Mentally worn out after endless harassment by Angkor Wat touts who were continuously in my face, I stumbled across an Apsara Group dressed up in traditional Khmer costumes whose purpose was the same as the purpose of any other tout at Angkor Wat – to make money off of foreigners. This Apsara Group was vastly different though. They actually put some effort into looking really cool and did not spend their time in people’s faces, with an exception of their manager, or whoever he was, who just could not leave me alone and had to get in my face insisting that I leave everything alone and line myself up with the group for a picture. As most other Cambodians, he was extremely pushy and invasive of one’s personal space but the group looked too cool to say NO.
I knew that because I was in Cambodia, nobody would even fart in the water for a foreigner, unless they are getting money for it so the premise of getting my picture taken with this group just because they want the tourists to have good memories and only have nice things to say about Cambodia is sheer utopia, so I got myself ready to shell out.
None of the group members in costumes spoke any English but they were clearly instructed by their manager to say “Senk Juu” to every foreigner to make the impact more striking. The manager told me the donation was voluntary so I ended up giving them $3. It seemed as though this was the most they have gotten from any single individual in ages. They were truly grateful and could not believe I gave them so much, yet I thought that because there is six of them in the group, anything less than that, when shared would be rather insufficient.
Anyway, this is what it looked like when their manager lined me up with the Apsara group and took the pictures with my camera:
I didn’t know much about Cambodia before I came to Siem Reap but being here, I learned about Khmer Classical Dance called Apsara Dance early on. They say no visit to Cambodia is complete until you have attended a traditional Apsara Dance performance and since Siem Reap is the heart of Cambodian tourism, many tourist venues offer Apsara performances on a daily basis.
Apsara Dance has been part of Khmer culture for centuries. This fact is evident from thousands of bas-reliefs found on the walls of ancient Angkorian and pre-Angkorian temples. This artform suggests that Apsara dancers were not mere ritual performers that entertained people during the Angkorian period. They were also believed to have been the messengers to divinities.
I have already been in Siem Reap for a week and have already had an honor of seeing an Amateur Apsara Dance, but wanted to also attend an actual Apsara Dance show which would be performed as it’s supposed to be – with choreographed story and traditional Khmer costumes. I kept my eyes open and went to enquire with several venues in Siem Reap about their Apsara Dance shows.
This was my last night at Two Dragons Guesthouse so I rode my bike to Apsara Theater because it’s in the same area (Wat Bo) to enquire about their admission fees. From what I was told by other people, Apsara Theater is the only air conditioned theater in Siem Reap and their shows are said to be the best in town. Unfortunately, they are also very pricey. At the time of my enquiry, the admission fee was $38 which included supper. The best show in Siem Reap or not, this price was out of my range. I wanted to see Apsara Dance, but I didn’t want to spend over thirty dollars for it. In Cambodian terms, this is a lot of money. It’s an equivalent to charging $1,500 for a show in Canada.
Several upscale hotels have big signs outside their main entrances advertising Free Apsara Shows however upon enquiring, I found out that while their shows are free, visitors are expected to order dinner which typically starts in a $20 range and seems to go up to infinity. This wasn’t an option either. I knew there was gonna have to be a free Apsara Dance show somewhere in Siem Reap in an establishment with reasonably priced food. And I found it in a club I wanted to avoid due to bragging sign that they are recommended by the Lonely Planet – Temple Club on Pub Street.
Free shows at Temple Club start at 7.30pm so I got there at around 7 to catch a decent seat. I had my telephoto lens mounted on the cam but my battery was running low. I expected the place to be overcrowded for the show, but it wasn’t. There were many people, but it was nowhere near full, which I have enjoyed immensely. It gave me the opportunity to move freely and find a decent spot for pictures and I didn’t have to spend the show kneeling so people behind me can see. I came to realize that even though this is a free show, they are running these free shows every night so it’s not a rare opportunity for anyone, hence attendance is hefty, yet not overwhelming.
I’ve order the fish from the menu which cost $5 – so far the most expensive meal I have purchased in Cambodia, however the taste and presentation made it worth it. If the way your food is presented on a plate makes for the restaurant, then Temple Club is the winner. And taste didn’t lack in any way either.
The show started by a three member Pinpeat Orchestra setting up their instruments on the side of the stage and playing traditional Khmer music for about 20 minutes. I was already done with my dinner so I just enjoyed the tunes. After about 20 minute musical intermezzo, a voice from a person on a microphone in a hidden spot announced the dance and introduced it briefly by explaining what it’s about. He said that rather than just being a dance, an Apsara Dance always conveys a story and told us what this first story will be about. Similar audio guidance was introduced before each new number.
A single girl in a traditional Khmer costume came on stage slowly pacing her way from the back towards the front of the stage with little impressive about her, but an amazing hand movements. Additional 4 girls joined her later during the song for a synchronized, yet slow paced dance. Apsara is very slow. The beauty and magic is not in speed and neck breaking stunts. It’s in an amazing sense of balance and posing. Faces of Apsara Dancers bore blank, emotionless look throughout the show. The emotions were expressed through an absolutely mind-boggling movement of their hands and fingers.
When you watch Apsara Dancers perform a number, it all seems very easy because the dance doesn’t involve any tossing, jumping, spinning or otherwise dangerous routines. However it is not easy at all. There is a great deal of flexibility and unsurpassed balancing in the most unimaginable positions. But most of all, Apsara Dance is a showcase of how much can be told through the movement of fingers. If you are a hand person, the dexterity of their fingers will blow you away.
I have enjoyed the free Apsara Show provided by Temple Club immensely. I didn’t stay until the end because my camera battery died and I was getting eaten by relentless mosquitoes. I had to go back to the guesthouse and apply a thick layer of Muskol to be able to go back outside for a beer (which also helps to keep mosquitoes away by supplying the body with B Vitamins).
The only negative about the show had nothing to do with the show. Pub Street is the “to be” place for all tourists after dark and that’s precisely where you would find them in the late hours. Because of that, Pub Street also attracts countless touts and other locals looking to score some hard cash off of tourists. There is a band that performs outside and their loud bells sound too distracting and take away from an enjoyable show. It’s unfortunate, but Pub Street is all about who’s gonna be louder. It spoils the experience a little but performers have no control over it and are definitely not to blame. Other than this one negative, I have nothing but the positives to say about the Apsara Dance in Temple Club.
My stay in Cambodia was slowly becoming complete. I have already seen the Apsara Dance, but still had the biggest adventure ahead of me – exploring the temples of Angkor Wat and the rest of the Archaeological Park. I had my mountain bike which was gonna serve as my sole means transport and was going to move to a guesthouse that was both close to Wat Preah Prom Rath where I was teaching English and it was on the road that lead directly to Angkor. The only thing I needed was a day without rain.
Having been in Siem Reap for almost a week, I had to go to town’s most prominent entertainment venue – Temple Club. Located in the center of Pub Street, Temple Club is Siem Reap’s heart and pulse of night life. There is a big sign above the entrance on the canopy which reads: “Recommended by Lonely Planet”. This was precisely why it took me a week to pay a mandatory visit to the venue. I’m not particularly fond of places where “everybody else” goes. This is my personal review of the Temple Club as seen and experienced through my own eyes.
Pub Street comes very much alive at night. While it is true that the very reason why the town sees so many tourists lies in the temples of Angkor, when the sun sets and the area falls dark, all those foreigners come out to take advantage of extremely cheap beer (2000 Cambodian Riel which is about 50 Cents US) and well priced food. They are all naturally drawn to Pub Street because that’s where all they are looking for is available at high density. It was no different with me. Even if you’ve never heard of Pub Street, once you come to Siem Reap you’ll learn about it quickly and end up on it one way or another.
Cambodian police come to Pub Street every evening and block both sides of it with their motorcycles to prevent access of any motor vehicles to the street. This is because the street gets so busy at night that there is simply no room for vehicles and besides, something needed to be done to protect those drunk tourists from being run over. There is a lot of movement on Pub Street and a lot of noise from local pubs too. Since Temple Club tends to be the loudest, you notice it right away. You make your first visit to Pub Street after dusk and you’ll be well aware of Temple Club and their bragging sign that they are recommended by the Lonely Planet.
Aside from deafening music, Temple Club also attracts passerbys’ attention by visual leads – laser disco lights the beams of which make it all the way to the street. The thing with Cambodia is that it’s located in the tropical zone, so it’s always hot there. As such, none of the clubs or restaurants have any windows. It’s all wide open, patio style street sitting everywhere you go. This makes Temple Club wide open to the strollers randomly checking out the Pub Street at night and as they hear the music and see colorful lights, they are naturally attracted and come to see what is going on there.
Temple Club – What I Liked
Location is great, food albeit slightly above average for Siem Reap, is well prepared, extremely delicious and well presented on a plate. Beer is definitely above average for Siem Reap, being priced at $.75, making it 50% more expensive than most other restaurants on Pub Street but still not too bad. Service is decent and as is the case with most of Cambodia’s hospitality establishments, you are not expected to tip, even though tips are always appreciated. The biggest positive of Temple Club – free Apsara shows.
I have already witnessed Amateur Apsara Dancing, but was eager to see an actual choreographed show with paid to dance dancers and musicians. There are several venues throughout Siem Reap offering paid Apsara dancing shows but for the most part they are obscenely expensive. I went to enquire about the price at Apsara Theater near Wat Bo temple, which is supposed to offer some of the finest Apsara performances in Cambodia, but their entrance fees were obscene. Several upscale hotels offer free Apsara shows, but as a guest, you are usually expected to at least order a meal the price of which usually matches their primary clientele.
Having a club on Pub Street offering free Apsara shows every evening is invaluable for travellers on a budget who would like to experience this must see Cambodian art form. Temple Club offers their free Apsara Shows every day from 7.30pm to 9.30pm on their upper floor. Lower floor has small dance floor, pool tables, large screen TVs playing sports channels and a DJ playing gay music, hence that’s where drinkers hang out. Upper floor is dedicated to visitors who seek more from a visit to a Lonely Planet recommended club and anticipate quality dining experience as well as cultural uplift. As such, the upper floor delivers.
One of the biggest positives (and the only reason why I’ve ventured to Temple Club more than once) was fast wireless internet that’s available to their customers. My initial visit to Temple Club was to attend my first Apsara Show. I didn’t have my laptop with me, just a camera for a few pictures and couldn’t stay for too long because of mosquitoes. My subsequent visits were strictly related to the use of their fast wifi internet. I unpacked my laptop, asked for a password and surfed the net without any member of staff coming to imply that I should order something. The internet is fast (for Cambodia) and reasonably reliable.
Temple Club – What I Didn’t Like
Temple Club is too busy, often full of finest sample of loud and obnoxious tourists who take good advantage of cheap beer. Music they play downstairs is absolutely atrocious. I don’t even understand where they are able to pull this crap from. I’m surprised shitty music of this kind is not illegal. Every now and again they would hit an odd good song, but overall it’s all about truly awful crap hip hop and mainstream junk. I’m also not into sports so there was nothing to attract me on their big screens.
Being the hottest club in Siem Reap, Temple Club is frequented by prostitutes and con artists. Theft is very common as are other forms of scam so hang on to your belongings really tight and never ever assume that this local person is nice because they like you. They never do. They only like themselves and the only reason they treat you like you’re a goddess is because they want to brainwash you into trusting them so they can take advantage of you.
If you are one of the guys who attract mosquitoes like honey does bees, you will be having damn awful time at Temple Club. This downside is not unique to Temple Club though, rather to most similar venues in Siem Reap and elsewhere in Cambodia. They are wide open leaving you thoroughly exposed to the blood suckers. If you forget to cover up in bug spray, you won’t last very long. This was unfortunately my case too. I went to see their free Apsara Show on my last night at Two Dragons and couldn’t even stay until the end as I was getting eaten alive. This is never any fun in areas where malaria and dengue fever are endemic – such as Cambodia.
What I didn’t like about Temple Club the most was the fact that they are so obviously bragging about being recommended by Lonely Planet. There’s a thing – even though Lonely Planet contributors plea they never take incentives to recommend certain places, everybody who’s not entirely naive can understand that it’s not quite the case. There is a lot of money in stake and this cross promotion gives it all away. Besides, from what I understand, owners of Temple Club seem to be on the mission to monopolize Pub Street. As far as I know, there are several restaurants and clubs on Pub Street alone that are owned by the same people who own Temple Club (including Khmer Family Restaurant). Any business that’s too big and spreads uncontrollably destroying all smaller business owners around gets a thumbs down from me.
Temple Club Personal Review Conclusion
I’ve enjoyed free Apsara Show provided upstairs at the club and found it to be a must visit gig for everyone who comes to Siem Reap. If you like big crowds of drunk people and enjoy attention con artists and prostitutes give their potential “clients” until they get what they want from them, then downstairs of Temple Club is for you. Being Siem Reap’s epicenter of petty crime, one needs to be very careful about their belongings or should not bring any valuables with them and only as much money as you are going to need for food and drinks. I personally prefer more intelligent entertainment venues so I’ve only visited Temple Club a couple of times. It is definitely worth visiting if you just want a beer or two and need to get on the internet with your laptop while you’re at it. Just keep it low profile so you don’t attract too much attention of truly dangerous Cambodian con artist upon yourself.
Pinpeat Orchestra is basically a Cambodian musical band playing traditional Khmer music on traditional Khmer instruments. Pinpeat Orchestra music sounds very oriental but for the most part it doesn’t appear to have any beginning or end, rather the musicians just improvise by randomly striking notes on their instruments that then blend into a musical piece that sounds just as any other musical piece by Pinpeat Orchestra. Still, even though lacking in variety, Pinpeat Orchestra is the classical music of Cambodia and does have the oriental feel you would expect from such ensemble.
Pinpeat Orchestra Instruments
Vast majority of Pinpeat Orchestras I’ve seen playing in Cambodia had their music based on percussions. Most Pinpeats were solely percussions based, while few smaller ensembles that make their living by selling CDs at Angkor Wat temples also used fiddle like string instrument called “tro”.
Roneat (Khmer Xylophone)
Roneat is the most typical instrument found in a Pinpeat Orchestra. Some traditional Cambodian bands use Roneat as their sole instrument. Roneat looks like Xylophone but uses wood bars suspended on a string. Person playing Roneat usually holds two mallets one in each hand and strikes two wood bars at the same time in what seems as completely random order.
Sampho is a barrel shaped drum with heads on both sides. Person playing Sampho uses both hands to strike the drum each on either sides of the barrel. Sampho player usually sets and keeps the tempo of the song being played.
Skor Thom is a set of two barrel shaped drums played with sticks. Not all bands use it. Sometimes Sampho is enough to keep the beat going.
Kong Vong Thom is a gong circle which along with Roneat makes for an important part of a Pinpeat Orchestra. Gongs of different sizes are hung on the strings of a circular frame. Just as it goes with Roneat, player playing Kong Thom holds two mallets in his both hands and strikes two gongs at the same time in what appears as random order.
Ching cymbals are the most irritating part of every Pinpeat Orchestra. It’s a pair of small cymbals held between the fingers of hands which when struck together sound like those ringers on old bicycles. You can typically hear it long before you can hear the rest of the band. If you are walking towards the temple and can hear a sound which sounds as if someone was running their bicycle ringer amok, you may actually hear the whole Pinpeat Orchestra once you get closer.
In Siem Reap, there is a Pinpeat Orchestra with members who are victims of landmine accidents. They play each night on Pub Street in Siem Reap. You could be sitting in the Temple Bar with loud music and this ringing of Ching cymbals will be in your ears, giving you the headache non stop. If you go to a quiet restaurant a block away, you will be too far to hear the band, but ringing of Ching cymbals will be there tearing your eardrums like there’s no tomorrow. It’s an extremely loud and invasive sound and it comes from two tiny cymbals each size of half of your palm. Luckily, not all Pinpeat Orchestras use Ching cymbals so you don’t have to go shoot yourself in the head each time you want to watch Apsara dance.
Yes, Apsara dancers always dance to traditional Khmer music which is played by a Pinpeat Orchestra. My first exposure to live Pinpeat Orchestra was at Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine and when I saw amateur Apsara dancers at Wat Keseram they were also dancing to the music played by live Pinpeat Orchestra. Even though I was told on several occasions that typical Pinpeat Orchestra also uses wind instruments, I have never seen one that does. Fiddle like Tro was the only instrument used on top of the above mentioned ones. Both bands mentioned in this paragraph only used the instruments listed – no wind, no Tro. That’s my personal experience.
No visit to Cambodia would be complete without seeing the Apsara dance performance. Apsara dancing is a classical Khmer dancing art that’s been part of Khmer culture since the Angkorian days. You can see thousands of Apsara dancers carved on the walls of Angkor temples and pagodas all over Cambodia. Even though I had not heard the word Apsara prior to visiting Cambodia, I have quickly become familiar with it as soon as I started exploring Siem Reap. Moving around was much easier now that I had my mountain bike and as I kept riding around town, I noticed several hotels advertising their nightly Apsara Dance performances. There’s so much of it in Siem Reap, than sooner or later every visitor, even if entirely not familiar with Apsara will have heard of it and attended the show to see what it’s all about. I was lucky enough to have stumbled across an Apsara Dance performed at Wat Kesararam by young amateur dancers to get my introduction to Apsara Dancing prior to attending an actual Apsara show for tourists.
As part of Pchum Ben Festival, main vihara (prayer hall) at Wat Kesararam was full of Khmer people who came there to pray and make offerings to their deceased ancestors and monks. Since big feast with many people attending was anticipated on the day I visited the pagoda, locals also organized a little Apsara dance performance to get themselves entertained prior to festivities. The dance was performed by their daughters – amateur but enthusiastic young Cambodians who appreciate their heritage and keep their ancient culture alive.
I walked into vihara because there was traditional Khmer music coming from the inside played live by a band and there were many shoes outside suggesting that many people are in there (Buddhists always take their shoes off before entering sacred buildings). Understanding that there was something interesting going on, I took my shoes off, wiped off the sweat from my head and stepped right in where heat was just as devastating and the light was dim.
The vihara was quite spacious with many people inside. It was very dark there. No artificial light, just a little bit coming from the outside through small windows. I was the only Caucasian there, but not the only tourist. There were a few Korean (I think they were Korean, I can’t tell Asian nationals from one another) people sitting close to the improvised stage on which young girls performed slow paced Apsara dance.
I wanted to take some pictures, but it was so dark in there it became extremely difficult. Luckily, Apsara dancing is not about speed. It’s about careful posing and a lot of balance. I had to really improvise with my camera because bad lighting conditions and moving objects (albeit slow moving) make for difficult photography. I tried my best.
Luckily for me, none of the locals made any signs of me being a disturbing element. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but I occasionally moved from one spot to another in efforts to find the best angle with most light. The only other thing moving were the Apsara dancers on the stage so my commotion was easily noticeable. Regardless, nobody came to tell me to sit on my ass and stay quiet. I have been noticing this type of acceptance and tolerance of disturbers from the Western countries all throughout Cambodia. Khmer people in Siem Reap are so tolerant with tourists, they would probably not kick me out of there even if I walked in wearing a hat. Not that I would ever do that, but some other tourists do which I noticed when I started exploring Angkor temples. Such a shame that so many people from the west would show no respect for foreign cultures. Yet even though westerners abuse Cambodian traditions so much, I’ve never seen any local bust them for it. On a side note, perhaps it has a lot to do with how much people of Siem Reap like tourists’ money…
Watching this Amateur Apsara dance – my first Apsara performance – was very enlightening. I really needed a break from the sun, but I also felt lucky I got here just in time to see these girls dancing. It was all very sincere. The dancers have performed several numbers accompanied by the music played by live band on the side of the stage and when they were done, they invited the foreigners to join them and learn how to Apsara dance. I had to respectfully decline this generous offer because I was dripping off sweat like I was in a sauna.
Young Koreans took on the offer and joined the dancers on the stage. That was when I realized how easy Apsara dancing seems when you watch it, but how difficult it is when you actually do it. They were teaching the Korean youth how to strike a pose. Moving from one pose to another was excluded, but let me tell you – any of those poses that seemed to easy when done by the dancers takes years of training to master. Apsara dancing is much trickier than is seems. I could tell by the faces of those Korean tourists that they were struggling big time to get simple poses done and for the most part, none of them could do it right. Apsara dancing is not easy, it just seems easy when you watch skilled dancers do it. These young ladies may have been amateurs, but they were impressive never the less. It was a truly uplifting experience. Too bad it was so hot and not enough light for good pictures.
Wat Kesararam is the most confusing pagoda in all of Siem Reap. The inconsistencies in name were driving me insane and the more I was trying to find out which name was correct, the more confusing it was getting. Basically, aside from Wat Kesararam, this pagoda is often referred to as Wat Keseram. Not even Cambodians themselves know which name is right and which is wrong as each you ask them about it, they will give you different answer. Hence it is best to refer to it by its English name – Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals.
Wat Kesararam is located at the north west side of Siem Reap, right on National Road #6, en route to Siem Reap airport. It is a very colorful pagoda the beginnings of which date somewhere to the 1970’s. The paintings on the outer walls are very bright and so are the lions and nagas – seven headed serpents the body of which serves as a balustrade around the temple. The balustrade is held up by statues of divinities that are repeated all around the structure.
I have not walked inside of actual temple, but it’s said to house extensive collection of Buddha relics. Since it was the second day of Pchum Ben festival, the pagoda of the cornflower petals was very much alive. Traditional Khmer music was being played back out of bad quality, old loudspeakers and dozens of people knelt inside the prayer hall chanting their prayers. More people were coming in and out, all bearing bowls with food which is what the festival of the dead is all about. This food is offered to their deceased ancestors to ease their way in the underworld.
I noticed many kids running around and hanging off the barred windows of main vihara – prayer hall. There was some commotion coming from the inside and the presence of countless shoes before the entrance to it suggested that something must be going on in there (Buddhists always take their shoes off before entering pagodas or basically any other dwelling or sacred place). This is what attracted me to the vihara as it was also what detracted me from going to the actual temple to see what they say is a vast collection of Buddha relics. On the other hand, I’m glad I went in the vihara because this was my unique opportunity to witness real amateur Apsara dancing.