The tick-list of things to see in Phnom Penh is often heavy on the brutal history, leaving visitors reeling and with only a bite-sized impression of the country’s rich heritage. Cambodia’s culture goes well beyond loud karaoke and reproductions of Angkor Wat everywhere you turn, beautifully demonstrated by Cambodian Living Arts’ Plae Pakaa performances at the National Museum.
The magic takes place down a lantern-lit path in the gardens of the National Museum, in a small outdoor theatre. Performances run from October to March, avoiding the very hot season and the rainy season storms, with three different productions. Children of the Bassac combines traditional dances from different eras and ethnic groups; the Yike Opera (Mak Therng) tells a classic Cambodian tale through song and dance; and Passage of Life travels through the important rituals of Khmer life with music and colour.
That these art forms have been saved for posterity is thanks to Cambodian Living Arts, who searched for surviving master artists after the Khmer Rouge period to pass on their skills to young students. The traditions of apsara dancing, difficult-to-master musical instruments, costume crafting and choreography have been preserved. The Plae Pakaa (translates as ‘fruitful’) performances give visitors the chance to explore deeper elements of Cambodian culture and give performers a viable income after years of studying to perfect their craft.
Each spellbinding performance is different, but you can expect brightly coloured outfits, graceful dancing, enchanting music and plenty of energy. The Children of the Bassac performance, now in its fourth season, includes a buffalo blessing from the Phnong tribe of Ratanakiri; a lively fishing dance in which fish are not the only catch; the much-loved monkey dance from the Khmer version of the Ramayana story; and a captivating apsara dance. It takes years of practice just to get the fingers to bend back that far, and each perfectly placed movement requires an enviable amount of strength and grace.
How to get there
Children of the Bassac - A Snapshot of Cambodia through Dance: Mon andThurs
Yike Opera: Mak Therng - The Quest for Love and Justice: Tues and Fri
Passage of Life - Living the Cambodian Life: Wed and Sat
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.