If you’re the kind of person who prefers to do rather than see, Phnom Penh’s Backstreet Academy gives you the opportunity to get up close with Khmer culture in a different way. Practical short courses in Cambodian traditions — of the dancing, fighting and crafty variety — provide an insight into a heritage which is often overshadowed by its neighbours’ more slickly marketed art forms.
There’s a choice of courses, each taught by a local artisan or practitioner. Khmer boxing training is held in a backstreet gym, getting hands on (and knees on and feet on) practice in this traditional fighting form. It’s sweaty, physical and will give you an appreciation for Cambodia’s favourite sport (Premiership football aside). Less high-impact but no less demanding, an introduction to Apsara dancing will have you twisting your hands and placing your feet in elegant steps handed down since Angkor Wat’s carvings were fresh off the chisel.
Painting and sketching classes are combined with a visit to often overlooked Phnom Penh architecture, or you can create your own clay pot or coconut carving. Impress your friends with a Khmer massage, learn Cambodian cooking, or try the special desserts course, run by market trader Aunty Kolap.
For something truly different, the two-hour shadow puppetry course will give you the basic skills needed to create stories with stick operated leather puppets, with characters including an elephant, a monkey, a peacock and a warrior. Larger static shadow puppet performances incorporate dance steps and swooping motions to make the intricately pictured scenes come to life. If you’d like to take one home, choose the practical lesson in carving leather puppets or lampshades with Heng Vantha, who makes using awls to create delicate patterns look very easy.
At between one and four hours long, these courses should fit into all but the most hurried itinerary, and are affordably priced from $12 per student. Courses can be arranged for the following day via an efficient website booking system, with email confirmations provided. A pick-up and drop-off at your guesthouse is included, as you’ll likely be heading for a non-touristy part of town, and when necessary, a translator is provided to ensure your understanding. Most courses are suitable for children, but it’s worth checking the details of your preferred option with Backstreet Academy to be sure.
By Abigail Gilbert
Last updated on 17th May, 2014.