The culture of Cambodia has had a rich and varied history dating back many centuries, and has been heavily influenced by India. Throughout nearly two millennia, Cambodians developed a unique Khmer belief from the syncretism of indigenous animistic beliefs and the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. The golden age of Cambodia was between the 9th and 14th century, during the Angkor period, during which it was a powerful and prosperous empire that flourished and dominated almost all of inland Southeast Asia.
Cambodia is a collective society – individuals take second place to the group whether this is the family, neighborhood or company. In such societies, etiquette and protocol guidelines are used to maintain a sense of common harmony – for example subtle communication styles are employed in order to minimize the chances of causing offense to others.
The concept of face also ties in with this collective outlook. Protecting both one’s own and other’s face is extremely important. Face can roughly be translated as a combination of honour, dignity and public reputation that is attributed to a person.
There are many classical dance forms in Cambodia, of which a highly stylized art form was once confined mainly to the courts of the royal palace and performed mainly by females. Known formally in Khmer as Robam Apsara, the dancers of this classical form are often referred to as Apsara dancers.
Apsara dancing, a classical style dating back to the Angkorean era, nearly vanished in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge regime decimated much of the country’s infrastructure, culture and traditions. Almost 90 percent of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals were systematically eliminated by the Khmer Rouge, devastating what had been a flourishing artistic community.
This dance form was first introduced to foreign countries and best known during the 1960s as the Khmer Royal Ballet. The first royal ballerina was Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, a daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk.
The Apsara Dance is particularly inspired by the style from around more than a thousand Apsara carvings in the Angkor temple complex. As evidenced in part by these Apsaras (celestial dancers), dance has been part of the Khmer culture for more than a millennium.
A visit to Cambodia is only complete when one has attended at least one such traditional dance performance.