A taste of Cambodian culture
The tick-list of things to see in Phnom Penh is often heavy on the brutal history, leaving visitors sometimes reeling and with only a bite-sized impression of the country’s rich heritage—one of the best ways to address this is by catching a performance of traditional Cambodian dance.
While you may struggle to believe this when you’re seated in yet another Khmer BBQ joint, Cambodia’s musical and performance accomplishments actually go well beyond karaoke. Beautifully demonstrated by Cambodian Living Arts at the National Museum, an hour-long evening performance can be just thing you are looking for.
The magic takes place down a lantern-lit path in the gardens of the National Museum, in a small outdoor theatre. Running nightly, the performance we saw in January 2019 was called Earth and Sky, and was an eight–part show showcasing a variety of traditional performances.
The series of acts aim to take you “on a magical journey through Cambodian mythology, ancient traditions and village life” which, in practise means that each act showcases a particular dance style, musical instrument—or both.
The show kicks of with a reenactment of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which then produces apsaras who work to restore peace on Earth. Fast forward a few centuries and it is harvest time as the villages gather for their daily activities built around harvest season, only to realise drought is upon them.
With a drought on hand, entreaties are made to the King to sort out a ritual dance to pray for rain and you’re presented with a showdown between the water goddess and the storm spirit—the former prevails and a thunderstorm hits. With the rain, life returns to the Earth and this is beautifully presented with a dancing peacock and some very funny moment with rascal-like monkeys—watch out kids in the front row! With life aplenty, the villages go for a bit of fishing, but the tale turns into a love story.
What’s love without a bit of drumming and the second to last performance, a Chhayam Drum Dance features both male and female drummers with much hooting and hollering. The performance is then wrapped up with some mock Cambodian dancing to a grand applause from the audience.
At an hour long, the performance is just about right and even the most dance-disinterested will most likely find attending a show worthwhile. The performance is preceded by a presentation explaining how Cambodia lost a generation of artisans due to the Khmer Rouge period and how Cambodian Living Arts has worked hard to provide emerging artists with regular paid work and training opportunities—this alone makes attendance worthwhile. For the more interested, it is possible to do a dance workshop yourself here—see their website for details.
Tickets can be purchased online or in person on the evening. Prices are in three brackets—$15, $20 and $25, priced according to proximity to the stage. If you are wanting to take photos, purchasing a front row seat is a worthwhile investment—please consider those sitting behind you and do not stand during the performance. Dinner packages, which include dinner at Friends the Restaurant (just up the road from the museum) start at $30.
Address: National Museum, Corner of Street 178 and Street 13, Phnom Penh
T: (017) 998 570;
Coordinates (for GPS): 104º55'45.64" E, 11º33'55.55" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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