Cambodian culture is based in India and Buddhism and has incorporated elements from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Java. One of the main centers for the arts in Cambodia, particularly dance, is the Royal University of Fine Arts. There was a rebirth of the arts in the 1950s and 60s during a period of Cambodian nationalism.

The Royal University of Fine Arts of Cambodia was established in 1964. The idea was that the ethnic traditions should first be studied in their authentic surroundings by academically trained researchers and students and then reshaped to suit modern stages and audiences. The underlying motivation was to strengthen the national identity and teach people to appreciate the cultural expressions of ethnic minorities.

The censors in Cambodia are known for being very strict. Matt Dillon, who made a film in Cambodia, told Time, “I was afraid of censorship, but they seemed more concerned that the movie was truthful even if it didn’t say the most flattering things about the country.” In recent years, pop singers and actresses have been the targets of what seems to be politically-motivated murders.

History of Arts and Culture in Cambodia

Throughout Cambodia's history, religious principles guided and inspired its arts. A unique Khmer style emerged from the combination of indigenous animistic beliefs and the originally Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. These two religions, along with the Sanskrit language and other elements of Indian civilization, arrived in mainland Southeast Asia during the first few centuries A.D. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Seafaring merchants following the coast from India to China brought them to the port cities along the Gulf of Thailand, which were then controlled by the state of Funan in Cambodia. At varying times, Cambodian culture also absorbed Javanese, Chinese, and Thai influences.

Between the 9th and 15th centuries, a prosperous and powerful empire flourished in northwestern Cambodia. The Khmer kingdom of Angkor, named for its capital city, dominated much of what is now Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. The kingdom drew its religious and political inspiration from India. The literary language of the court was Sanskrit; the spoken language was Khmer. Massive temples from this period, including Angkor Wat and the Bayon at Angkor Thum, testify to the power of Angkor and the grandeur of its architecture and decorative art. The unparalleled achievements in art, architecture, music, and dance during this period served as models for later cultural development in Cambodia.

Angkor faded into obscurity after the capital moved south to Phnom Penh in the 15th century, probably due in part to frequent invasions by the neighboring Thais. The jungle rapidly grew over the monuments. In the centuries that followed, frequent wars reduced the territory, wealth, and power of Cambodian monarchs. However, an independent state with its capital near Phnom Penh survived until the 19th century. The most important work of Cambodian literature, the Reamker (a Khmer-language version of the Indian myth of the Ramayana), was composed during this time.

France, which began administering Cambodia in 1863, rediscovered the temples at Angkor and worked to preserve them beginning in the early 20th century. Cambodia's traditional culture and the monuments of Angkor were endangered between 1970 and 1990 due to civil war. The Communist Khmer Rouge regime, which opposed and mistrusted religion and education, banned all of Cambodia's traditional arts and its written language. Since 1991, when Cambodia's warring factions signed a peace accord, international organizations have helped the Cambodian government restore the sites at Angkor and revive Cambodia's traditional crafts.

Arts and Culture and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia

Most cultural institutions were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Many dancers and musicians were executed. An estimated 90 percent of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals were killed during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror between 1975 and 1979. Many of those who survived were either out of the country or managed to hide their identities and to convince their Khmer Rouge enforcers that they were ordinary peasants.

John O'Mahoney wrote in The Guardian: Nowhere were the policies of the Khmer Rouge “applied more barbarously than to artists, writers and intellectuals, with an estimated 90 percent wiped out. This included anyone with secondary or tertiary education. Even people wearing glasses risked summary execution, just for looking brainy. Thirty years on, Cambodian culture has yet to recover. "There are only about 100 writers in this country," according to You Bo of the writer's union. "And of that amount, only about 10 have any decent level of education." [Source: John O'Mahoney, The Guardian, March 26, 2007]

Cambodian Literature

Literature includes folk tales, legends, poetry, religious texts and dramas.

The Reamker” is the Khmer version of the Hindu epic the Ramayana. It features two human gods, a captured queen, monkey generals and monkey soldiers. The most beloved character is Hanuman, the monkey god. Even today you can find his image affixed to cigarette packs, restaurant signs and army medals for bravery.

Apart from some accounts by Cambodians living aboard there is virtually no homegrown literature or art that deals with what people went through during the Khmer Rouge years.


Traditional Cambodian instruments include tuned gongs, xylophones, drums, flues and oboe-like wind instruments. The chapei” is a two-stringed musical instrument plucked with the fingers like a guitar. It was used in traditional court music and plaid with flute and drums, Playing the instrument was generally lost during the Khmer Rouge years. Some old people know how to play it but the younger generation is no interested and the is concern it might die out.

There are two kinds of traditional music: one is the Pin Peath with stringed and percussion instruments and the other the Mohory with only stringed instruments. The different instruments are: Pin Peath is a group of instruments which have Roneath (xylophone in metal or bamboo), Kong (percussion instrument surrounding the player), a pear of Skor Thom (a very big drum, which has two faces, for making the rhythm), Sampho (a big drum,which has two faces, for making the rhythm), Sro Lai (a big recorder),Chhoeng (percussion instrument hitting each other for making rhythm). This kind of music is used to accompany dances, praying to God or spirit and other ceremonies.[Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Mohory is a group of instruments, which have Khoem (with 35 horizontal strings instrument), Ta Khe (with 3 horizontal strings instrument), Tro (with vertical strings instrument), Skor Dai (a small drum for making rhythm), Khloy (recorder) and Chhoeng. This kind of music is used to accompany dance, theatre, wedding and other ceremonies. There are 4 to 6 percent of children attend these courses and they start learning all the traditional Khmer instruments, and choose one they prefer to form the group.

Traditional Music of Cambodia

German musicologist Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog: Today little is known about the traditional music of Cambodia. One of the main reasons for this is the way how Cambodia was involved in several wars in the last decades. After the Vietnam war the self-inthroned “Khmer Rouge” regime under the leadership of Pol Pot tried to destroy every cultural root of Cambodia in order to start at “Point Zero” again. This means that many relics of traditional and cultural meaning have been destroyed, teachers, musicians and performers have been killed and most of the traditional knowledge perished in less than twenty years. Today only a few traditional habits survived, sometimes mixed up with popular and Western influences. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt on his blog about Southeast Asian music **]

“The most reliable scientific works about the ancient Khmer culture have been written by foreigners or scientists living in diaspora, and the main knowledge about this tradition and the involved music was transfered by mouth, from generation to generation, so actually after most members of the elder generation have been killed by the “Khmer Rouge”, only the foreign and diaspora scientific works remain as a source and a lot of further research has to be done in the future. **

Instruments and Ensembles in Traditional Cambodian Music

German musicologist Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog: “Many musical instruments are bound to the religious or social function of an event, most of them do rarely appear alone or played as a solo instrument, and if someone visits Cambodia today, there are two ensembles which he will face everytime and everywhere. This is why it is a sensefull way to present the main instruments used in the Khmer music by describing these two orchestras and their function. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt on his blog about Southeast Asian music **]

“After the defeat of the Khmer rouge, nearly everybody who knows how to play or even to manufacture an instrument was killed. The only chance left was to grab every instrument one could reach. This way, no "fixed" ensemble was used, they just played on everthing they could find. But after some years the "PIN PEAT" ensemble was coming back to accompany dances of all kind. If you visit Cambodia today this will be the most often used ensemble you might face and listen to. Sometimes the ensemble "MOHORI" is also used to accompany Folk festivals and dance perfomances. Of course both ensembles sometimes get mixed up or instruments appear in different numbers.For example, the oboe Sralay is not easy to learn, and often the Pin Peat ensemble misses a good Sralay player, so his part will be overtaken by another instrument, like a Roneat Ek. This is why all descriptions of the ensembles have to be handled with care. **

“The main (and one of the oldest) ensembles is the“Pin Peat”. It consist of 8 musicians minimum and is known today for playing music at the famous “Nang Sbek” shadow theatre, at royal dances, for temple and folk festivities and for performing the “Lokhon Khol”, which is the Khmer version of the Ramayana epos. **

“We also do find ensembles with this name in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia, but it is obsolete to discuss which one was the “first”or oldest, as most of them only differ in details. Maybe the Khmer version is the oldest as it might be traced back to the Angkorian period. The ensemle and its music might be classified as “gong-chime”-music, which means that the musical focus lies in percussive elements created by gongs and xylophones. This shows the wide influence of Indonesian Gamelan music, which might be reflected to the education of King Jayavarman II at the Srailendras court of Java, and spreads out over many cultures of Southeast Asia today. **

Pin Peat Instruments and Ensembles

German musicologist Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog: “Normaly, the "Pin Peat" ensemble consists of three groups: The first group, the percussion instruments, dominate the orchestra and resound the main beats of the steps of the dancers, using the "Sampho" drum, the cymbals "Chheung" and the "Skor Thom". The "Pin Peat" is an ensemble with focus on percussive sounds, different from the more melodic sound of the "Mohori". (Please click the instruments name for a small description and picture) [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt on his blog about Southeast Asian music **]

“The second group is small, consisting of one or two "Sralay" in different sizes, which accompany and lead the slow and high pitched recitations. One might compare it with a quadruple reed oboe, but its origin may be found in the Indian "Xaranai" or the European "Schalmai" instruments. **

“The third group consists of different melodic instruments, most of them idiophones, like the xylophones ("Roneat") "ek", "thung" and "dek", and the gong sets ("Kong") "thom" and "touc". This group might be understood as an relict of the Indonesian "Gamelan" ensemble, and they fullfill the same functions, as they weave a carpet of polyrhythmic and polyphone structures and patterns, which accompany the melodies of the oboe "Sralay" with pentatonic layers that are unusual and hard to follow for Western ears. **

“If the “Pin Peat” is used to accompany dance performance, both the dancers and instrumentalists also function as a choir, telling the story and leading the listener through all pieces as a narrator. Sometimes the ensemble is enlarged with a bamboo length flute named “Khloy”. ** “As mentioned before, the make up of these ensembles differ, depending on the fact if a special instrument player is available or not. There seems to be no difference in the appearance of the ensemble when it is used for another request. This means no question if it is used to play for shadow theatre, dance or folk festivals, the “Pin Peat” remains the same. There seems to be no special “Pin Peat” strictly bound to occasions. **

Mohoru and Phleng Khmer Instruments and Ensembles

German musicologist Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog: “The most famous orchestra nowadays is the ”Mohori" which is an ensemble with several functions. Once it was used to perform at ritual dances in Angkor Wat, today it is an orchestra with divers instrumentations and functions which performs at festivals and radio shows, it is also sometimes used to play Western melodies or Popmusic. It exists in many forms and variations, and sometimes the instrumentation is changed for the musical purpose. The most common set consists of the xylophones Roneat ”ek, thom” and ”dek”, the bamboo length flutes ”cha pei” and ”Khloy”, and some chordophones like the fiddles ”Tro u”, ”Tro khmer” and ”tro sor”, which are violins that maybe originated in corresponding Chinese instruments, chracaterized by the two chords and the enclosed bow between these chords; or the harp ”Takhe” with three chords and twelve frets, which maybe originated from corrresponding Thai instruments. Sometimes small cymbals with the onomatopoetic name ”Ching” are used for producing offbeats, also a hammered dulcimer named “Khim” appears.[Source: Ingo Stoevesandt on his blog about Southeast Asian music **]

“Another typical orchestra of the Khmer music is named ”Phleng khmer” and can be found whenever village celebrations are held, it plays well known folk songs in a moderate tempo. Comparing it with the ”Pin Peat”, it mainly consists of melodic instruments and thus the music is less percussive than the ”Pin Peat” sound. The two following ensembles are strictly used for funeral celebrations and are more rhythmic and ceremonial in the sound: **

“They are combinations of a rhythmic group with a single melodic instrument.The first ensemble named ”Phleng khong skor” can only be found at funeral celebrations around Siem Reap. It consists of a ”Skor thom”, a ”Kong touch” and a set of two big gongs carried on a pillar over the shoulder, simply named ”Kong”. Sometimes the ensemble is widened by a ”Sralay”. The second ensemble named ”Khlang chnak” maybe originating in corresponding Malaysian ensembles. It consists of a ”Skor sangna”, a cylindric wooden drum with two membranes, beaten with a stick, and the ”Skor khlong khek thnak”, a cylindric wooden drum with two membramens, beaten with the hand, and the ”Sralay”. **

Cambodian Shadow Theatre and Dance Performance

German musicologist Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog: “The famous shadow theatre ”Nang sbek” was founded in Angkor Wat and is one of the best places to listen to the music of the ”Pin Peat” orchestra. The orchestra starts with a prelude, and two vocalists comment the scenes. They do this with recitatives in slow tempo (”Bat pum nul”), where the ends of the verse are always combined with a tremolo of the ”Skor thom” drum and with prosaic dialogues (”chen char”), which are often improvised and spiced with a sense of humor. After this, the ”Pin Peat” plays the music for the dances of the shadow actors, and the rhythmic section is often used to underline the movements of the characters. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt on his blog about Southeast Asian music **]

“In the countryside one can find another type of shadow theatre, which is called ”Nang sbek touch” or just ”Ayang”, which is the name for the leather puppets of Malayan origin (”Yang kulit”). It is the only form of spoken theatre in Cambodia, and the humorous play of the main figure (which is also called ”Ayang”) is interluded by dances of other puppets, who are accompagnied by a smaller orchestra similar to the ”Pin Peat”. Most of the traditional dances have perished with the defeat of Angkor Wat, but there was a Renessaince of some of the transfered dances in the 19th century. In Angkor, the performing of dances was only allowed for women, but today it is also trained and performed by men. Most of the performed pieces are scenes from the Khmer Ramayana version called ”Ream ker” or scenes from famous folk legends like ”Ream eyso”, ”Monora” or ”Preah-suton”. A typical moment of the traditional dances performed today is the use of masks and colorful costumes, which reflect the persons of the ”Ream ker” and the detailed reliefs of the Angkor temples. **

“The dances are accompanied by a singing choir, the drum ”Skor arak”, the violin ”Tro che” and the double reed ”Pley ar” and a number of changing instruments, for example the wooden tubes ”Kancha” or cymbals and rattles. The combination of music and instrumentation follows the content of the dances. In the animal dance ”Sneng tonson” (”dance of the wild cattle”), one of the animal dancers plays the mouthorgan ”Phloy” (made of five bamboo pipes) while a vocalists gives comments and the movements get underlined by the ”Skor thom”. Dances including folk songs accompanied by thechordophones ”Takhe” and ”Cha pei” are often dialogues between men and women (both called ”Ayay”) with improvised melodies and humorous character.**

Khmer Music Systemology

German musicologist Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog: “One of the most interesting topics of the traditional Khmer music is the isotonic scale, which divides the octave into seven equal steps of (nearly) 171,4 cent. Corresponding to isotonic systems in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, and also to the old ”Sruti” of India, it is still not clear where this system is originally coming from. Most of the scientists try to search for a common intonation of the Asian metallophones to explain this theory. Another possible explanation is the syncretism of the wide range of musical influencies from China over India to Indonesia in the conglomerate of the culture of the ancient city in Angkor Wat. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt on his blog about Southeast Asian music **]

“While most of the instruments are strictly bound to orchestral instrumentations and their function, the performed pieces always mix up actual folk songs, religious fragments and pieces of the ethnic minorities in Eastern Cambodia with traditional fragments of music. This makes it very hard two divide between ”modern”, ”ancient” and ”classic” music. Most of the pieces are played in a heterophone way, based on a rhythm that splits up into two times. Polyphone manners only develop, if different melodies of different origin are played in the same piece. It is also not rare that musical pieces of the shadow theatre are integrated in the dance music and vice versa. **

“For example, the ”Mohori” music is characterized by an anhemitonic pentatonic scale which was influenced by classic Chinese music. It often changes the modi and scales. On the other hand, ornamentations are used in different manners and split up the origin of the original scale. The ornamentations are very improtant for the music, as the right placing and execution of an ornament divides a good musicians with high skills from the mediocre one.” **

Cambodia War Survivors Turn to Music

Reporting from Siem Reap, Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: “By the walls of ancient temples, just as the morning sun dapples the jungle floor and birds sing, survivors of Cambodia's killing fields and minefields drop their crutches, put aside their artificial limbs or blindly grope for their instruments—and then play music that can break the heart. A tentative, mournful melody floats from a two-stringed "tro" bowed by Kak Vy, whose right leg is gone. He is joined by a zither plucked by Khieu Sarath, who lost his parents and sisters to Khmer Rouge murderers and whose mine-shattered leg was amputated without morphine. Phun Ath, blinded by a rocket, taps a drum softly. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, April 12, 2009]

Now, the first tourists arrive at the wondrous temples of Angkor, and the 20 musicians—amputees, blind, scarred, all destitute—hope that by dusk their playing will have earned them enough to sustain their families for another day. Together, they support more than 100 children and wives. The musicians' lives mirror Cambodia's agony: 3 million dead in three decades of a savage war, American bombing, the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, a civil conflict. Several members of Ankor's two orchestras say they teetered on the verge of suicide before finding hope by banding together to play the music of their ancestors.

Khieu Sarath gathered some of the disabled in 1997 and now seven of them play at Angkor's much-visited Ta Phrom, a monastic complex where gnarled roots and soaring trunks of ancient banyan and silk cotton trees intertwine with crumbling, dusky temples. "Victims of Landmines," reads a sign in five languages. If every passing tourist who clicked a camera donated, the group would be rolling in cash, but as it is they're very lucky to earn several dollars apiece, plus $4 daily saved in a communal pot for any among them in distress.

"There is no one to help us disabled people," says Khieu Sarath, who supports eight children, including an adopted son. "We have to rely on ourselves, help ourselves. If we don't sacrifice ourselves for our children, they will not have a bright future." "Life was difficult for a disabled man. At the beginning I did not particularly want to be a musician. But I had no choice. I had to find something that was not difficult for a disabled man and this job fits a lot of people like me," he says.

A second orchestra plays at Banteay Srei, the "jewel of Khmer art," a 10th century temple of pinkish sandstone famed for its delicate wall carvings. Here, the 13 musicians sit at the temple's edge on a blue plastic sheet spread over a forest floor strewn with winter's withered leaves. The buzz of cicadas and the wind's rustle accompany their sometimes bouncy, sometimes elegiac melodies played on instruments very like those depicted on the centuries-old friezes of Angkor.

Most are ex-soldiers, some even one-time battlefield enemies. Several desperate villagers from the surrounding area have joined them, including Nov Rey, the only woman among the 20 whose husband threw acid on her face for a reason she still can't fathom. A lovely smile shines from her scarred face as she relates what it takes to care of her five children alone. The group was brought together in 1999 by Phun Saroeun, who lost his left leg and two fingers fighting the Khmer Rouge alongside his two brothers, one now blind, the other missing a leg and both also members of the orchestra. Six of their cousins, an entire family, were exterminated by the Khmer Rouge.

Pop Music Murder and a Rock Concert at Angkor Wat

In 2003, The Cambodian pop singer Touch Sonic was seriously wounded and her mother was killed a murder attempt. She was linked to the royalist party.

In 2008 the rock group Placebo played anti-slavery gig at Cambodia's Angkor Wat AFP reported: “Had there been a roof, Placebo would have raised it as they headlined the first rock concert in history at Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple. Some 1,200 fans of all ages, mostly Cambodian, watched the London-based alternative rockers top a bill Sunday backed by musicians from Cambodia and across the world in aid of a campaign against human trafficking. "I cannot believe that in a supposedly civilised world this kind of heinous form of modern slavery still exists, and I truly believe that we can all do something to stop this," frontman Brian Molko told AFP. [Source: AFP, December 7, 2008]

Organiser MTV Exit — an anti-trafficking campaign group which operates under the aegis of music channel MTV — transformed the ancient Khmer ruins into an open-air rock venue with 15 tonnes of lighting and sound equipment flown in from as far away as Singapore. Three of the five 12th-century minarets were lit against the night sky as graphics showcasing MTV Exit's campaign were projected against a towering fountain of water.

Local hip-hop duo Phou Klaing got the audience to its feet with a set of crowd-pleasers while US band The Click Five were applauded wildly for a rousing performance. "When you have some kind of influence the best thing you can do is use it for a cause like this," said the band's keyboard player Ben Romans. The Click Five are due to visit a similar centre before they play their next campaign gig in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh next week.

Smoke swirled around the stage as the show began with traditional Khmer Apsara dancing following a speech by the country's tourism minister, Thong Khon. "We believe that the concert taking place in this historical tourist location will... send a strong message to the world that Cambodia is not a child sex tourism destination," the minister told the audience. The last international recording artist to perform at Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was tenor Jose Carreras who sang for a charity gala dinner there in 2002.

Click Five

The Click Five was an American power pop band from Boston, Massachusetts, whose original members were mostly students at Berklee College of Music, that attracted a large following in Southeast Asia, particularly Cambodia. According to Wikipedia: “The Click Five started playing in various local venues in 2003. They achieved significant commercial success with their first album in the US and their second release met with extreme popularity in Asian countries such as Cambodia and the Philippines. In total, the band has sold two million albums worldwide and have created eight number one singles in seven different nations. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Click Five released their debut, Greetings From Imrie House, on August 8, 2005. The album brought widespread commercial success, selling 350,000 copies in the United States. It took the fifteenth place on the Billboard 200 Charts almost immediately. According to The Boston Globe, they "saturated" the media in several Asian countries as well, such as in Cambodia. Amy Doyle, then-MTV vice president, remarked that "I see screaming girls in their future. I see them having to wear disguises". Many stores stocked various Click Five-based items such as lunchboxes, backpacks, trading cards, and hair gel lines.

Their second album, Modern Minds and Pastimes spawned the single 'Jenny', which reached the number one spot in charts in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Taiwan. The group spent mid to late 2007 touring across various Asian venues, many of them alongside The Black Eyed Peas. The group received nominations for 'Outstanding Pop Act', 'Male Vocalist of the Year' (for Kyle Patrick), and 'Song of the Year', and they won for 'Outstanding Pop Act'. Singapore radio station 98.7 FM voted them “Band of the Year”.

The group continued touring to widely receptive audiences in some Asian countries, notably in the Philippines where they have a loyal fan base, throughout 2008. That year, they co-headlined the first rock concert ever performed at the Angkor Wat Temple. In late 2008, they participated in an MTV EXIT concert in Bangkok done to raise awareness on human trafficking. The band played along with Burmese pop star Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein and various Thai-based celebrities.

On August 2, 2008, Click Five won the 'Knockout Award' at MTV Asia Awards 2008, in Genting Highlands, Malaysia. The award, for "the artist who has successfully captured the hearts of young music audiences in Asia", was a surprise to the band. Through 2008 and early 2009, the band played in various smaller, more niche-based venues in the New England area around this time.


Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “In the 1970s, during the political turmoil and the Vietnam War, the royal family was in exile. Dance performances ceased although the training of dancers continued to some extent. It was the beginning of a period of tight censorship, even in the field of theatre and dance. No references to the King or the country’s royal tradition were allowed. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ~~]

“Court dance and dance-theatre were totally banned after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975. Many dancers and actors did not survive the hardships of the period. After the Vietnamese “liberated” Cambodia in 1979, theatrical activities were again possible, although a new kind of censorship was established. Nationalism was replaced with the glorification of the Liberation. Even the song of the Apsara Dance was rewritten to praise the liberators instead of describing the mythical birth of the nation. Dance troupes were, however, allowed to perform abroad while several refugee dance groups were established in the Unites States and Europe. ~

“After peace had been restored, the royal family returned to Cambodia in 1991. Princess Buppha Devi was appointed Minister of Culture and the close ties between the royal family and the theatrical arts were revived. After his enthronement in 2004, the present king, Norodom Sihamoni (1953– ), has paid attention, among other things, to the continuation of theatrical traditions as well as to their renewal. In fact, he was trained as an actor, film-maker and dancer, in Pyongyang, Prague and Paris. ~~

In recent years several dance and theatre troupes have become active once more throughout Cambodia. Many of them earn their living by performing to the international tourists who come to see the ruins of Angkor. Thus the most active theatre and dance centre is, besides Phnom Penh, the provincial city of Siem Reap, near Angkor. Classical dance troupes continue their successful tours abroad while only one of the several village lakhon khol groups seems to have survived the long period of war.

Continuum”, dance drama about Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge horrors, was performed in the United States and elsewhere. Written and directed by Ong Keng Sen of the Singapore Theaterworks, it featured three classical dancers and a shadow puppeteer who survived the Khmer Rouge years and tell their stories with songs, dances drama and spoken words. The drama revolved around Em Theay, a 69-year-old, silver-haired master dancer, who once performed in front of U.S. President Nixon.

Lakhon Khol

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The Cambodian lakhon khol (also lakhon khaol or lakhon bhani) is clearly a sister form of Thailand’s khon mask-theatre. They both illustrate mainly the localised versions of the Indian epic Ramayana, which is known in Cambodia as the Reamker and in Thailand as the Ramakien. They are both regarded as national epics in their respective countries and they are closely linked to the royal courts and the god-king cult. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ~~]

“Like Thai khon, lakhon khol can also involve over a hundred actors, a percussion-dominated orchestra, narrators, singers, and a chorus. Both khon and lakhon khol employ decoratively painted and gilded papier maché masks covering the whole heads of the dancers who enact the demon and monkey roles. In Cambodia, however, the old practice of also covering the heads of heroes and heroines is also still sometimes followed. ~~

“The styles of the Cambodian and Thai masks are clearly related, although the lakhon khol masks are more robust in style nowadays. The lakhon khol dancers’ costumes are similarly related to the dance costuming of the Thai style that King Sisowath (1904–27) had already adopted for his own court dancers. ~~

Lakhon khol employs all the sub-techniques of Thai-influenced Cambodian classical dance. The heroes and heroines must have full command of the classical technique, while the monkey characters imitate animal movements and the demon characters have a martial arts-influenced technique of their own characterised by the turned-out leg position. ~~

History of Lakhon Khol

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “It is generally believed that King Ang Duong (1796–1859) already had an all-male lakhon khol troupe among his court dancers. It is believed that after his death it dissolved and later became reconstituted in a village context. It is indeed a rare example of how a court tradition has been transplanted into village surroundings in the whole region of Mainland Southeast Asia. The village dancers were, from time to time, even invited to perform at the court. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ~~]

“Before the beginning of the long period of political unrest and wars at the beginning of the 1970s there existed as many as eight village lakhon khol troupes in Cambodia. When the country was, and still is, recovering from its hardships it seems that only one of these groups has survived the wars. It is the troupe that is active in the village of Svay Andet, across the Mekong River from Phnom Penh. ~~

“The Svay Andet group has usually performed during important festivals such as the New Year celebration in mid-April. The performances have retained their deep ritual and even magical functions. The performers are ordinary villagers, farmers etc., and the performances, often lasting several nights, usually involve numerous members of the community. Although the basic conception of the Svay Andet lakhon khol originally stems from the court tradition, there are clear differences between it and the present court lakhon khol. As an all-male troupe the Svay Andet group concentrates more on the battle scenes and thus on the role categories of the monkeys and demons. ~~

“In the 20th century several attempts have been made to remodel lakhon khol for modern times and for foreign audiences. The epic Reamker was originally never, or at least very rarely, staged as a whole. Now, however, it is customary to stage productions which cover its main episodes. These kinds of productions may last several hours or they may be reduced to much shorter performances aimed for tourist variety shows. ~~

“In the 1980s and 1990s the University of Fine Arts created a kind of a reconstruction of an old-type lakhon khol with an all-male cast, all of them wearing masks. However, now it is also customary to stage it with a mixed cast while the main heroes, Preah Ream (Rama) and Preah Lek (Laksmana), are impersonated by female dancers. One of the reasons for this may be a lack of male dancers. This is understandable after the long period of war, which severely reduced the population of Cambodia. ~~

Lakhon Bassac

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The classical traditions of Cambodia are, to a great extent, an integral part of the Indian-influenced court culture of South-East Asia. On the other hand, lakhon bassac, the popular theatre of Cambodia, bears strong Vietnamese and Chinese influences as a result of the close contacts between Cambodia and southern Vietnam during the period of French colonial rule. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ~~]

Lakhon bassac is a form of spoken and sung theatre accompanied by both Vietnamese/Chinese-influenced music and Cambodian music. Sometimes even Western instruments are included. The acting is often improvised, while Cambodian classical dance gestures and poses are included in the dance scenes. ~~

The stories are performed in the style of romantic comedy with additional elements of farce. The plots may deal with mythical and historical themes or themes from the Buddhist Jataka stories. Vietnamese and Chinese stories are also used. Earlier, performances could last as many as six nights. There were tens of lakhon bassac troupes performing all over the country before the beginning of the unrest of the early 1970s. ~~

Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute

Sarah Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post: “Watching "Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute” you're struck by two conflicting thoughts. There is the singular spectacle of the dancers, with their intricately tailored, jeweled costumes and golden headdresses like temple spires — they seem to carry their own light with them. The dancing itself, derived from classical Cambodian forms, is equally charming, albeit in a different way, with its unhurried grace and softness. [Source: Sarah Kaufman, Washington Post, October 27, 2007 ]

“On the other hand, at 90 uninterrupted minutes, this slow-moving work by Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro feels too long by half. Its plot, loosely drawn from the Mozart opera of the title, is undermotivated; evil characters don't express themselves much differently from virtuous ones — the dialogue attributed to them on subtitles projected alongside the stage was the only clue to their intentions — and some of the virtuous ones turn suddenly evil in unconvincing ways. The inherent sweetness of the dancing, performed with winsome gentleness by an all-female cast of raven-haired beauties, worked against the darker tones of the story. In the end, you're left with admiration for the splendid look of the production, and the tremendous discipline of the dancers and musicians, but also with the sense that Shapiro's conception strains to support a complicated narrative.

“Yet much is touching about the story of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, who is kidnapped by an underling of her estranged father and finds her soul mate in the brave envoy her mother sends to rescue her. In an age when divorce is common, the story of a child torn between warring parents feels contemporary, if unintentionally so. At any rate, the duets between Pamina (Pumtheara Chenda) and her mother (Sam Sathya), are especially tenderly rendered. Subtlety is the essence of this art form; in the elaborate flexibility of the fingers and wrists, which can arc back to the forearm like unfolding petals, one can read small, sharp impulses of longing, hopefulness and joy.

Another memorable moment occurs when the rescuer Preah Chhapoan (Kong Bonich), the counterpart to Mozart's Tamino, asks the bird-catcher Noreak to join him in his quest to save Pamina; his beseeching solo is full of eagerness, optimism and delightfully convincing coaxing. The trouble is that all too often Shapiro's choreography exhibits little dynamic contrast, so it was difficult to chart the plot through the dancing alone. For the most part, the emotions came through the musicians and keening singers seated discreetly upstage, who produced a rich sound tapestry that was as aggressively piercing as the high sparkle of the dancers' costumes.

Shapiro created "Pamina Devi" at the behest of director Peter Sellars, who wanted it for the New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna, Austria, last year, which marked Mozart's 250th birthday. Shapiro has used Cambodian classical dance to reinterpret other Western works, most notably Shakespeare's "Othello." In a program note she writes movingly of sharing Pamina's journey, in the sense of overcoming the darkness of the Khmer Rouge regime that ravaged the Cambodia of her youth. At its essence, "Pamina Devi" is about the self-determination of the individual, who must break free from authority and find his own way and forge his own partnerships. It would be fascinating to see what Shapiro might do if she followed the same impulse artistically, and created a more organic work of her own, not dependent on any other.

Sbek Thom: Khmer Shadow Puppet Theatre

Shadow puppetry is a form of entertainment found in Cambodia as well as Bali, Java, Malaysia, Myanmar, China and Thailand. The Most popular Cambodian version is called sbek thom”. Performances are often held outside. The puppets are made of cowhide. The shadows are cast a screen traditionally lit up by a flame from a burning coconut. The audience sits on cushions and mats on the ground.

Sbek thom was performed in villages throughout Cambodia until the Khmer Rouge siezed control of the country in the 1970s. The art form is making a come back but as of the early 2000s, there were only four sbek thom troupes in all of Cambodia.

Besides sbek thom, Cambodia is home to another kind of shadow theatre, sbek touch. The puppets of sbek touch are smaller than the large figures of sbek thom and they often have movable limbs. Sbek touch is clearly related to the southern Thai nang talung and its sister forms in Malaysia. In all of these traditions the puppets are manipulated by one puppeteer, who also acts as the narrator for the whole performance.

Sbek Thom, Khmer shadow theatre, was placed on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. According to UNESCO: “The Sbek Thom is a Khmer shadow theatre featuring two-metre high, non-articulated puppets made of leather openwork. Dating from before the Angkorian period, the Sbek Thom, along with the Royal Ballet and mask theatre, is considered sacred. Dedicated to the divinities, performances could only take place on specific occasions three or four times a year, such as the Khmer New Year, the King’s birthday or the veneration of famous people. After the fall of Angkor in the fifteenth century, the shadow theatre evolved beyond a ritualistic activity to become an artistic form, while retaining its ceremonial dimension. [Source: UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity]

The puppets are made from a single piece of leather in a special ceremony for each character representing gods and deities. The hides are dyed with a solution made from the bark of the Kandaol tree. The artisan draws the desired figure on the tanned hide, then cuts it out and paints it before attaching it to two bamboo sticks enabling the dancer to control the puppet.

History of Sbek Thom

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Sbek thom (large leathers) is an ancient form of shadow theatre in which dancing puppeteers perform scenes from the Reamker, or more rarely the Buddhist Jataka stories, by presenting cut-out hide figures against a semi-transparent cloth screen. It is an exceptional and clearly very archaic form of shadow theatre. Its only “sister” form is the nang yai of Thailand. Both of them have been performed in temples and various ceremonies related to communal festivities. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ~~]

“How these two traditions are related is, however, not known. It is possible that the tradition was adopted by the Thais among the other elements of the Khmer culture. On the other hand, it is also possible that it spread from the kingdom of Auytthaya to Cambodia during the period when Cambodia or part of it was a vassal state of Thailand. There are, however, slight stylistic differences between the Thai nang yai and the Cambodian sbek thom figures. ~~

Two sbek thom troupes are known to have been active in the first half of the 20th century, one in Phnom Penh and one in the city of Battambang. Later, the government set up several sbek thom companies. Today sbek thom is often combined with dance and other theatrical forms in innovative productions as well as in tourist shows.

Sbek Thom Performance

According to UNESCO: Sbek Thom “performances traditionally take place at night outdoors beside a rice-field or pagoda. A large white backdrop is held between two tall bamboo screens in front of a large fire or, nowadays, projectors. The shadows of the puppet’s silhouettes are projected onto the white screen. The animators bring the puppets to life with precise and specific dance steps. The performance is accompanied by an orchestra and two narrators. Inspired from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana, the performances stage scenes of this epic, which may last several nights and require up to 160 puppets for a single presentation. Many of them were destroyed under the repressive Khmer Rouge regime, which almost annihilated this sacred art. Since 1979, Sbek Thom has been gradually revitalized thanks to the few surviving artists. So far, three shadow theatres have managed to rise from their ashes, ensuring the transmission of the knowledge and skills, including those relating to puppet making.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: ““In most Asian shadow theatre genres the puppets are rather small cut-outs of human figures often with movable limbs. The nang sbek thom puppets, on the other hand, are large, 1–2-metre-tall, almost round non-articulated leather silhouettes, in which the characters from the Reamker are engraved as if in a frame. Besides these large leather figures, there are also smaller puppets, sometimes even with movable limbs. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ~~]

“A large screen, some 10 metres wide and some 4 metres high, is erected on poles approximately 2.5 metres above the ground. Often in front of the screen are the musicians of the traditional Cambodian pin peat orchestra, consisting, as in the Thai piphat orchestra, of oboes, xylophones, gong sets, and other percussion instruments. Sitting and sometimes standing among the orchestra are the narrators, who recite and sing the text that the silhouettes enact on the screen. ~~

“The puppeteers move with their figures both in front of the screen and behind it. The dance movements are dictated by the puppets the puppeteers are operating. Thus a puppeteer handling a noble character moves with gracefulness and dignity, while the movements of the puppeteers of the monkey characters imitate the lively movements of monkeys etc.” ~~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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