I like to believe in the fairy tale, moonlight rendezvous, and happily ever afters. Call it being a starstruck child at heart or someone who could nearly live off fairy tales as a child, but pretty mystical things still draw me a lot. Thus, it is no wonder that in Siem Reap, I would take out time from my really tight schedule to experience the famous Cambodian apsara dance.

Apsara dance and tropical rain showers

It is a strange coincidence that during both my visits, Cambodia was experiencing heavy rain. However, they were not maddening downpour: but rather romantic thunderstorms which send pre-shower whiffs of lusty earth, crackle dark skies with streaky lightning, and tear down frangipani blossoms with their slanting needle fine lashing rain. The rain showers start with a brooding expectancy, soaring sultriness and they gradually stop at a relaxed pace. Post those rain lashings, Siem Reap smells fresher, feels cooler and somehow seem to soften its blatant commercialism. It dons a more local aura and Khmer life comes bustling forward. Tired tuk-tuk drivers can be seen relaxing at their favourite eateries with their friends, rather than hustling tourists for Apsara dance shows and at the night market, entire families sit down for dinner amidst stacks of cheap touristy clothing.

Cambodian apsara dance depicts tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata

Grilling smoke from food carts heaped with grilled entrails, insects or other meaty bits fill the local lanes of Siem Reap and televisions blast out football or Indian soaps dubbed in Khmer language. The uber commercial Siem Reap livens up at the Angkor Night Market and popular watering holes like the Red Piano Bar gets filled with thirsty travellers. At chic upscale establishments, posh dinner shows get laid out for the visitors‘ pleasure and dancing bells tinkle into the Khmer nights. Delicate sound of porcelain, hushed conversation and traditional Khmer music pour out and Apsara dance bedazzles the crowds. The apsaras or the celestial beauties of the Hindu mythology appear on the Cambodian stages as lithe dancers and tales of Ramayana, Churning of the Sea of Milk get depicted.

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Apsara dance was promoted by the royal family

Welcome to the world of apsaras

Siem Reap evening entertainment calls for an apsara dance

One of the most popular and enchanting evening programmes of Cambodia, the Apsara Dance is one of the must things to do and Siem Reap hosts the best recitals in the country. Held at several venues across the city, these cultural shows come as packages which include buffet dinner and collection of traditional dance spectacle. The highlight is of course, the Apsara Dance which is a classical Khmer dance created by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in the mid 20th century. Also known as Roam Tep Apsara, beautifully costumed dancers are the signature style and Queen Sisowath Kossomak had nurtured it passionately. She chose her own granddaughter, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi to be its first prima ballerina and the lovely fine-boned young woman was selected to be a dancer since she was a baby. She gave her first Apsara performance during her grandfather King Norodom‘s tenure and toured the world promoting this beautiful traditional art form.

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Apsara dance, a Cambodian passion nurtured by royals throughout centuries

Today, talented apsara dancers hail from schools from all across Cambodia and all of them dream of performing it at Angkor. Incidentally, the famously bewitching costumes of the performers of the Apsara dance are inspired by the carvings on the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and they are a combination of rich brocade, jewellery and flowers. Derived from Indian court dances which trace the origins of apsaras as celestial beauties who perform for the gods, the Khmer Apsara dancers wear an intricately pleated brocade dress accessorised with their signature five or three pointed bejewelled headdress. Decorated with flowers, the headdress is completed with glittering gold jewellery, intricate anklets and garlands of jasmine. A Khmer Apsara dancer is indeed a spectacular sight and the performance is a photographer‘s delight. Uniquely Khmer, the Apsara dancers move with slow poised grace and it is a subtle restrained dance with arched taut postures and mysterious codified facial expressions.

Apsara dance depict Hindu mythological stories

Demons and other mythological beings

After the Apsara dance, go a bit folksy with the peacock dance of Cambodia

I spent a memorable Siem Reap evening watching a traditional cultural show. It was held at the lovely La Noria Hotel and the evening included a fusion dinner, Khmer shadow puppetry and traditional dances which included Apsara, Masked Dance etc. A few interesting folk dances like the Peacock mating, Fishermen dance, Harvest dance were also included and the folk performances were fast, rhythmic and foot tapping. The night was young when I returned to my hotel and sleepless under a mosquito net, I could smell an impending tropical storm as glittering apsaras swayed every time I closed my eyes. The combination of the storm and the dancing apsaras was magical and it is rightly said, that some of the most beautiful moments can be found in solitude, within one‘s imagination. Needless to say, the memories of that evening remains fresh on my mind and perhaps it was because of the Angkor thunderstorm, my overactive imagination, the magic of Apsara dance or everything put together, which made the Siem Reap experience so unforgettable.

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Apsara Dance Travel Tip

The evening Khmer cultural package comes with dinner (a la carte or buffet), Apsara dance, masked dance, shadow puppetry, golden mermaid dance, and folk performances. The Royal University of Fine Arts stages Apsara dance performances only on very special occasions ( for example on Khmer New Year, King‘s Birthday) and these are held in front of Angkor Wat and sometimes at Phnom Penh.

Listed below are the hotels and restaurants offering apsara dance shows in Siem Reap.

Alliance Cafe
Opening Hours: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday – Dinner 19:00/ Show 20:00
Duration: 1 hour
Type: Shadow Puppet Theatre and Traditional Khmer Dance
Dinner type: Khmer set menu or a la carte
Note: No show during May & June
Price Range: Set menu + show $20.00, Show only $7.00

Apsara Terrace
Opening Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday – Dinner 19:00 / Show 19:45.
Location: Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor
Type: Traditional Khmer Dance & Khmer Martial Arts
Price Range: Adults – $40, Children under 12 – $25.50

Apsara Theatre
Opening Hours: Everyday – Dinner 19:30 / Show 20:30
Duration: 1 hour
Type: Traditional Khmer Dance
Dinner type: Khmer set menu
Price Range: Adults – $25, Children under 12 – $12.50

La Noria Hotel
Opening Hours: Wednesday & Sunday at 19:30
Duration: 1 hour (1/2 hour Shadow Puppet & 1/2 hour Traditional Dance)
Type: Shadow Puppet and Traditional Khmer Dance
Dinner type: A La Carte
Price Range: $6.00 per person

Temple Balcony
Opening Hours: Everyday at 19:30.
Duration: 2 hours
Type: Traditional Khmer Dance
Dinner type: A La Carte
Price Range: Free

apsara dance was supported and nurtured by the Khmer queen

A cultural evening

apsara dance show is a part of the cultural evening programme in Cambodia

At Siem Reap comes with

Khmer shadow puppet show is a much watch in Cambodia

Shadow puppetry

Apsara dance begins with a greeting and welcome performance

Apsara dance performance

Ramayana and Mahabharata being depicted by apsara dance

Traditional masked dance

Khmer folk shows are as entertaining as the apsara dance

And Khmer folk dances.

Khmer cuisine is underrated

Accompanied by buffet

Try a cooking class in Cambodia

Or a la carte dinner, the shows revolve around

Shadow puppets are made of perforated leather

Hindu mythological stories

Apsara dance has elaborate headdress

Which are depicted by

Apsara dancers were premiered by Khmer princess

Gorgeously attired apsaras.

Peacock mating dance show in Cambodia

It is a great way

Beautiful Khmer apsara dance performer

Of indulging in some traditional Khmer arts and

Khmer dance has beautiful costumes

Enjoying the exotic Cambodian nights to the fullest.