I have no idea if these are Khmer or Thai. Based on the boat and the Wat in the background, I’d guess Thai.
Whatever they are….it’s a beautiful painting.
The fine–boned young princess, clad in silk and glittering jewels, performed beneath the stars on the open pavilion within the palace walls, accompanied by the Royal dance troupe and the “pinpeat” orchestra: Gongs, drums, xylophones, horns and stringed instruments. Selected by her grandmother, Queen Sisowath Monivong Kossomak Neary Rath Vattana, to become a dancer when she was only a baby. She toured the world as the “white Apsara” or principal dancer of the classical Cambodian ballet – a stunningly graceful, 2000 year–old blend of sinuous hand gestures and sinuous body movements, all deep with meaning. Responsible for its rebirth, she became the symbol of classical Khmer dancing, dormant since the 15th Century, when the glory of Angkor faded and with it the Khmer cultural dominance of Southeast Asia. In reviving the classical dance, Queen Kossomak and Princess Buppha Devi brought the dance not only to the world but also –for the first time- to the Cambodian people. In the past, the classical dance was the Royal dance, performed only before Royalty to commemorate their dynastic ancestors and to honor the gods.
As in the old days, technical training is given in the morning and regular schooling takes place in the afternoon. Although now retired from professional dancing, today at age 53 Princess Buppha Devi continues to dazzle audiences through her work as director of the 300 dancers who belong to the modern Royal ballet. Today, Apsara-dancing performances are no longer relegated to the gods and kings. Performances can been seen at the major hotels, and at Chatomuk Theater near the Royal Palace. With the tinkling of xylophones and a euphony of gongs and drums, the Apsara dancers, dressed in their tightly fitted silk tunics embroidered in gold and silver, barefoot but with elaborate headdresses, and outstretched arms symbolizing the naga and glistening with jewelry, enter the stage to perform with incredible grace. Dancing holds great significance for the Khmer people and the government considers the Royal ballet in particular to be a national treasure. Princess Buppha Devi , along with the Ministry of Culture, helping to ensure that its traditions will flourish in the next century. As Proeung Chhieng firmly believes, “Dance is our national soul”.
A little more about one of my favorite experiences in Asia. If you ever find yourself in Cambodia, don’t miss this. You will not be disappointed. Your heart and your soul will thank you.
There are around 1300 Apsara carved on the walls of Angkor. This is a hundred or so of them. Each Apsara is unique. It’s said that each Apsara bas relief is modeled after an actual girl in the court of King Suryavarman II. Note the differences in everything from the sarongs to the types of flowers, bracelets, headdresses, hairstyles. Each face is unique. Each facial expression is unique. I was told that only two of the Apsara were carved with smiles.
The music is Flowers by Dengue Fever.
When I returned to Siem Reap last month, I had my High Def Digicam with me. So I went back to the Temple Club and recorded their Apsara Dance show with it. Much clearer. The only problem I had this time was two drunk Russians behind me who were talking loudly and oft times over the music. The recording didn’t turn out as badly as I thought it would. You can’t hear them nearly as much as I had to during the show. I even got frustrated once or twice and started mocking them and turned around and glared at them. But they never got the hint. I don’t think Becca or the Temple Club were in the mood for a knife fight between two drunk Russkies and me, so I refrained from telling them to shut the hell up. I don’t think they spoke English anyway. They did seem to enjoy the show, though. And I got a good laugh out of it later as you will see in the video below.
I always love the Apsara. The girl in the middle here. The lead dancer. She’s been doing this for quite a while. And she’s picture perfect at it. I could see her dancing for Jayavarman VII at Bayon or Indravarman II at Bakong. I’d love to get one of these girls to pose at the actual temples one day and snap some photos. The girls who pose for pictures at the actual Temples these days look a bit cartoon-ish. I don’t know if that’s by design or if their managers just don’t know any better. The other girls in the video are new. If you watch closely, you can see them smile or snicker a bit when they screw up. It was cute and made the show a little more “fun” than usual. Near the end, Becca and I sat there and laughed with them which I think made them laugh a little more. I think this dance is called Robam Phuong Neari– a dance concerning the beauty of flowers and maidens. The short dances which are actually excerpts from longer story lines are called “robam.” The longer story lines from which these robam are drawn are called Lkhaon.
T he video below is right after the show. I’m a little peevish about the loud Russians during the show. But decide to laugh it off. It’s got a bit of profanity in it (that terrible “F” word of which I’m so find. lol). So be careful if you are offended by that. It also shows the Temple Club under the restaurant. Pool tables. Bar Girls. Tourists. Loud music. Flashing lights. You’ll notice that the club is open air. No doors. Just a great foyer through which you step to get out of the rain should the weather turn on you. Most of the bars and restaurants on Pub Street in Siem Reap follow this design.
The pictures above were taken at Bayon. Except for the last which is the statue at the entrance to the hotel in which I stayed while at Siem Reap this visit. The Hotel De La Plaix. It is an excellent place to stay while in Siem Reap. The rooms are like mini-spas. The bathtubs are huge and are filled with a water fall. Seperate showers with showerheads that rain water down on you. The water gradually heats. Huge, comfortable beds that they turn down for you each night. The whole place smelled of jasmine as they burn jasmine oil in the hallways day and night. Plus they provide an Ipod and speaker system for each room so you can listen to music as if you were back home. The staff were all friendly and helpful. Courteous and professional. And the girls at the front desk were all cute. lol Beautiful place to stay.
The first time I visited Cambodia, I went with a small tour group. I flew alone from Bangkok to Phnom Penh and met up with my guide at the Airport. In Phnom Penh (P-nom Pen), it was me and the guide. He drove me around Phnom Penh. We stopped took photos of the various sites there. The National Museum. The Silver Pagoda and National Palace. Wat Phnom. After my tour of Phnom Penh, I was driven for 4 hours to Sihanoukville where I overnighted. I spent that night with an Irish guy and 5 Cambodian gals drinking beer with ice in a Karaoke Bar that doubles as a Brothel. The next day–early, my guide picks me up at the Inn and takes me back to Phnom Penh for the flight to Siem Reap and my first visit to Angkor Wat and it’s 1,000 Apsara.
I arrive in Siem Reap and am taken to the Angkor Sokha Hotel. It’s an incredible hotel with 4 bars and a swimming pool with a 20 foot waterfall. I get about 4 hours to hang out and do as I please so I get the hotel Tuk Tuk to take me to the local market. I like to buy a Buddha statue from each country that I visit in Asia. (I must have over 50 Buddhas by now.) Later that night, I’m picked up by the tour guide. We are joined by two German gals. We are taken to a Dinner Theatre and I see my first Apsara dance show. I like to think that I’m an artsy type. I can enjoy a bit of culture with the best of them. The Apsara. I loved it. Absolutely. Beautiful Costumes and gorgeous, spritely Cambodian women dancing and moving about gracefully on stage.
Since then, I’ve seen several iterations and interpretations of the dances. The video shows the Temple Club Apsara show. It last about 90 minutes. I find it fascinating. I can watch it all night. There are many dances showing various aspects of Khmer mythology and life. My favorite, though, is the mermaid dance. It is also called Khmer Classical Dance. Khmer Dance of the Ancient Style is the official Cambodian title.
The Apsara, in mythology, are minor deities who entertained the Gods. They were also caretakers of mythological heroes. Their province was gaming and gambling. So if you wanted to win and win big, you’d better have these gals on your side. They were sky dancers, river dancers. Like the Greek sirens, they lured men to their deaths. They cared for Khmer heroes at the behest of the Gods. They were lovers. They brought with them favor and intrigue. You can read of them in the Hindu texts of the Rigveda and the Mahabharata. An interesting note on costume. The original Apsara of the court danced topless. Unfortunately, they do not use this practice in Siem Reap today.
I’ll be going back to Cambodia in either February or June/July. I have a Sony HD digicam now. So when I go back I’m going to record the Apsara in High Definition. I’ll post it here. You can see here well enough. There are better shows. Better productions of the Apsara. We saw the Cambodian National Opera dancers in an open air theatre on one visit to Siem Reap. There was a Korea/Cambodian friendship Expo in town. My batteries died on me that day so I couldn’t get them on video.
Needless to say, I think this is one of the most beautiful dances that I’ve seen anywhere. I find it utterly fascinating. On my second trip to Phnom Penh, I met a former Apsara dancer. Srey Neang. She had broken her arm and could no longer make the hand and arm movements. She loved seeing the shows and it was nice to have someone to interpret the dance for us.
Apsara dance as seen in Cambodia today is said to have originated during the Khmer civilizations in the 800s to the latter part of the 13oos. At that time, the Khmer were conquered by the peoples of what is today Thailand. Thailand was known as the Kingdom of Siam. Khmer and Southeast Asian cultural experts
Khmer people, in general, love this dance and the stories and mythology behind it. Pol Pot, monstrosity that he was, attempted to end the tradition by murdering all Apsara dancers and teachers. I can’t imagine why someone would want to erase from human memory such a beautiful tradition. The monstrous ideals of communism. Thankfully, it survived. Khmer girls start studying the dance as early as age 4. There are dance troups that girls can join at very young age. Of the shows that I have seen, I would say that the girls on stage range in age from 14 to 26.
Enjoy the video. I have always enjoyed seeing the shows live. I hope this gives you at least a glimmer of the joy that visiting Siem Reap and seeing the Apsara has given me. If you ever get the chance…
Cambodia is probably the poorest country that I have visited. It’s much more of a backwater than even Afghanistan. Their only industry is the silk trade. Silk crafts such as scarves, table cloths, clothing, etc. Not much else in the way of industry. Handicrafts such as statuary. Precious and semi-precious gems. Tourism must be one of the, if not the, largest industry for Cambodia. Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap are the primary destinations of most tourists. Eco-tourism in the more remote areas for the more adventurous souls. It’s a country stricken with extreme poverty. High illiteracy rates. High birth rates. High crime.
A great part of the tourist industry is Siem Reap and the Angkor Temple Complex. Within this complex and in the three major cities of Cambodia, the children are exploited in order to make money off of the sympathies of tourists. It works. These are children of the Khmer. The children of Cambodia. The children of Angkor. Some. They’re simply adorable. You want to pick them up and hug them and make it all better someway. Anyway. Some will annoy the hell out of you. They’ll make you want to scratch your eyes out. Scream at the top of your lungs for them to get away. So many I wanted to adopt. Take home to my Momma or Sister to give them a good home. I have come to believe that every child deserves a good home. Children deserve a chance. These children are severely handicapped. Not physically. Socially. Economically. In many cases, emotionally. They didn’t ask to be born. But birthed they were. Brought into existence in a world of abject poverty and near hopelessness. My heart went out to these children. Many of whom are loving, adorable, huggable. Eminently lovable. You’ll see just what I mean in the above video.
Most, if not all, of the children seen here work from 7 or 730 AM to 9 or 10 PM. I’ve seen some of them out with their mothers begging or selling food ’til 1 AM. Not the life for a child. When do they get to just be children?
Another strange experience for me were the “beggar costumes.” The faux beggars. It must happen elsewhere. But I don’t think they are as brazen as what I witnessed in Cambodia.
Srey Mao and I had finished our day exploring the Angkor temples for the day and headed back to my hotel room. While passing Angkor Wat, we stopped to grab a beer and watch the sun go down over the great temple. As I did, a mother and 3 children approached us looking completely destitute and pitiful. They were filthy. So I bought some food and gave it to the mother. They went off to eat. The sun went down. I continued upon my path feeling good about having done something nice for someone.
I dropped Srey at the Banana Bar on Pub Street where she is manager. Then returned to my hotel. Grabbed a shower. Dressed and found my way back to Pub Street. By this time it was 9 PM. I sat and drank a few beers with Srey. Then walked over to the Temple Club for a few games of pool with the local gals. The Temple Club is one of the best places in Siem Reap to catch a game of pool. It’s also a great place to watch the Apsara Dance. (I will put some videos of this on the blog at a later date.) Each visit to Siem Reap, I find my way to the Temple Club. I love watching those beautiful little Khmer ladies re-enact the dance of the Gods. And I love to play pool with cute little Khmer women. I played pool for an hour or two and proceeded to get fairly well sauced on the old standby Jack and Coke.
Back in Kentucky, I’m a Kentucky Bourbon man. Rarely drink anything else. I’ll hit Jack sometimes in Kentucky. But usually only when I am first returning from overseas. It’s a habit. Overseas. No one knows Kentucky Bourbon. There is one bar that I have found from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur that serves Maker’s Mark and I once found a bottle of Elijah Craig at a liquor store. Both establishments are in Saigon–Ho Chi Minh City. I guess the communists like good bourbon.
At any rate, I finish playing pool and walk over to the Banana Bar to pick up Srey Mao. She and I return to the Temple Club and sit out on the patio.
That’s when I spot her. (Reminds me of Prince and Raspberry Beret. lol)
The little girl from our “sunset and beer” viewing of Angkor Wat. She is cleaned up and changed into a different set of clothing. I just start to laugh. Rolling up directly behind her is her little sister. Finally, here comes brother. By this time, I am laughing loud and hard. I can barely breath. I realize immediately what I’m seeing. What I saw earlier. The scam that these kids mother plays out every day. Srey looks at me like I’m insane and asks what is wrong with me. Why am I laughing? I point out the kids. She sees it and starts to laugh as well. So I tell Srey to call them over. I ask them to join us and I’ll buy them supper. Srey and I start to poke and prod our way around the subject of their little subterfuge. Whose idea is this scam? Why are they doing it? How long?
So we slowly pull the story out of them. They tell us that their father abandoned them and moved on to Phnom Penh and disappeared. Mom has them dress down in rags to look destitute so they can beg for money. Apparently, Mother can barely write. In typical Khmer fashion she is uneducated. No job. No prospects. It’s either beg or starve. So they ditch their good set of clothes in an alley. Put on rags. Beg for money for food and clothing. Trying to save up money for a simple room to live in.
Honestly, I can’t begrudge that. It may have been an over-dramatization. Even so, these kids were so happy to be eating that I can’t see how it could have been an act. Afterward, I felt so sad for these children that I purchased food for about half the kids on the street. They all shared. No one fought. One little girl came up and held my hand for the longest time. I wish that I had my camera to take a photo. She was adorable. I left that night like most nights in Cambodia with a new appreciation of the life with which I have been graced. Fortune by birth. This old Kentucky boy has traveled to many a place about which many can only dream. I’ve had experience after experience that has enriched my life. Made possible by the simple accident of fate by which I came to be born American.
I know that some of my fellow Americans enjoy poking fun at those who say that America is the greatest nation on earth. But the simple truth is that everyone born in America is blessed. We have the means to lift ourselves up from our modest roots. Our destitution if that is our lot in the beginning. We have the tools to overcome our challenges. Much of the world does not.
To have been born in America is truly a blessing.
This is Kbal Spean otherwise known as the Valley of a Thousand Lingas. This video is of the bridgehead of the Stung Kbal Spean. The river is sacred to the Khmer peoples in the same way as the Ganges is sacred to the Hindu people of India. To arrive at this site, one must trek through a well worn path through the jungle for about 45 minutes. This was a bit of an arduous journey as much of it is uphill and the Cambodian summer was already upon us in late May. Average daily temp was around 90 degrees. If you go, don’t forget to grab a bottle of water or two for the trek. It will take something out of you trekking through that jungle. The water will save you.
Even with the heat, it was exhilarating to finally make it to Kbal Spean. I had tried to get out to see this site the last two times that I visited Angkor. For whatever reason, I could never quite make it. It was well worth the journey. I only wish I had a digital camcorder that could do the place justice.
After climbing through the jungle and hills, you come upon the site in this video. After that you follow the river down to a larger waterfall. In between the bridgehead and water fall there are thousands of linga and yoni carved into the river bed. There are also Hindu motifs of animals, humans and Gods. Because the Khmer consider the Kbal Spean sacred, it’s waters are believed to have healing properties. People were bathing in the waterfall or collecting water in bottles to take home or to loved ones to cure their ailments and injuries. One Khmer fellow was taking the water home with him to have his sick cow drink. One humorous note was the arrival to the scene of a British Doctor who was horrified by the fact that people were bathing in the water. He took great pains to warn everyone to NOT drink the water as it is supposed to be heavily contaminated with parasites. He would not step foot into the water. Of course, he arrived after I had already immersed myself in the waterfall.
Below are several pictures taken of the area.
These are the paths and hills through which you must trek to reach Kbal Spean. We came upon the butterfly nest at the beginning of the trail. The mushroom looking rock is sacred to the people of the area. Monks and locals come here to cast off evil spirits. Newlyweds will come here to enhance their fertility. The area is said to have great powers.
Above you see Shiva. He is the destroyer in Hindu mythology. The god who brings about the destruction of the Earth so that Vishnu can re-new it. Most of the Temples in Cambodia are consecrated to Vishnu. Many have been re-dedicated to Buddha or serve dually as Temples to Vishnu and Buddha. Jayvarman VII mixed Hindu mythology into the work in all of his Temples to Buddha. It was a way to get the people to buy into the new Buddhist theo-philosophy that he brought with his reign. Very similar to how Christian rulers adapted pagan symbolism as Europe was converted during the reign of Constantine. In the river, you can see the “linga” of the rivers name. Thousands of those linga are carved into the riverbed of the Kbal Spean. This was started by King Suryavarman I sometime in the 11th or 13th Century in order to ensure the fertility of the Khmer Kingdoms.
The little girl in this pic was standing on the side of the road on the way back to Siem Reap. I stopped to take pics of the water buffalo and she just stood there smiling that big smile at me. So I gave her some candy and took her pic as well. She was certainly a cute little thing.
Coming soon: Exploring Ta Prohm…
This is a video I made of Angkor Wat and some of the surrounding Temples and Terraces while I was there in September. Angkor Wat has something like 1200 bas relief Apsara carved on it’s massive walls. The Apsara are angels in Hindu mythology. They entertain and in some cases protect and even marry Gods and Mortals. They are said to be as captivating and desirable as the Sirens of Greek Mythology.