Sometimes I spend my evening in Phnom Penh doing cultural things, rather than the usual drinking or watching television. As it turns out, there is a rather lively arts scene in Cambodia, if you know where to look. I’ve attended several amateur dramatic performances by the Phnom Penh Players including a pantomime and Romeo and Juliet (western style) but I’ve recently seen some traditionally Khmer art.
My boss at work, Arun, helped set up an NGO called Cambodian Living Arts with his friend Arn seventeen years ago. CLA believes art to be a vital element of society and hopes to use traditional Cambodian arts to empower and transform their students. They teach high quality traditional Khmer arts to students throughout Cambodia. Although Arun no longer works for the NGO, he maintains close ties to his friend and many of the artists who work there. Every weekend CLA put on two performances – traditional Khmer dance and traditional Khmer shadow puppetry. As we had a returning volunteer at Sovann Komar, Arun offered to take a group of us to see the dance show.
I love dancing, and I’ve seen my fair share of drunken Khmer dancing at wedding here but I was blown away by the talent on display by CLA artists. Not only were the dancers highly skilled but the show itself was seamless and the costumes were fantastic. They performed lots of different types of dances, accompanied by live music and singing, each of them expressing different aspects of traditional Cambodian lifestyles, including fishing, harvest, and love. Additionally there was an excellent Apsara dance, the most famous Cambodian dance form, often depicted on the basque reliefs at Angkor. Below is a picture of the Apsara dancers and a video of one of the other dances.
The following week saw me experiencing another of Cambodia’s traditional art forms – giant shadow puppetry. There was an exhibit of these incredible masterpieces at The Plantation, a swanky hotel in Phnom Penh and several of my friends invited me to go along. The puppets themselves are made out of thick leather, mounted on sticks. The frozen images are used to tell stories, moved around by extremely talented operators. The movement is accompanied by music and sometimes singing. There were many large puppets mounted on the walls around a pond in the middle of the hotel, allowing visitors to get up close to examine the intricate details of the puppets. They were also for sale … if you had several hundred dollars to spare! This evening was topped off with a wonderful performance of exerts from the Reamker, Cambodia’s version of India’s Ramayana. It was incredible to see these beautiful masterpieces in action. Here’s a video of some of it plus a few photos of the puppets and performance.
And you know what made the giant shadow puppets even better? Free wine!