Celestial nymphs born from the Churning of the Sea of Milk, thousands of Apsaras gracefully adorn the walls of Angkor’s temples flying through the air or dancing in Indra’s Heavens, smiling quietly to themselves. Devatas are the more earthly semi-divine Goddesses, whose features are carved into the walls as they stand, sporting imperial impressions and often holding a lotus flower. These are the inspiration behind what we know as classical Khmer dancing today.
The Churning of the Sea of Milk is a Hindu story that tells how the amrita, the vital nectar of immortality, failed to reappear from the Cosmic Ocean during one of the cycles of creation. Needing the nectar to establish superiority over the asuras, anti-gods, the gods called a truce and promised the asuras a portion of the amrita if they would help them to churn the Cosmic Ocean to provoke the nectar.
The gods and demons ripped up Mount Mandara to serve as a giant pivot and Vasuki the snake was conscripted as a churning rope. After 1,000 years Dhanvantari finally emerged bearing the amrita in a bowl, but the asuras zipped in and grabbed it before the gods were able. They weren’t prepared though for the appearance of Mohini, Vishnu in the form of a woman so beautiful that the entranced asuras completely forgot about the nectar. Vishnu restored it to the gods who drank down every last drop. The asuras were not impressed. But the amrita was not the only thing thrown up by the violent swirl of the churning. Numerous magical creatures were released from the waters including Varuni, the goddess of wine, Surabhi, the cow of plenty, the goddess Lakshmi and, of course, the Apsaras. To see a carving of the Churning of the Sea of Milk at Angkor, check out the East Gallery, South Wing, at Angkor Wat.
Khmer dancing can be classical – intense, slow-moving, graceful movements that are directly inspired by the Apsaras at Angkor – or theatrical, where stories are told from the Ramayana or moral tales governing daily life. There is a very wide variety of venues to choose from in Siem Reap to find performances; here are just a few.
If you would like to savour the elegance of the dance with equally elegant surroundings and food, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor puts on a wonderful pan-Asian buffet in a special open-air Apsara Terrace in their gardens. Performances are Monday, Wednesday and Friday, starting at 19:45.
At the Apsara Theatre beside the Angkor Village Hotel on Wat Bo Road, nightly dinner theatre performances are held from 20:00 until 21:30. This is a stunning Khmer-style wooden building that is a perfect setting for the performances.
Another uniquely beautiful setting can be found at Fou Nan restaurant where they host performances on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The restaurant is set in a long, wooden, vaulted hall, beautifully decorated with traditional Khmer artefacts. The menu is a blend of French and Khmer, and the chef is highly credited for his creativity and skill in presenting royal Khmer cuisine.
For more down to earth performances, and a huge buffet, the Temple Bar on Pub Street also hosts nightly performances from 19:30 to 21:30.
But by far the most technically impressive and atmospherically magical Khmer dancing that you’ll find in town are the occasional performances staged by the Nginn Karet Foundation. The foundation was created to help people from villages around Angkor Wat improve their living standards by giving them the skills and knowledge to help themselves and a fundamental part of the programme focuses on classical dance training. Recognised by UNESCO, this is the only training school in Siem Reap whose focus incorporates the history and preservation of this beautiful and elegant dance form for something beyond simple touristic pleasure. Their authenticity is beyond question.
All of the images accompanying this come from two performances staged by the Nginn Karet Foundation.
One word of caution. Some orphanages offer Khmer dance shows, performed by the young children in their care. We can only advise, “Don’t do it!” No tourist should ever visit an orphanage — as the campaign put together by Friends International so perfectly puts it: “Children are not tourist attractions“. That strength of feeling is multiplied for orphanages that offer Khmer dance performances by the children as part of their “package of attractions”, especially if you are approached by children or anyone on the street and invited to come and see the performance. Orphanage tourism is imperilling the rights and futures of Cambodian children. Please don’t participate.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 17th February, 2016.