A dark shadow loomed over Cambodia from 1975-79. The Khmer Rouge had taken over the country and their leaders sought to destroy all forms of culture and art. Dancing was prohibited, religion was banned and every school was closed, yet the spirit of preserving their own identity was preserved. Many performers were killed, but a small band of dancers managed to survive and is now making a comeback.
They are apsara.
Traditionally, apsara means the beautiful girls and they are said to be supernatural female beings. In modern time, the apsara dance is performed by both men and women.
THE NATIONAL PRIDE OF CAMBODIA
Apsara dancing is at the heart of classical Khmer dance and it goes back to the time of Suryavarman II (1113-1145), a Khmer king and the builder of Angkor Wat. The art was performed only for the royal ancestors, but it was spread throughout Cambodia and to Thailand after the Khmer Rouge regime.
WHY I WANTED TO GO TO THE APSARA DANCE
During my last visit to Cambodia, I decided to see a traditional apsara dance. Before this trip, I didn’t even know the dance existed. Like most travelers, I came to Siem Reap for Angkor Wat, but I found out this city has quite a few alternative, FUN activities. The apsara dance show is one of them.
Although I’m not particularly interested in art or dance, I do love culture. And the apsara dance was a lovely way to experience Cambodian culture. Only in Bali and Thailand have I seen similar dance performances.
You can find apsara performances on several hotels in Siem Reap, and most places have a dinner-and-show setup. I read over at Alex’ blog that Temple Bar features a free show. I went to Smile at Angkor, which to my knowledge is the priciest in town, but in return you get a great show. We got a discount through our hotel so instead of paying $38, we paid $25 including transport. I booked the tickets online through the website of Smile of Angkor.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The 70 minute show is divided into six main chapters: 1) Dialogue with God; 2) Glorious Kingdom; 3) Resurrection of the Gods; 4) Churning the Sea of Milk; 5) Prayer for Life and 6) Smile of Angkor.
During these six chapters, we heard tales from the time when the Temples of Angkor were built, and folk customs from the past and present were explained.
The show is a dramatic blend of Cambodia’s original culture with modern-day laser show and sound system. Cambodian tunes, traditional Khmer martial art, Angkor Wat temples, festivals and the Hindu myth Churning the Sea of Milk… It’s all part of the performance.
Notice the graceful movements of the Apsara dancers… You’ll also see them depicted on the walls of many of the temples and reliefs at Angkor Wat.
The apsara dance at Smile of Angkor was not only a vivid and great laser show; it was also an important insight to Cambodia’s history.
And a way to help keep it alive.