Cambodia yields some of the most spectacular sites in Asia. Yet most traditional Cambodian houses are simple structures made of wood and built on stilts raising them from the ground. They vary in size, measured by the number of vertical posts used in their construction. Walls are of woven bamboo. Cambodians generally live communally in one large room, with a very different concept of privacy than is customary for families in the West. Often the whole village will cooperate to build (although not to pay for) a family's new house, and the effort will later be reciprocated. Livestock and the family motorbike are found underneath the home.
In the towns the French influence is readily evident. Towns like Battambang, Kratie, Kampong Chhnang, and Kampong Cham are all marked by colonnaded streets, ocher walls, and elegant villas. Much of the grandeur is faded, crumbling, and sometimes squalid, but it remains very impressive.
In Phnom Penh development is rapid, but thankfully many (although not all) of the developers are attempting to maintain the feel of the city. Cambodian cities remain distinctly low-rise since development has for so long been held back, but that is certainly changing. Developers using Korean money are in the process of putting up the first skyscraper (the $240-million Gold Tower 42) right in the center of Phnom Penh. Though at the time of writing the project is on hold because of the world economic downturn, this development marks a major change in Cambodian urban planning. Phnom Penh is changing fast, and this is not the only planned high-rise. Others are in the advanced planning stages. Not everyone is happy about this change, and some analysts predict that high-rise residential developments will flop, even though there is a need for more office space. What is certainly true is that in a city that did not even have traffic lights 10 years ago, things are happening at lightning speed.
Painting & Sculpture
The Khmer Rouge attempted to destroy the arts in all forms. They spared Angkor as a symbol of past national glory. Anything else they got their hands on, they tended to smash. A great deal was lost that can never be regained.
There has also been a mass plundering of architectural sites, feeding a lucrative but illegal trade in smuggled artifacts. Thankfully, plenty also survived. If you go to Street 178 (now known as "Art Street") in Phnom Penh, there are a series of art galleries selling paintings and sculptures. They are a mix of old and new, and the Royal University of Fine Arts is right across the road.
The markets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are full of magnificent sculptures. Generally, they are imitations of ancient religious pieces and are very popular with tourists. The very Khmer slightly flat face of the Bayon represents a recurring theme. The earliest known Cambodian sculptures were generally images of Hindu gods. To see the real thing, the National Museum in Phnom Penh is where sculpture from the 6th century onward is displayed.
Today, art scenes have sprouted up in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. A lot of Cambodian artists who fled abroad during the bad years also absorbed a lot of Western influences, so there is a whole new school of Cambodian artists essentially practicing a synthesis. Recently there has been an interesting initiative by a collective of young Cambodia artists under the guidance of English sculptor Sasha Constable to recycle all the confiscated weaponry from the years of war and recycle it into modern sculptures.
The Khmer Rouge killed musicians as they killed other types of artists and performers including Sin Sisamuth, the much loved and revered Cambodian singer. It is said they made him sing the Khmer Rouge national anthem before they bludgeoned him to death. As with so much else, a lot was lost, but music remains a very integral part of the Cambodian soul.
Generally much traditional music is based around religion and ritual using an array of traditional instruments. Some Cambodian folk music often has a bluesy and deeply melancholy feel. This is particularly true of chapaye, which sounds like a cross between sounds from Asia and the Mississippi Delta. It is sung (or wailed) accompanied by a two-stringed lutelike instrument. Cambodian TV often offers late-night performances, which are well worth looking out for.
Traditional music is performed by a small orchestra playing a variety of instruments such as a ching (cymbal), roneat (bamboo xylophone), pia au (flute), sralai (oboe), chapey (bass banjo), gong (bronze gong), tro (fiddle), and different kinds of drums. It is often haunting and atmospheric.
In the '60s and '70s, there was a thriving garage rock scene in Phnom Penh with a mixture of pop, R&B, and rock, all with a Cambodian slant. Although the musicians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, recordings still survive and you can buy CDs in the major markets. The one to look out for is called "Cambodia Rocks."
Today, many returnees to Cambodia have bought their own brand of music, often a mix between Western and Khmer. These days this is often manifested in Khmer rap, which is enormously popular among the young.
And of course, there is karaoke. Whether machine fed or accompanied by a live band and live singers, karaoke is hugely popular with Cambodians. If you head over the Japanese Bridge in Phnom Penh to the area of Prek Leap, you'll find a number of very lively music and karaoke joints often interspersed with live comedy. People go to eat food, drink beer, and sing their hearts out. It's a very Cambodian experience.
Cambodian classical dance is breathtakingly elegant. Related to the palace and the court, this ancient art was an integral part of Cambodian royal ritual. Although the skills declined after the wane of Angkor, they were resurrected by the French as part of a policy of fostering Khmer national pride. It is related to dance in Thailand and although Khmer dance came first, Thai dance is purer and closer to the Angkorian ideal since it is in more direct line without the influence of the French.
The slow, elegant hand movements, the exquisite costumes, and the ethereal music all contribute to creating what feels like an otherworldly experience. Many of the themes come from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana. The Khmer Rouge nearly killed off this ancient art, yet a few trained practitioners survived. In 1981, the School of Fine Arts was reopened in Phnom Penh and the knowledge salvaged from the skills of the few has been taught to many.
Cambodians love to dance in general, whether that's the traditional ramvong (a slow dance where people walk around slowly in a circle making traditional hand movements) or a Saturday night out where Dad, Mom, and the kids head down to the local hop and get down in one glorious family boogie to whatever dance music the DJ or band is offering.
Cambodian classical theater consists of highly stylized tellings of the Hindu epics such as the Ramayana. The art form is called lakhaon kaol, a dance-drama performed by men and based on tales from the Ramayana. This seminal Hindu epic, in which gods and monkeys battle demons and ogres and show supernatural powers as they triumph over evil is a part of Cambodian national consciousness and remains a source of inspiration for Cambodia's artists.
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