Monday, April 07, 2008

Khmer Classical Dance at Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia

I'm not sure when I first heard of Angkor Wat. I think it was probably an issue of National Geographic from the early 80s. I remember an article about various conservation efforts. Different temples were doled out to different countries, or was it the other way around? One country merely flecked off weeds and roots, cleaning the surface but removing fine details of temple faces along the way.

Angkor Wat National Geographics

Years later when I lived in London, the BBC aired a documentary featuring the temples of Angkor with computer recreations of what the ancient city might have looked like at its peak. Reality is that by the time Cambodia was safe enough for me to travel, it was also safe enough for tons of other tourists as well. My inner Indiana Jones had to contend with crowds of obnoxiously loud tour groups. Still, that was a minor annoyance in order to explore ancient ruins I'd been anticipating for years.

My friends and I only had a weekend free so we tried to pack in as much as we reasonably could. We flew from Saigon to Siem Reap on a Friday in the late afternoon and left on Sunday. After very long lines to get our landing visas processed and checking into the hotel, our tour guide suggested a buffet dinner and show of Cambodian classical and folk dance.

The 2005 price for dinner and show at Koulen Restaurant was $10 USD. The food was unremarkable, but most people weren't there for the food. This was prior to blogging so I didn't take pictures of the unremarkable food anyway.

According to Wikipedia, Khmer classical dance, is also referred to as royal ballet and court dance because during French colonization it was mainly performed by concubines, relatives, and attendants of the palace. The dancers are called apsaras. Khmer classical dance goes back as far as the 7th century. Apsaras can be seen on various Angkor temple walls. (Keep this in mind because I'll be pointing this out in the next post.) Temple dancers served as entertainers and messengers to the divinities.

During the 15th century, the dancers, priests, and artisans were taken away when Angkor fell to the Siamese (Thai) kingdom of Ayutthaya. But the worst blow was between 1975 to 1979 when the Khmer Rouge killed 90% of all classical artists because dance was thought of as aristocratic. Survivors somehow managed to find each other to keep alive this ancient tradition. (I'll interject here for a little bit in regards to my previous post. I realize that when traveling some people don't want their enjoyment marred by reminders of human cruelty. While that's understandable, for me, sometimes there is no separation. Take for instance the above paragraph. I'm sure for many of the tourists there that night, all they saw were pretty costumes. What I saw was a ancient art form that had to struggle to even survive. Knowing that, did I enjoy the show more than the other tourists? I don't know. But I do know that I appreciated the dancers for more than their pretty costumes.) Apsaras use elaborate gestures and movements in order to tell a story. I think (?) they're performing the Reamker or Ramakerti, the Khmer version of the Ramayana (an ancient Sanskrit epic that's part of the Hindu canon).

Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia 1
Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia 2
Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia 3
I think this was a dance about the beauty of flowers and maidens?
Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia 4
Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia 5
Look at how the girl in the center has bent her fingers way back. That kind of flexibility means she has to have been dancing since she was very, very young.
Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia 6
Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia 7
Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia 8
The show also included a folk dance where the dancers wove in and out of bamboo poles.

Koulen Restaurant
Sivatha Street,
Svay Dangkum Commune,
Siem Reap District
Siem Reap
(855) 063 964 324

I suggest reading my Cambodia series in this order:
Dith Pran and the Killing Fields Memorial in Siem Reap - Cambodia
Khmer Classical Dance at Koulen Restaurant - Siem Reap - Cambodia
Angkor Wat
Angkor Thom: Victory Gate, Bayon Temple, Terrace of the Leper King, Terrace of the Elephants, Prasats Suor Prat, and Phimeanakas
Ta Prohm Chong Kneas Floating Village - Tonle Sap (Great Lake) - Cambodia

For a related post on Cambodian food: Battambang Seafood Restaurant - San Gabriel

1 year ago today, lil' sis made star-shaped cupcakes.


  1. i went to cambodia last year. i initially had planned to go there, actually never thought about going there at all. we found a good deal during my vacation in vietnam and decided to go there for a few days. i was just amazed at ankor wat and its beauty. i just cant believe this place still exists. cambodia (phom penh) is pretty developed, certain parts of streets (where hotels were) looked like the US. anyway, i enjoyed my stay there and i think anyone who emerses themselves in cambodian history will have a deep respoect for that culture.

  2. Susan,
    That's how it was for me. We were already in Vietnam and it's so close. I'm glad I got to experience the Angkor temples. I would have liked to see Phnom Penh too but alas, not enough time.

  3. It's so cool to see traditional dance being kept alive. There is so much history and story telling that can be learned from traditional dance. It's just awe-inspiring to see how talented they are. I wish I could bend my fingers that far back!

  4. I totally agree with what you said about knowing the history behind all the touristy stuff. =)

  5. Christine,
    I am so uncoordinated. I can't dance. And I definitely can't bend my fingers. So it was all impressive to me.

    Good! I hope if you go, you'll also stop off at the memorial to pay your respects. It's a shame that so few tourists did that. :(


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