Cambodia is a country rich with culture, and there’s no better place to delve into what’s on offer than Siem Reap, otherwise known as the Kingdom’s cultural capital.
The history of Cambodian art stretches back many centuries in ancient pottery, silk weaving and stone carving, with the height of Khmer art production taking place during the Angkorian period.
During the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, up to 90 percent of artists were killed, with the majority of the survivors fleeing the country, leading to a decline of artistic traditions. During the last 20 years, Khmer art and culture has seen a huge revival as the number of tourists heading to the country rises and governments and NGOs increasingly contribute to the preservation of Cambodian culture.
Popular forms of Cambodian art include silk weaving, dating back to the 1st century, with modern silk-weaving centres based in Siem Reap. Non-textile weaving is another traditional craft, with many Cambodian farmers weaving baskets from thinly cut bamboo. Mat weaving is a common seasonal occupation.
Stone carving and ceramics are also ancient art forms that are popular with Cambodians, and pottery traditions in the country stretch back to 5000BC.
As well as reviving these ancient traditions, many Khmer artists have returned to the country to share their skills with a generation of creative youngsters, leading to a boom in modern Cambodian arts and crafts.
A spike in the number of Western artists and photographers setting up shop in Cambodia has also led to an increase in artistic works exploring Khmer culture, people and life. One such artist is American photographer John McDermott who first visited Angkor Wat in 1995. During the following years, he expanded his artistic interpretation of the temples, working with light and shadow to create images that reveal the true essence of these magnificent and holy structures. John has two galleries, one at FCC Angkor Resort and the other at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor.
Theam’s House is another must-see item on the agenda of art lovers. Born in Takeo, Cambodian artist and designer Lim Muy Theam was nine when the Khmer Rouge regime fell and Vietnam invaded Cambodia. He was among the refugees who arrived in France in 1980. Fifteen years later, he returned to his homeland to help revive the local art sector. He has transformed the ground floor of his home into a working gallery where visitors can view his stunning collection of ceramics, paintings, sculptures and lacquers.
An unusual bid to boost the Cambodian arts scene is the circus that recently landed in Siem Reap after branching out from the success of its Battambang project. Blending traditional and modern theatre, music, dance, acrobatics, juggling, and contortion, this wonderful show, Phare, the Cambodian Circus, tells stories about Cambodian lives and society and serves as a tool to build the careers of Cambodian artists, revive Khmer art and foster worldwide connections with the Kingdom. Shows take place daily at 8pm at the junction of the Ring Road and Sok San Road.
Another famous part of Khmer culture is Apsara dancing, and there are plenty of places offering daily showings of this classical Cambodian art form.
Apsara Theatre, based at Angkor Village Hotel (St. 26, off Wat Bo Street), puts on a popular show with 40 dancers, singers and musicians bringing the traditional dance, famous for its subtle, ethereal appearance, to life.
Angkor Silk Farm, located out in Pouk District and part of Artisans Angkor, offers free guided tours of the silk-making process, from mulberry bush cultivation to production of silk fabrics and accessories. During the tour, visitors are treated to a detailed guide to silkworm farming, cocoon unwinding, preparation of the silk threads, ikat technique (tie-dying of the threads) and silk weaving. There is also an onsite shop selling top quality silk products.
Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre offers fun pottery classes for the whole family to enjoy making and painting their own Cambodian creations, which are fired and glazed in one of the kilns.