Cambodian Arts

The Origin of Cambodian Classical Ballet

From archaeological digs in Cambodia, there is evidence that dance forms existed in pre-historic times. Later, around the 1st century, India strongly influenced a large part of the South-East Asian region including Cambodia. There is also thought to be influence from Java, Indonesia. Carvings have been discovered of both the Apsara dancer and Hanuman (the Monkey King from the Indian Ramayana epic.) dating from the Cambodian Funan period (1st-6th century AD). The Apsara can also be found in ancient Indian carvings on Indian temples. In Cambodia she is known as Tep Apsar (Tep- gods) Apsar (white apsara).

“Apsara emerged from the churning of the ocean of milk when the gods and demons worked together to seek Amrita ( immortal water). Apsara originated from water and that is why she represents Devi Araksa (God of the Water). It is believed that Apsara is goddess of the Indra world and consort of Gandharavas who is the musician of Deva.” (Extract from Cambodian government document on intangible cultural heritage.)

“Dance and music are essential for Khmer life. Khmer people need art from the cradle to the grave. There is a Khmer saying, “Life is art and art is Life.”(Extract from Cambodian government document on intangible cultural heritage.)

Bas reliefs found on the carvings in Angkor Wat depict many details of Cambodian dance. In these carvings, many dancers are of the celestial Apsara and a clear idea is given of body, hand and foot movements, as well as costumes and crowns.

These same movements as well as costumes are still used today, in one of the world’s most extraordinary cultural heritages.

Since ancient times classical dancers were kept in the Royal Palace and performed for the Royal Family, not as high class entertainment, but as representatives of celestial beings and semi-god figures out of the Ramayana (Reamker).

Who are the Dancers

From an early age young girls are chosen for their physical talent and the kind of attractiveness necessary for Cambodian ballet. They are then divided into male and female roles. Those girls who tend to be taller, with longer faces, take the male part, whilst those smaller with rounder faces, take the female roles. Even in ballet practice as children, the colour of their *Krubun” (silk cloth 2-3 metres long, rolled in the middle to create a trouser-skirt) is different. The movements of their hands and elbows are similar but slightly different. Both male and female parts are important and both are able to wear beautiful costumes and make-up, so that if it were not for the difference in “sandpot” (skirt) and rolled trousers both would be equally feminine.

In the 1960’s the Royal Family, including the Queen mother, HM Queen Kossamak and the children of King Sihanouk, especially Princess Bopha Devi and HM King Norodom Sihamoni, did a great deal to conserve and care for the Cambodian Ballet.

Now no children are trained at the Royal Palace as ballet dancers, instead there exists the Royal University of Fine Arts with their classical ballet section. Where children as young as 6 and 7 are selected at entrance exams to become professional ballerinas. The best become part of the Royal Ballet Corp and National Theatre.

The Significance of Crowns, Jewellery and Costumes and Ceremonies

The principal female ballerina, dances the Apsara and it is she who is the “White Apsara”, her followers and fellow Apsara dancers wear coloured silk skirts. On their heads they wear heavy crowns, (weighing as much as 5 kilos) and at least as much in weight of jewellery. Today these crowns and bracelets and anklets are no longer made of gold, as in the time of Angkor, but are painted gold. Real Frangipani flowers are attached to the dancer’s long dark hair and a long cluster of woven Jasmine flowers descend from one side of the crown. Frangipani flowers can only be worn for this ballet and are considered as ill-luck if a woman wears them in her hair outside such dance ceremonies.

The crowns and head-gear of all dancers are considered sacred. Many female crowns used for different dances, including Apsara, Chuon Phor (Wishing dance) etc; have at the sides, what appear to be two wings, indeed these represent Angel’s wings. No dancer can simply put a crown on their head, without first offering fruit, (of specific kinds, usually 5 or 7 different types, including bananas and lychées –Ply Mean), incense and prayers, asking permission from the dancer’s teacher, ancestors and Divinities for permission to wear the crown.

Suprech Kru Ceremony

As in all the Cambodian classical performing art forms, such as music and theatre, a “Suprech Kru” ceremony must be held each year. Here ornate conical forms are constructed from banana leaves and with a hard-boiled egg still with its shell, put on top, the largest perhaps a foot high and the smallest less than half a foot. They are laid out in pairs opposite each other, along a ceremonial mat, descending in size from the tallest to the shortest. Food is cooked, including a pig’s head, different dishes, sweets and fruit, tea and Cambodian rice wine, as well as cigarettes. These are lain out on one side of the long covered ceremonial mat. The other side, are the same ingredients but not cooked, instead raw. This is so, all the celestial ancestors of the Dance can partake in the meal. The female and male – Prince and semi-deity roles eat the cooked food and the Yik’ (ogre) eats the raw food, whilst the Monkey king enjoys the fruit and sweets. Prayers are chanted and the ceremony is led by the Ceremonial leader, a man who is usually advanced in age and has played an important role in the arts.

Blessings, Protection and Prosperity are asked by the artists from the Buddha and from the potent “Ta Yse” *, from their ancestral teachers, from the ancestors of the different dances, music and theatre and so on. Holy water is sprayed on those present and each artist has a small cotton bracelet tied around their wrist. The Ta Yse is considered a Divine figure and the great grandfather and founder of all Cambodian arts. This ceremony is typical of the marriage between Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism in Cambodia.

Pin Peat

Pin Peat music is used firstly in the Royal Court, where some pieces are only played for Royal ceremonies and court dances. However Pin Peat music is also central to traditional Cambodian life, because it is used for classical ballet, shadow puppet theatre, official ceremonies, religious ceremonies and funerals.

When the Khmer (Cambodian) empire was at its height in prosperity and regional power, from approximately the ninth to the fourteenth centuries, carvings of Pin Peat orchestras were made and can still be seen today on the great temples of Angkor Vat. A date can therefore be set of more than a thousand years, for the existence of Pin Peat music.

The instruments used then, are almost identical to those used today in a modern ensemble. The centuries-old oral tradition from master to pupil, has ensured that despite much turmoil and the tragic destruction of the Khmer Rouge, this extraordinary music is still alive today in its original form, although many great masters were killed during between 1975 and 1979 (Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge).

Today in a measure to preserve this music, efforts are being made by KCDI, but of course also the University of Fine Arts and other arts foundations of note, to document and notate Pin Peat and other ancient Khmer music.

Pin Peat music is used firstly in the Royal Court, where some pieces are only played for Royal ceremonies and court dances. However Pin Peat music is also central to traditional Cambodian life, because it is used for classical ballet, shadow puppet theatre, official ceremonies, religious ceremonies and funerals.

A typical Pin Peat orchestra consists of between nine and twelve instruments:

  • Roneat Ek (Main bamboo xylophone alto)
  • Roneat Thom (Lower pitch bamboo xylophone)
  • Roneat Daek (Metal xylophone)
  • Sralai (Quadruple-reed Khmer oboe)
  • Gong vong Thom (circular gong, lower pitch)
  • Gong vong Toc (circular gong, high pitch)
  • Sampho (Two faced drum, horizontal position)
  • Skor Thom (Two large vertical drums)
  • Chhing (finger cymbals)
  • Chumrean (Voice)

*Some instruments are doubled such as the roneats or gongs.

Pin Peat music is based around the seven-tone pentatonic scale. There is no harmonization in the Western sense, but instruments played together create a complex piece and the player is free to add ornamentation within the framework of the melody. It can also be said that the opening lines of the Roneat Ek can give an idea of the central theme whilst the Sralai weaves in and out of the piece creating a theme within a theme and gives the piece a sense of weight and direction. The voice of course can hold the theme, but also the meaning of the words (often ancient Khmer) are important and often profound and poetic. The Sampho drum is vital to maintaining the rhythm and tempo of the piece, whilst the Skor Thom is used to emphasize and add drama, especially to dance pieces.


Mahori music is an ensemble of string instruments which plays secular music. Originating in the beginning of the Khmer Angkor era (circa 900 ad) it existed exclusively in the Royal Court, it was said to be unknown to ordinary Cambodians until the mid 20th century, when King Norodom Sihanouk allowed Mahori music to be heard by all.

Mahori music is perhaps the most harmonious of Cambodian music, where the lead instrument is often the Tro-Sau Toch’ (two stringed bowed instrument) or/and the cloy (wooden flute) and where the vocal lyrics are of great importance and often contain poetry or detailed descriptions of daily life or events.

Today, Mahori music is well-known throughout Cambodia and is still used at the Royal Court for official ceremonies and quality, secular entertainment, as well as an accompaniment to more modern folk-dances. It provides a very important vehicle for expression of collective grief and ideas. For example, although there are many ancient Mahori songs known and practiced, it is also possible to introduce newer pieces using a Mahori ensemble. For example the song Tuk Pneik (Tears) a haunting song accompanied by Khmer string instruments, describes the suffering and loss during the Khmer Rouge Pol Pot era. Today many older Cambodians find this song important as a description of their pain during that period.

Another popular Mahori song Oh Sat Mahori (Mahori animals) is about the lives of the animals. With this idea in mind a newer Mahori composition has been made together with a beautiful folk-dance choreography. It tells of the story of the animals of the forest living peacefully, each going about their lives, with the central figure of two beautiful birds, (male and female) in love, until cruel hunters come and begin to kill the animals and including the mate of the female bird. The female bird sings such a song of love and grief that the animals rebel against the hunters, until the hunters are ashamed of their acts and all come together in peace and harmony, the world of man and animals.

Mahori instruments include :

  • Tro sau Toch’ High pitched two string instrument)
  • Tro Ou Lower pitched two string instrument)
  • Cloy Wooden flute, using circular breathing)
  • Khim Multi stringed instrument with strings stretched over a flat sound-board
  • The strings are played using two light-weight beaters with small flat heads.

*For performances in the Royal Palace, a typical ensemble would consist of the “Mahori Krom Thom” (Big Mahori orchestra) including a mix of the Pin Peat ensemble and Mahori ensemble. Pieces performed in this large ensemble are particularly beautiful because of the mix of percussive and sonorous sounds.

  • Takhé Crocodile instrument, a long wooden instrument standing on legs with strings and frets which are plucked using the right hand with a small plucker and the left hand doing the fingering.
  • Chumrean Voice
  • Skor Romnea Hand drum
  • Chhing Tiny percussive symbols
  • Tro Kmai Used for the Mahori krom thom

Plein Ka (Wedding Music)

The Plein Ka derives from Mahori music, using the same stringed instruments and very importantly the voice.

Probably originating from the same period as Mahori nearly a thousand years ago, Plein Ka is an essential part of the wedding ceremony. Traditional Khmer weddings can last up to three days and the musicians accompany two singers, male and female as they literally sing their way through the wedding ceremony, describing certain symbolic acts, such as the cutting and eating of fruit, such as apple, orange and bananas. Each fruit symbolizes different positive aspects hoped for in married life, such as prosperity, good health and fertility. The musicians work in harmony with the Ta Chha, (an often elderly man, with connections to the local Buddhist pagoda, who blesses and prays and talks the couple through the ceremony).

The singers often cause laughter as they sometimes include witticisms as they sing, but more often the music is melodic often haunting. No wedding is considered complete without a Plein Ka ensemble.


Yike is an ancient musical/theatrical form, possibly originating from the Malay and Islamic Chham minorities of Cambodia, as the music/singing is very similar to Chham and Malay styles. It is a mix of ancient Khmer and ancient Cham style and also linked to the Khmer Krom minority (near the Vietnam border). The Yike incorporates more simple dance movements than Khmer classical dance, using swinging movements of the hands and a more relaxed movement from the spine. The dancing is accompanied by Rebana drums, voice and the Tro.

Yike is deeply rooted in Khmer culture and a troupe can be found in almost each province, with the most famous troupe found in Kampot, (Kampot is not far from the Vietnam boarder).

This kind of singing, dancing and theatre is a form which belongs to ordinary people from rural areas, who sitting in a large circle would watch Yike performances. This music theatre has been used through the centuries to depict firstly the moral tales of Buddha’s life and teaching, but later also historical events, battles, love and comedy to the people of Cambodia.

Yike can be easily identified by the Rebana drums, which beat out a particularly strong and continued rythmn, accompanied by singing using strong alto (women’s) voices, the whole effect being very energetic, almost mesmerising and giving a sense of the ancientness of Yike’s roots.

Yike costumes are often brightly coloured, with elaborate headdresses for female dancers, who also put long conical attachments to the tips of their fingers, making them appear to have very long nails, this image increases the extraordinary fluidity of their arm and hand movements.

Instruments :

  • Rebana drums
  • Tro Ou or Tro Sau Toch’
  • Voices

Traditional Shadow Puppet Theatre

Lakoun Sabaik Toch is an ancient and much loved art-form, originating around a thousand years ago during the Kingdom of Angkor.

Much of it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 -79 and by the war both before and after the genocide. In Kampot Province where our school is based, there was no Shadow Puppet Troupe and the ancient art of making Shadow Puppets was lost.

With a grant provided by Cambodian Living Arts and the European Union, our teachers and students were taught by Sovannah Phum Puppet Artists. Sovannah Phum is a marvellous, Cambodian artist troupe who with great skill and expertise revived the wonderful art of Shadow Puppetry in Cambodia. Their shows can be seen in Phnom Penh.

They taught us how to make Shadow Puppets and then how to perform them, including techniques of movement, lighting, dialogue and musical interludes.

Thanks to the help of all these people, our school has now revived the art of Traditional Shadow Puppetry in Kampot Province and brought back to Kampot this wonderful theatre.

Traditional Shadow Puppet Theatre is divided into two main forms, the Lakoun Sabaik Toch – Small Shadow Puppet Theatre and the Lakoun Sabaik Thom – Large Puppet Theatre. The smaller theatre is a popular often light-hearted and humorous form of entertainment using ancient and modern storytelling, with a great variety of characters and animals. The large theatre form is considered sacred, as it depicts scenes from the Reamker (Ramayana) derived from the ancient Hindu epic. The puppets are larger and depict characters such as Hanuman the monkey King and Rama. In this latter art form, puppeteers have to be good dancers and athletes, because their puppet creations involve the puppeteers climbing and balancing on one another to create special effects. India influenced ancient Cambodian life from religion, to the alphabet and language. Today Buddhist prayers contain Pali and Cambodian writing is said to be derived from Sanskrit.

Cambodian people practised firstly animism and then Hinduism, before Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Cambodia and became the main religion until the present day.

Both types of Shadow Puppet Theatre are accompanied by dialogue and different character interpretation and by musical interludes of Pin Peat music. The opening of this kind of theatre is done using prayers and chanting. Fruit and incense are offered to the Gods and ancestors of Shadow Puppetry.

The method of making puppets is centuries old and involves drying cow-hide for three days, scraping it clean and then painting it with a dye from tree bark which both colours and cures the leather. Once this process is completed, the leather is cut out into smaller, more manageable pieces and stencils of different characters attached. Artists then painstakingly cut out the tiny holes to create intricate ornaments, so that during performances the light shines through the ornaments creating a most beautiful effect.

A large bamboo framed screen is created with a white cloth, so that the puppeteers can hide behind the screen and special lighting is made, so that only the shadow of the puppets themselves can be seen.