Published On: Tue, Sep 25th, 2018

Traditional Culture & Performing Art in Cambodia

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Once performed only for the king and his Court, the ancient Apsara dance bore the brunt of the Khmer Rouge efforts to destroy the past and establish a peasant based Maoist regime. Few artists survived the onslaught but those who did eventually emerged from hiding to teach a new generation of aspiring dancers. Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the first public show was held in 1995 and Cambodia’s ancient performing arts have blossomed ever since.

Traditional Culture & Performing Art in Cambodia

Colourful Apsara dancers are sometimes spotted around the temples in Angkor, especially in Ta Prohm, and traditional performances can be enjoyed in some restaurants and hotels in nearby Siem Reap and in the capital Phnom Penh.

Classical Khmer Dance from the Royal Court of Angkor

Early forms of the dance were said to come from India and predate Angkorian times but the Khmer Apsara came into its own in the 12th century, under Jayavarman II and VII. Some 3000 dancers lived at Court and in Angkor Wat and neighbouring temples, numerous bas-reliefs depict the heavenly nymphs dancing to honour king and gods.

Later, the dance lay dormant for centuries but was revived in the 1960s when Princess Borodom became the principal dancer of the Cambodian ballet. Today everyone can attend an Apsara show and marvel at intricate hand and body movements, imbued with grace. Each one has a specific meaning, symbolising a flower or a fruit, happiness or the resilient Cambodian spirit.

Dancers are taught from a tender age, practising for a minimum of six years to loosen their joints and achieve the 1500 positions.

Apsara, Traditional Culture in Cambodia

Rich traditional costumes enhance the grace and poise of Apsara dancers. Most important is the ornate headdress, with three or five points and garlands of artificial hair, as seen in Angkor Wat sculptures. Silk skirts may be partly pleated, sometimes with elaborate designs, white for the principal dancer and coloured for the others.

Traditional jewellery is worn on wrists and ankles while earrings shaped like flowers may dangle down to the shoulders. Papaya flowers and frangipani complete the costume.

Khmer Music, Ancient Performing Art in Cambodia

The Cambodian pinpeat orchestra can be traced back to Angkor times. Similarities with the Indonesian gamelan may be due to the fact that King Jayavarman II was educated at the Court in Java. It is above all a ‘chime-gong’ ensemble, led by xylophones and gongs. Other instruments may include drums, fiddle, banjo, oboe, flute and cymbals.

The Khmer pinpeat orchestra requires at least eight musicians but enjoys some flexibility in the choice of secondary instruments. It can accompany a range of dances and features in cultural shows and festivals.

About the Author

- Paul Linus is an eminent online journalist who has been writing news, features and editorials on different websites from across the world for about a decade. He can be contacted at

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