The mystery behind the Khmer Apsara Dance

By |2017-04-29T15:18:41+00:00March 31st, 2015|Asia, Cambodia, Destination|18 Comments

Apsara dance, Cambodia

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.


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.

Apsara dance, Cambodia

Apsara dance, Cambodia
Apsara dance, Cambodia

Apsara dance, Cambodia


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.

Apsara dance, Cambodia
Apsara dance, Cambodia
Apsara dance, Cambodia

Churning the Sea of Milk

Apsara dance, Cambodia


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.

Apsara dance, Cambodia

Glorious kingdom

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.

Apsara dance, Cambodia
Apsara dance, Cambodia
Apsara dance, Cambodia

Prayer of life

Apsara dance, Cambodia

The Peacock dance

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.

Apsara dance, Cambodia

Apsara dance, Cambodia

Apsara dance, Cambodia

Resurrection of God

Apsara dance, Cambodia

Traditional Cambodian songs

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.

Apsara dance, Cambodia

Dialogue with God

Would you go to a traditional Apsara dance?

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Khmer Apsara dance
Khmer Apsara Dance

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  1. Amy March 31, 2015 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Looks like a spectacular show, well worth the ticket price. I totally missed out on this when I visited Cambodia, next time perhaps 🙂

    • Miriam March 31, 2015 at 12:43 pm - Reply

      Definitely, yes. The price is not aimed at backpackers, but I definitely think it was worth the splurge. I hope you get to see it next time you’re in town 🙂

  2. Suze The Luxury Columnist April 1, 2015 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    Such a fascinating post, I haven’t been to Cambodia but I’m going to Bali so will make sure to see a dance there

    • Miriam April 1, 2015 at 10:29 pm - Reply

      Aw, Bali is so lovely! You should see a kecak dance, Suze. Either in Ubud or Uluwatu – it’s a special experience.

  3. Jenny @ Till the Money Runs Out April 1, 2015 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    We loved Cambodia, but totally missed this as well!! Another good reason to have to go back one day 🙂

    • Miriam April 1, 2015 at 10:33 pm - Reply

      If you do, you should definitely check it out! There are so many things I want to see when I return – especially the coast and Koh Rong.

  4. Anna @ shenANNAgans April 6, 2015 at 9:16 am - Reply

    I’m a bit of a theatre / movie buff, so heck yes to going. If I’m over that way anytime soon, I’ll be sure to check it out. 🙂

    • Miriam April 6, 2015 at 11:52 am - Reply

      Haha, I hope you do, Anna! Try to book through your hotel / hostel – they often offer a discount.

  5. Daab June 11, 2016 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Discovered already during 20 years Thailand…

    Staying in touch also with Cambodia because of my interest for history of Khmer empire long time ago…

    Cambodia even today hasn’t finished to surprise us… In every senses…

    • Miriam June 11, 2016 at 10:08 am - Reply

      So true. Cambodia is a very interesting country.

  6. Anonymous October 22, 2016 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    Thanks for Interesting Cambodiia.

    • Miriam October 22, 2016 at 4:09 pm - Reply

      You’re welcome. Thanks for reading!

  7. Sophana October 18, 2017 at 5:17 am - Reply

    Thanks all for being interested in this culture that was once almost extinguished.
    I am from Cambodia but didn’t know about this show, thank you Miriam for this nice, informative post, definitely will go see the show.

    • Miriam October 27, 2017 at 9:29 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for your nice comment, Sophana! I’m really glad you liked my post.

  8. Dominique November 13, 2017 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Hi! I loved your article ! Where did you find out about the history facts of the dance? I have a fascination with dance and would like to research more about Apsara.
    Thank you!

    • Miriam November 25, 2017 at 10:11 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Dominique! It’s been a few years since I wrote this article so I don’t remember the fact source. Sorry.

  9. Angelica Baines January 10, 2018 at 3:53 am - Reply

    Ah i totally missed this when I went for 3 months!! I’m going back in about a month for a couple of weeks so I sure as hell hope to see it then!
    Great photos by the way!

    • Miriam January 11, 2018 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Angelica! You can find Apsara dance several places, but the show at Smile at Angkor is said to be the best.

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