Inside Asia Tours: Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

Cambodian art & architecture

Cambodian art in all its forms suffered near decimation during the Khmer Rouge era, which lasted just four years: from 1975 and 1979. Not only were books, artworks, musical instruments and other artefacts destroyed during this period, but living bearers of Khmer culture were systematically eradicated.

Almost nothing survived of a rich and long-standing culture, and many Khmers considered their culture irrevocably lost as a result of the regime. Cambodian art & architecture today must therefore be understood in the light of this loss, which has had a devastating effect on the development of national artistic and architectural traditions ever since.

Cambodian performing arts

Dance

Perhaps the best surviving link between modern Cambodia and the high culture of ancient Angkor is traditional dance, in particular the Cambodian royal ballet.

Though few dancers and dance teachers survived the Pol Pot era, in 1981 the University of Fine Arts was reopened and training resumed. Cambodian traditional dance today resembles that of Thailand and India, both of which were influenced by Angkorian traditions. Dances are traditionally all-female (though today men are included more often), featuring stylised hand movements, stupa-shaped headgear and sequined costumes.

Folk dances provide another style of traditional entertainment, often featuring flirtatious interaction between the sexes. These are often performed to bring a good harvest or a good fishing catch, and at festivals to ward off evil spirits. One such example is the elaborate dragon dance performed at the Lunar New Year.

Music

Cambodia has a rich indigenous musical tradition, as evidenced by carvings depicting musical instruments on the walls of Angkor Wat. In Cambodia, music was traditionally performed as an accompaniment to religious ceremonies, and different types of musical ensemble existed to accompany weddings, ballet performances and puppet shows - amongst others.
Cambodian visual arts

Sculpture

Sculpture produced during the Angkorian period of Cambodian history is considered some of the most masterful in the world, and many scholars consider it to be unparalleled. Though early Khmer sculpture took its influences from India and Hinduism, the countless masterpieces produced by Khmer craftsmen at the height of the empire were in many respects far superior to the artworks from which they drew their inspiration.

In later centuries, Cambodian sculpture would move on to incorporate materials such as wood and polychrome, but continued to look to religion for its subject matter. Today, some Cambodian craftsmen are rediscovering their sculptural heritage as demand increases for reproductions of Angkor-era reliefs and statues.

Traditional crafts

Silk weaving, basket weaving, lacquerware, silversmithing, kite-making and ceramics are traditional crafts with a long-established history in Cambodia. Though these arts faded into obscurity in the 20th century, recent years have seen a rise in their popularity - partly thanks to foreign tourism.

Cambodian architecture

Spanning a period between the 9th and 14th centuries, Angkorian architecture represents the peak of Khmer culture and is one of the few remnants of Cambodian artistic heritage to have survived the destruction wrought by the Khmer Rouge.

The most impressive of the Angkorian temples is undoubtedly Angkor Wat, the national symbol of Cambodia, which is not only the largest religious monument in the world but also boasts literally miles of fantastically intricate bas-reliefs. These reliefs constitute some of the finest stonemasonry left in the world, depicting elaborate battle scenes, episodes from classical legends, and representations of Hindu mythology.

After the fall of the Khmer Empire and the onset of the Cambodian "dark ages", the next significant development in Cambodian architecture was the arrival of the colonising French - who built many impressive neoclassical buildings during the 19th century. Most cities in Cambodia retain at least one or two examples of French colonial architecture, but the best examples are to be found in Phonm Penh.

In the 1950s and 60s, Cambodia experienced a brief "golden era" in architecture, during which home-grown architects led a movement known as New Khmer Architecture. The Olympic Stadium, the Chatomuk Theatre and the Independence Monument are famous examples of this school - all designed by the movement's most famous son, Vann Molyvann. The beachside town of Kep also boasts some excellent examples of architecture from this period.

RE