambang was recognised for its innovative 24-hour non-stop circus fundraiser – a marathon performance that also served as a Guinness world record attempt, though one that is still awaiting certification by Guinness.

Phare won all four gold awards directly from the world record attempt including Best Cultural Event 2021, Best Event for a Cause 2021 and Best Fundraising Event 2021 and a final gold was for Best Communications Campaign (non-profit) 2021 for Phare’s public outreach efforts in the lead-up to the event.

Khuon Det, co-founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak – and a key organiser of the marathon circus performance – said the attempt to set the world record was an ambitious and demanding endeavour.

“As organisers, we had to keep an eye on the timing and transitions for each scene while ensuring the safety and well-being of our artists and team. I was so impressed with the commitment shown by everyone,” he said.

Det said that he was proud that this had resulted in international recognition by winning the gold award in four different SIBA categories.

The Stevie Awards – which bills itself as the “world’s premier business awards” and boasts of judges that include “many of the world’s most respected executives, entrepreneurs, innovators and business educators” – has eight different awards programmes geared towards industry insiders, managers and entrepreneurs in certain sectors, including NGOs and non-profits.

The final result of 18th Annual International Business Awards was announced on August 16 through SIBAs’ website.

“This year has been an emotional rollercoaster,” said Osman Khawaja, Phare Ponleu Selpak’s executive director.

He explained that just a few hours after the exhilarating success achieved by performing for 24 hours straight, all live performances were banned in Cambodia once again.

And now just recently, Phare lost one of its beloved founders – Srey Bandaul – to Covid-19.

“Our staff and our performers have gone through some very difficult times, but receiving the news of these four awards in the wake of [Bandaul’s] passing felt like an acknowledgement of his legacy as a founder and educator at Phare and recognition of the vital importance of the arts. These were the things he believed in and dedicated his life to.

“His most recent work at Phare was all about leading activities to bring arts into Cambodian communities, and these awards – particularly for best cultural event – came about because of those efforts. I am sure he is smiling at us with pride,” Khawaja said.

The award-winning event – dubbed Phare Into The Future – featured 90 circus artists who performed non-stop over 24 hours on March 7 and 8 at Phare’s big top in Battambang province. SUPPLIED

The award-winning event – Phare Into The Future – featured 90 circus artists who performed non-stop for 24 hours straight on March 7 and March 8 at Phare’s big top in Battambang.

The world record attempt was live streamed to nearly half a million audience members across the world and it raised more than $130,000 in donations to keep Phare’s education and arts programmes in Battambang alive.

This around-the-clock circus performance consisted of some of Phare’s most memorable and impressive acts selected from 31 past shows across their 20-year history.

Phare’s greatest hits compilation included acrobatics, magic, dance, theatre, clowning, music, contortionists, puppetry, break-dancing, live painting, unicycling, fire acts and more.

Phare’s press release announcing the awards quoted a SIBA judge who said that the performance was done “for a wonderful cause” and they called it both “exciting and emotionally captivating”.

“It was full of culture and immense talent. With just a small budget, this was a complete success, hitting and surpassing all [donation] targets. [Phare’s] event was exciting and filled with Cambodian history, culture and the magic of the circus. There was so much talent evident in each of the performances, they were the clear winners in all four categories,” the judge wrote.

The criteria the judges used to evaluate the nominees could include things like cultural or artistic merit as possible factors – but these are “business awards” and, therefore, the judges also put a strong emphasis on whether the event could be considered a success from an organisational standpoint, given that Phare is an arts non-profit and trying to raise donations from the public and other sources.

All of the judges’ statements indicate that they were equally impressed with how well-executed and successful the event was from a practical standpoint as they were with the on-stage artistry.

With a minimal budget, Phare managed to smoothly execute a 24-hour circus performance being viewed online and by an in-person audience with no pauses in the action, confusion or other hiccups from one act to the next, while reaching and then cruising past the goal they had set for audience donations.

“A 24 hour circus is incredible. What a fantastic way to combine physical fitness, the arts and youth programming, while also commemorating their culture and giving Cambodia increased global visibility. Keep up the outstanding work,” another judge said.

The 2021 competition attracted more than 3,800 nominations from organisations and businesses of all manner and variety located around the world in 65 different nations, according to SIBA.

The awards celebration was originally scheduled to be held in Paris, France, but Covid-19 has prevented the winners from travelling there and receiving their awards as planned, so they will be celebrated instead during a virtual ceremony in December.

“What we’ve seen in this year’s IBA nominations is that organisations around the world, in every sector, have continued to innovate and succeed, despite the setbacks, obstacles and tragedies of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“All of this year’s Stevie Award winners are to be applauded for their persistence and their resilience. We look forward to celebrating their achievements with them during our 8 December virtual awards ceremony,” said Stevie Awards president Maggie Gallagher

Phare noted that in its 19-plus year history only three Cambodia organisations have won SIBA awards: Metfone, Wing and Naga World – all leaders in their industries and among the largest and most successful companies operating here.

Phare, however, did those giants one better by being the first Cambodian nominees to win four gold awards at once.

The show included acts from 31 performances from Phare’s 20-year circus history such as acrobatics, magic, dance, theatre, clowning, music, contortion, singing, puppetry, break-dancing, live painting, unicycling, fire acts and much more. SUPPLIED

Unfortunately, the awards grant bragging rights only and there are no cash prizes. Due to the pandemic-induced lack of tourists and bans on gatherings and performances, Phare has been forced to slash 60% from its usual annual operating budget of around $600,000. Their education and arts programmes have been cut to the bone and most of their staff have had to take voluntary pay cuts.

Phare organised their world record event – which was sponsored by Cellcard – as a creative solution to their funding shortfalls so they could continue to offer education and arts training to some of Cambodia’s most impoverished and disadvantaged children and youths.

“We all had to band together and fight for survival. We knew we had to make it. One chopstick is easily broken, but a bundle of chopsticks together are not, so we had to be united,” said Bo Ratha, an acrobat with 18 years of circus experience who performed at the event.

Phare believes that these awards should be seen as early recognition for the success of the world record attempt, in advance of Guinness announcing the official world record verdict some time later this year.

Although the world record was apparently set as evidenced by the live broadcast, Guinness takes its famous record book – originally written to settle drunken bets in pubs and provide a source of amusing trivia for patrons – more seriously than you might realise.

A lot of people would like to hold one of their quirky records and they can be valuable assets for individuals or organisations just from a publicity standpoint alone.

Thus, the famed Irish brewery will need to assess the event rigorously to ensure that it met all of the criteria and followed all of their rules by collecting witness statements and reviewing video of the entire performance before they can confirm Guinness World Record status.

Phare remains confident in the legitimacy of their victory, however, and looks forward to claiming their world record crown in due course.

“We showed the world that strength truly can be gained through adversity, which is something that everyone can take heart in as they try to survive these troubled times,” said Phare director Khuon Det, in summary of these first two years of the Covid era.

For more information about Phare, check them out online:

Facebook: @phareponleuselpak