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Performing Arts in Cambodia

Cambodia has long been a place full of incredibly rich and diverse artistic performances. Apsara dance and traditional shadow puppet shows are two of the most beautiful and ancient performances.

Both of these important aspects of Cambodian culture nearly disappeared in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge regime destroyed Cambodia's infrastructure, traditions, and people. In recent years, however, many elements of the country's culture that almost disappeared have been revived and are now growing stronger.

This article will explain the ins and outs of apsara dance and Cambodian shadow puppet shows and also give you all the necessary information to appreciate these two great performances for yourself.

Quick Facts

  • Apsara dancers use precise movements of the hands and fingers to tell a story
  • They wear ornate and elegant costumes designed to look like the apsaras at Angkor Wat
  • In ancient myths, apsaras were beautiful spirits or nymphs who used their dancing to distract violent kings and gods
  • Apsara dancers used to perform for the kings of Cambodia, and kings used to keep thousands of dancers in their court
  • One great place to see an apsara dance performance is the Por Cuisine Restaurant in Siem Reap
  • Shadow puppet shows are ancient performances that use intricate carved leather puppets to tell mythical stories
  • The 2-meter-tall puppets are created by hand using a special and sacred 20-day process
  • Shadow puppet shows can be seen in many cities; in Phnom Penh some theaters offer workshops where guests can see how the puppets are made

Apsara Dance

This traditional Cambodian dance is known for the elegant and elaborate movements of dancers in ornate costumes. The dance represents the beauty of Cambodian culture and is performed by women who play the roles of goddesses and celestial figures.

Apsara dancers move gracefully and in unison while executing precise movements with their hands and fingers. Each graceful and intricate movement has a specific meaning. Together, all the individual hand movements of the dancers tell a story, which is often a classical Buddhist or Hindu legend.

Many young Cambodian children are trained from an early age to have the flexibility in their fingers and wrists to execute the dance movements. 

While performing, the dancers are dressed in beautiful gold and red costumes, with fabrics that are decorated with embroidery. The dancers wear two types of gold ankle jewelry as well as golden headpieces, modeled directly after the carvings in Angkor Wat.

Apsara dance was traditionally only performed for the King of Cambodia, but today it is performed for all Cambodians, and tourists as well. It is also commonly a feature of sacred ceremonies and award presentations in Cambodia.

No visit to Cambodia is complete without being able to see this age-old element of Cambodia's heritage.

Origins of Apsara Dance

Apsaras in ancient mythology were spirits or nymphs who lived in the water and clouds. Spiritual apsaras were said to be messengers of reconciliation between kings and gods. When peace was threatened, apsaras would often use their beauty and dancing to distract and ensnare those with power on both heaven and earth.

Apsaras originated in Hindu mythology and take many important roles in ancient stories. There are hundreds of apsaras carved on the walls of Angkor Wat and the other temples in the Angkor Temple complex.

Apsara as traditional Cambodian dance has existed since at least the 6th century. At that time apsara dance was only performed for royalty in Cambodia and some of the famous Khmer kings were said to have thousands of dancers in their royal courts. 

After the Angkorian period, the dance became less and less practiced. In the 1940s, Queen Sisowath Kossomak Nearirath Serey Vatthana began the modern day revival of this ancient dance by having her granddaughter begin learning when she was 5 years old.

By 1967, the young princess was a professional apsara dancer and the Royal Ballet of Cambodia was created to train dancers in the ancient art.

However, in the 1970s the Khmer Rouge Regime took control of Cambodia and killed almost 90% of the country's artists and intellectuals. During this brutal genocide, the tradition of apsara dance was almost forgotten.

Recently apsara dance has been making another comeback and continues today due to the commitment of dancers wanting to preserve the tradition and pass it on to the next generation.

See for yourself

Dinner performances in Siem Reap are now the most popular way to see apsara dance. Our experts at Asia Highlights often arrange a dinner and performance at Por Cuisine Restaurant in Siem Reap.

This venue has a beautiful atmosphere and is popular with both locals and international visitors alike. Daily apsara performances are on offer, along with a menu full of delicious traditional Cambodian dishes.

Shadow Puppet Shows

The art of shadow puppetry is an ancient Cambodian tradition that started before the Angkorian era. The show often takes place on an outdoor stage with a white background. By using light, the puppeteers are able to project images onto the screen and tell a story.

Oftentimes, shadow puppet shows are about one hour long and present ancient stories, such as the epic Ramayana. There are two narrators, along with the puppets acting out the story. The main narration is done in Khmer, but many shows offer an English translation for international guests.

Today, there are two popular forms of shadow puppet show: sbek thom and sbek touc. Both use leather puppets to retell ancient stories on the screen. Sbek thom, however, is the more popular show because it is a larger, more impressive production, sometimes involving over 160 different puppets.

Origins of Puppet Shows

Shadow puppet shows in Cambodia are believed to have started in Siem Reap in the 7th century. Original performances took place in paddy fields or pagodas and were reserved for important religious events or special holidays such as Khmer New Year or the king's birthday.

After the fall of the Khmer Empire, shadow puppet theatre became more of an artistic performance and was commonly performed simply for entertainment. 

In the 1970s, however, when the Khmer Rouge regime took power in Cambodia, most of the puppet artists were killed and the tradition almost disappeared. Luckily in recent decades there has been a resurgence of traditional culture, and shadow puppetry has made a comeback.

The Puppets

Even today, shadow puppets are created by hand using a meticulous process that can take up to 20 days.

The act of creating the puppets is considered to be holy and the artists must satisfy many requirements in order to keep the process pure. While carving the puppets, the artists must wear white, abstain from alcohol, and lead a sin-free life. 

The leather used to create the puppets must also be pure and must come from a cow that has died of natural causes rather than being slaughtered.

Once the puppets are carved, they are dyed using Kandaol tree bark. Long bamboo poles are attached to the two-meter tall puppets so that the puppeteers can move and handle them during the show.

See for yourself

Traditional shadow puppet shows can be seen in multiple cities in Cambodia. Many theaters in Phnom Penh, such as Sovannaphum Theatre, put on a series of shows and also host workshops so that visitors can have a chance to see how puppets are made.

Travel with Asia Highlights

Want more information about some of the incredible things you can see when you visit Cambodia? Send us an email to arrange a talk with one of our representatives. Our employees have lots of knowledge about Cambodian culture and plenty of experience in planning and creating the perfect vacation.

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