What to do in Phnom Penh
Khmer Classical Dance
Performances are still organised following religious sacraments by the handful of Khmer artists who still believe in preserving the finer arts. Episodes of the Reamker, or Khmer Ramayana, are performed here with accompanying musicians and singers. The audience is friendly and so are the actors and dancers. Very few people have had the privilege to attend a classical Ramayana performance by the Royal Ballet.
The Apsara Sor, or white apsara, is the equivalent of the danseuse étoile of the troupe. She is the embodiment of Khmer culture and the ideal of beauty with all the possible attributes of intellect, culture, and refinement! Apsaras have been trained in Cambodia for over twelve centuries. To become an apsara is to devote one's life, from early childhood, to rigorous physical and artistic training.
Khmer Shadow Theatre
There is a handful of performing troupes of Sbek Thom (literally large leather) shadow theatre in Phnom Penh and few more in the rest of Cambodia. Sbek Thom features two metre high leather puppets lit against a white screen by torches (or modern projectors), and a classical pin-peat music ensemble. Like the Royal Ballet, Sbek Thom has been inscribed by UNESCO to the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The origins of Lkhaon Nang Sbek may date back to pre-Angkorian times. A religious ritual, shadow theatre would take place three to four times a year on special occasions such as New Year or the King’s Birthday. The puppets are made from a single piece of leather and represent deities, cities, animals, battle scenes etc. The figures are drawn on the hides, cut out, and attached to bamboo sticks that will allow the dancers to manipulate them. Without any doubt, children, as well as older spectators, will cheer for Hanuman and his wily soldiers, the legendary monkey commander, son of the Wind God. Sbek Toch (small leather) and Sbek Poar (coloured leather) are other variations of classical Khmer shadow theatre.
Venues and Troupes
The Royal Ballet consists of a host of dancers, musicians, singers, stage and costume designers etc. from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. These troupes are often on foreign tours and their performances should not be missed when in Cambodia. Generally opened to the public (except when entertaining foreign dignitaries), classical ballet and shadow theatre performances are likely to be held only on special occasions in selected venues such the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the National Library or the Royal Palace (this last venue will not be opened to the public…). The Sovanna Phum Art Association Association holds regular performances of Khmer shadow theatre. Their website is not always current so we suggest contacting them directly. Amateurs of a modern and creative approach to Cambodia’s artistic heritage may also be interested in attending dance and theatre projects by Amrita Performing Arts.
Many will be surprised to find out that long forgotten western classics such as “Love you more than I can say” and “Streets of San Francisco” are popular karaoke songs in Cambodia. Both Khmer and English versions are usually available. Karaoke is arguably the most popular Khmer pastime, right along pétanque, badminton and football. Visitors are often surprised to discover the average Cambodian will gladly make his melodious voice heard. There is in fact no such thing as closet singers in Cambodia, only karaoke singers. Karaoke is practiced in groups of friends in private booths. Drinks and food is ordered: beer, wine, juices and fresh fruits. After a few cans everybody is expected to shake a leg or an arm while somebody sings. If you get the opportunity, go karaoke with Cambodians and ask them to perform classic 1960s and 1970s songs by Son Sin Samut. Other favourites include romantic duets between a male and female singer, which is usually an endless source of gossips and innuendos.
Air-conditioned karaoke rooms are usually priced at US $5 per hour. Beware however, some “karaoke” parlors are simply bordellos in disguise. Always check with local city slickers that you are looking for a place to sing, a family outing where women customers are also welcome. Karaoke in Siem Reap’s beer gardens is best left to semi-professional singers as you could be the laughing stock of the whole restaurant, in good humour of course.
Visitors often wonder where the inhabitants of Phnom Penh exercise. With the exception of boxers who are often seen running in their anoraks on hot sunny days, Phnom Penhers only seem to participate in casual games of badminton after working hours. To see the city's population practising sports, it is best to walk the streets at the break of dawn. The young and the old, the masters and the beginners, run, jump, kick, punch and dance without inhibition. From aerobics to flying swords, a wide range of calisthenics and martial arts is on display on the river banks, at the Olympic Stadium, in the gardens of the Monument of Independence, and at just about any public space. The crowds are particularly large as the city slowly rises from its slumber. The first rays of the sun will chase everybody home to wash up and get ready for the day's work.