Why you should experience a Khmer Apsara Dance

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 amongst the Cambodians. Many performers were killed, but a small band of dancers managed to survive and is now making a comeback.

They are apsara.

Here’s the lowdown on the origin of the Khmer apsara dance and the best spot to watch this type of dancing in Siem Reap.

Read next: 11 things to do in Siem Reap

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Khmer apsara dance

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

What are apsara?

Traditionally, apsara means the beautiful girls and they are said to be supernatural female beings. Legend says the beautiful girls were born from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a story depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat.

In modern time, the Khmer apsara dance is performed by both men and women.

Apsara dance, Cambodia

Why you should see an 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.

If you’re interested in culture, a Siem Reap apsara dance is a lovely way to experience and get a glimpse of the 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 went to Smile of 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. 

Apsara dance, Cambodia
Apsara dance, Cambodia
Apsara dance, Cambodia
Churning the Sea of Milk
Apsara dance, Cambodia

How is the show performed?

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
  6. Smile of Angkor

During these six chapters, you’ll hear tales from the time when the Temples of Angkor were built, as well as explanations of folk customs from the past and present.

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
Glorious kingdom
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
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 Khmer Apsara dance?

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Khmer Apsara dance

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

    1. 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 🙂

    1. 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.

  2. 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…

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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!

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