The thought of a circus can take many of us back to our childhoods, evoking memories of sawdust and cotton candy, high-wire acts, clowns squeezed into tiny cars, pretty girls being shot out of a cannon and, perhaps, an animal trainer with a whip. The more modern-minded might think instead of Cirque du Soleil, but imagine for a moment if that company hadn't been conceived in Montreal, Canada, but in a Cambodian village - and it produced edgy, powerful, hour-long stories steeped in culture. Phare, the Cambodian Circus, has no clowns (at least none wearing grease paint or fright wigs), cannons, animal trainers or high-wire acts. There is no cotton candy, not even an elephant. What it does have is a cast of brilliant young people, all of whom attended the Phare Ponleu Selpak ("brightness of the arts") school, in the town of Battambang. Each cast member studied for about 10 years before being allowed to perform with the circus. Although the school has been staging and taking on tour performances for more than 10 years, the circus was born only in 2013, in an empty lot in Siem Reap, the three-stop-light town 180km from Battambang that stands guard over Angkor Wat. The circus has proved such a sensation, drawing capacity crowds of tourists and locals, that word has spread; Phare's productions are now touring Europe. Phare's repertoire currently consists of three shows, which are staged inside its tent in Siem Reap and are told through live music, acrobatics, contortion, juggling, fire, passion and sweat. They are operas without singing, ballets without dancing, plays without dialogue. Phare promises to offer "an astonishing immersion into Cambodian modernity" and it does not disappoint. "The one thing the shows all have in common is the universal theme of triumph of the human spirit over adversity," says Huot Dara, the company's manager. "We want to inspire people to do great things with their lives." Sokrias ("eclipse") is, for many, Phare's most powerful production. It's a dark tale of rejection and redemption focusing on a young, disfigured man and set in a village in Cambodia's hinterlands. Music is an integral part of Phare's productions. The big-sounding Sokrias score, performed by just two players, marries contemporary Khmer music with traditional instruments. From the first notes, the tempo is quick and only seems to gain pace as the music transports the audience to another time and place. A second show, Sokha , named after its main character, is an intensely emotional story about a young girl's journey through the atrocities of life and death under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Sokha is played by 23-year-old Phunam, who has her own story of hope and transformation. Like all of Phare's performers, she grew up in poverty, with few prospects for an education or a future. At six years old, her father sent her to work collecting rubbish, to help feed their family. Eventually she learned of a school that provides free education and meals to marginalised children: Phare Ponleu Selpak. During the decade that she spent there, she was trained in gymnastics, contortion and other circus arts, and learned to speak English and French. She now supports her family comfortably and has toured with Sokha in Europe four times. Sokha 's story is chilling and "many of the props and much of the script are highly symbolic", explains Xavier Gobin, the company's French operations director and one of the show's creative visionaries. Gobin, who speaks fluent Khmer, is a former member of a major European ballet company and starred in Maurice Bejart's film version of The Nutcracker (2000). "The masks worn by the Khmer Rouge [characters], for example, mean that there are often two sides to most people. The tightrope stands for a treacherous exodus. Some of the characters cross it in both directions in the dark of night. Some carry cardboard boxes that are symbolic of the burden of the atrocities they have witnessed. Some fall and do not survive. "Empty cardboard boxes are props that are symbolic depending on the context in which they appear. In one scene they are stacked to create a tower that is destroyed in the war. In the scene where people are being exterminated in the killing fields, the executions happen behind a wall of cardboard boxes that topple, revealing atrocities and symbolising the flimsy regime of the Khmer Rouge." The third show, Preu ("chills"), is the most light-hearted offering, and features nine teenagers who all have the same nightmare about ghosts. When they're not all piling on to one bicycle or playing with fire, the youngsters agonise over ways to confront their fears and rid themselves of the bothersome spirits. In Cambodia, ghosts are taken seriously. The stories are inspired by the experiences of the three founders of Phare Ponleu Selpak. The trio fled to Thailand ahead of the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, when they were between eight and 10 years old. Child refugees who were not lucky enough to be relocated to Europe, Australia or North America were moved from camp to camp. Their toys were discarded weapons and human bones. In one camp a volunteer provided art therapy to help youngsters deal with the trauma of living as refugees. After Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979, the three, by then in their teens, returned to a country they barely knew. They decided to share the things they had learned in the art therapy sessions by offering a similar service to other returned refugees, at first under trees in Battambang. Twenty years ago, the al-fresco classes moved into a school that now provides free education in painting, graphic arts, animation, theatre arts and gymnastics to 1,200 children. The circus was primarily the idea of Khoun Det, one of the school's founders and a self-taught acrobat and martial artist who later learned circus and performing arts skills in Phnom Penh. With virtually no money, the circus initially relied on donations. Today, it is the primary source of financial support for the school, which is training a fifth generation of artists for the big top. Not all of the school's graduates are circus performers, though; many of the restaurateurs, hotel managers and gifted artists found in Siem Reap and Battambang owe their livelihoods to the education they received at Phare Ponleu Selpak. The circus is experiencing growing pains, however. Its tent stands on land owned by the Angkor National Museum, which has plans to expand. Among the company's biggest challenges has been raising money for a permanent home on a crowdfunding website. "We have raised more than US$50,000," says Huot Dara, who was a volunteer at the school a decade ago and put on hold a career as a hotel executive to help lead the circus. "However, land around Siem Reap is unbelievably expensive. The land we want will cost US$500,000, so we are a long way off." In the meantime, the show goes on, thrilling audiences night after night. "Want to see more?" the MC asks the audience at the end of each show. The response is invariably deafening. "Then come back tomorrow." For programme schedules, or to make a donation to the "A New Home for Phare" campaign, visit www.pharecambodiancircus.org . Getting there: Dragonair flies daily from Hong Kong to Siem Reap.