has been a tradition since the earliest days of tourism in
the 19th century to treat visitors to Siem Reap with an
‘Apsara dance performance’ - a taste of classical
Khmer culture. No visit to Cambodia is complete without
attending at least one performance. Dinner performances are
now the most popular venue - most places offering buffet or
set menus combined with a one-hour dance performance. Dinner
ordinarily begins at 6:00 or 7:00PM and dance performances
at 7:30PM or 8:00PM, consisting of 4 or 5 dances (classical
and folk). Most dinner performances run $10-$35 including
dinner and admission. Some place do not charge admission for
the performance, but you are expected to order dinner. For
the best seats, call for reservations.
Traditional Khmer dance is better
described as 'dance-drama' it is not merely dance but also meant to
convey a story or message. There are four main modern genres of
traditional Khmer dance: 1) Classical Dance; 2) Shadow theater; 3)
Lakhon Khol (all-male masked dance-drama.); 4) Folk Dance.
As evidenced in part by the innumerable
apsaras (celestial dancers) adorning the walls of Angkorian temples,
traditional dance has been part of Khmer culture for well more than
a millennium. Yet there have been ruptures in the tradition over the
centuries, making it almost
impossible to precisely trace the source of the tradition. Though
much modern traditional dance was inspired by Angkorian-era art and
themes, the tradition has not been passed unbroken from the age of
Most traditional dances performed today were developed in the 18th
through 20th centuries, beginning in earnest with a mid-19th century
revival championed by King Ang Duong. Subsequent Kings and other
Khmer Royals also strongly supported the arts and dance, most
particularly Queen Sisowath Kossamak Nearireach (former King Norodom
Sihanouk's mother) in the mid-20th century, who not only fostered a
resurgence in the development of Khmer traditional dance, but also
helped move it out of the Palace and popularize it.
Many traditional dances including most Theatrical Folk Dances were
developed and refined from the 1940s-60s under the patronage of
Queen Kossamak at the Conservatory of Performing Arts and the Royal
University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Queen Kossamak trained her
granddaughter Princess Bopha Devi in traditional dance from early
childhood, and she went on to become the face of Khmer traditional
dance in the 1950s and 60s both in Cambodia and abroad. Like so much
of Cambodian art and culture, traditional dance was almost lost
under the brutal repression of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s,
only to be revived and reconstructed in the 1980s and 90s due, in
large part, to the extraordinary efforts of Princess Bopha Devi.
dance, including the famous 'Apsara dance,' has a
grounded, subtle, restrained, yet feather-light, ethereal
appearance. Distinct in its ornate costuming, taut posture, arched
back and feet, flexed fingers flexed, codified facial expressions,
slow, close, deliberate but flowing movements, Classical dance is
uniquely Khmer. It presents themes and stories inspired primarily by
the Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Indian classic, the
Ramayana) and by the Age of Angkor.
come in two forms: ceremonial and theatrical. As a general rule,
only Theatrical Folk Dance is presented in public performances, with
Ceremonial Folk Dances reserved for particular rituals, celebrations
and holidays. Theatrical Folk Dances such as the popular Good
Harvest Dance and the romantic Fishing Dance are usually adaptations
of dances found in the countryside or inspired by rural life and
practices. Most of the Theatrical Folk Dances were developed at RUFA
in Phnom Penh in the 1960s as part of an effort to preserve and
perpetuate Khmer culture and arts.
comes in two forms: Sbeik Thom (big puppets that
are actually panels depicting
certain characters from the story) and Sbeik Toot (small
puppets). The black leather puppets are held in front of a light
source, either in front or behind a screen, creating a shadow or
silhouette effect. Sbeik Thom is the more uniquely Cambodian,
more formal of the two types, restricting itself to stories from the
Reamker. The performance is accompanied by a pin peat orchestra and
narration, and the puppeteers are silent, moving the panels with
dance-like movements. Sbeik Toot has a far lighter feel,
presenting popular stories of heroes, adventures, love and battles,
with or without orchestra and with the puppeteers often doing the
Most dance performances in Siem Reap offer a mixture of Classical
and Theatrical Folk dances. A few venues offer Shadow Theater. Many
of the dance performances in Siem Reap consist of 4-6 individual
dances, often opening with an Apsara Dance, followed by two other
Classical dances and two or three Theatrical Folk dances.
is a Classical dance inspired by the apsara carvings and sculptures
of Angkor and developed in the late 1940s by Queen Sisowath Kossamak.
Her grand daughter and
Princess Bopha Devi, was the first star of the Apsara Dance.
The central character of the dance, the
apsara Mera, leads her coterie of apsaras through a flower garden
where they partake of the beauty of the garden. The movements of the
dance are distinctly Classical yet, as the dance was developed for
theatrical presentation, it is shorter and a bit more relaxed and
flowing than most Classical dances, making it both an excellent
example of the movements, manner and spirit of Classical dance and
at the same time particularly accessible to a modern audience
unaccustomed to the style and stories of Khmer dance-drama.
Another extremely popular dance included in most traditional dance
performances in Siem Reap is the Theatrical Folk Dance known as the
The Fishing Dance is a playful, energetic folk dance with a
strong, easy-to-follow story line.
was developed in the 1960s at the Royal University of Fine Arts
in Phnom Penh and was inspired by the developer's interpretation of
idealized and stereotyped aspects aspects of rural life and young
The dance begins...Clad in rural attire,
a group of young men and women fish with rattan baskets and scoops,
dividing their attention between work and flirtatious glances. Women
are portrayed as hardworking, shy, demurring and coy, whereas the
young men are strong, unrestrained, roguish and assertive. As the
dance continues a couple is separated from the group allowing the
flirtations between them to intensify, only to be spoiled by the
male character playing a bit too rough, leading to her coy
rejection. He pokes and plays trying to win her back, bringing only
further rejection. Eventually he gently apologizes on bended knee
and after some effort, draws a smile and her attention once again.
Just as they move together, the group returns, startling the couple
and evoking embarrassment as they both rush to their 'proper' roles
men and women exit at opposite sides of the stage, leaving the
couple almost alone, but under pressure of the groups, they
separate, leaving in opposite directions, yet with index finger
placed to mouth, hint of a secret promise to meet again.
(In an interesting side note, placing
one's index finger to the lips to denote quiet or secrecy is not,
generally speaking, a gesture found in Cambodia, but is common in
the West. Its employment in the dance probably indicates a certain
amount of 'foreign influence' amongst the Cambodian choreographers
when the dance was developed in the 1960s.
Dance in Cambodia by Tony
Samantha Phim and Ashley Thompson. New York: Oxford University
Dance of Life: The Mythology, History
and Politics of Cambodian Culture by Julie B. Metha. Singapore:
Graham Brash Pte. Singapore, 2001
(Back to top)
are occasional dance performances at the temples but most visitors
attend one of the nightly dinner performances at a local restaurant.
Dinner ordinarily begins at 6:00 or 7:00PM and dance performances at
7:30PM or 8:00PM, consisting of 4 or 5 dances, lasting about 45
minutes to an hour in all. (Contact the performance venue for
specifics.) Many places offer a buffet featuring Khmer and
international food. Some offer a set menu Khmer dinner. Price and
venue style vary considerably. Most restaurants with buffets and set
menus run between $10 and $25 including the buffet and performance.
Some restaurants do not charge admission for the performance, but
you are expected to order dinner. For the best seats, call for
reservations, especially during the high season.
Exclusive shadow theater and Khmer dance with traditional music. Set
menu and a la carte. Dinner from 7:00PM. Performance 8:30PM - 9:30PM.
Wat Damnak area,
Traditional dance performances at one of the finest venues in town -
an elegant wooden performance hall with a/c. Set menu Khmer meal.
$25/pax inclusive. Everyday, 7:30pm - 9:30pm. Reservations
Wat Bo area,
Crystal Angkor Restaurant
Fine dining, a la carte and set menu, Cambodian and international
fare. Traditional dance performance every night at 7:00PM.
The Khmer Barbe Q
Traditional dance performances with set menu Cambodian dinner.
Six different dances. Dinner begins at 7:30PM. Performance from
8:00PM - 9:00PM.
Road to Angkor Wat near Angkor National Museum,
La Noria Hotel and Restaurant
Shadow theater (sbeik toot - small articulated puppets) and
traditional dances shows by children from the NGO, Krousar Thmey,
Wednesdays, 7:30PM-8:30PM. Admission and dinner. Set menu and a la
carte. Admission fee for the show goes entirely to the Krousar Thmey
East side of the river,
Phare Cambodian Circus
An blend of traditional and modern theater, music, dance,
acrobatics, juggling and contortion. Nightly 1-hour shows. Every
Located behind the Angkor National
Continuous traditional dance performances with dinner every evening
from 7:30PM - 9:30PM. No admission fee. Full service restaurant and
bar serving la carte, Khmer and western food.
Old Market area, ‘Pub Street’,
(Back to top)
Unlike Siem Reap, there are far fewer
performance venues and there are no regularly scheduled dinner
performances at restaurants in Phnom Penh. The regularly scheduled
performances that are available take place in small theater formats,
usually at a dance/performing arts school. The performances are also
less standardized than Siem Reap, often offering a greater range and
variety of traditional dances and Khmer performing arts. Some of the
performing arts schools in Phnom Penh are also open to visitors
during the day, allowing visitors the opportunity to observe the
dancers in training.
Apsara Mekong Association
An independent local association whose aims are to preserve, revive
and promote Cambodian culture to local and international audiences.
#51A Street 222, Phnom
Plae Pakaa/Fruitful A series of three rotating performances,
showcasing a range of traditional Cambodian performing arts.
Featuring more than Apsara dances, offering the chance to discover
the diversity of Cambodian culture in the garden of the National
Museum. Plae Pakaa, an initiative by non-for profit Cambodian Living
Arts, also aims to create regular, well-paid work for emerging arts
professionals in Cambodia. Rated #1 in 2012 on TripAdvisor.
Performances at 7PM, Monday - Saturday at the National Museum doors
open at 6:45PM. Theater, dance and live music. Tickets for sale at
the door - call or email for more details.
National Museum, Street 178, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Sovanna Phum Art Association
Sovanna Phum Art Association aims to revive and promote the
treasure of Cambodian culture. Classical, Folk and Contemporary
dance, Shadow theatre, Circus and Music are performed to local and
international audiences in or out our theatre. Also active in
promoting inter-cultural exchanges by interacting with artists from
other countries as well as working with NGO/IOs on different
educational and awareness campaign projects. Sovanna Phum's
artists can be hired for private or commercial events. Performance:
7-30PM-8:30PM; Adult : $5; Children: $3.
#166 Street 99, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.