When I travel, I want to experience local culture to the extent I’m able. I like eating street food, I don’t like going out with big groups, and I take any opportunity I can find to see the local performance styles, especially of dance (theater won’t work for me unless it’s in English). So when in Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor, I was interestedin having an opportunity to see Apsara dance, the local style best known for its static form, on the walls of the temples of Angkor. The form was nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge regime, but these days there’s a plethora of options if you want to do a dinner/dance show. I didn’t have a stack of reviews to sort through (see, we do actually do useful work) and only my hotel receptionist to rely on, so when I said, “Send me to the best show” I wound up at the stupendously expensive Smile of Angkor (tickets $45 and $55, comes with dinner). Now, based on London prices, that’s not too bad, but given the local economy it was like what scalpers were charging for Kate Bush tickets.
Unsurprisingly, it was an event only popular with tour groups (as no one local could afford it), and they were there by the bus load, some 15 or 20 of them, all clustered outside of a purpose built structure that looked for all the world like an American casino on an Indian reservation … in the middle of an empty field, near a canal where locals were having open air picnics (it looked pleasant) and playing volley ball in other nearby lots. The folks in attendance were a mixed lot of Japanese, Korean, Chinese (probably 60%) and a few mysterious European looking folks that seemed to have trickled in by tuk tuk rather than organized tour.
Since you’re not getting in without paying for dinner, I’ll give a run-down on the food. Simply put, this was the most impressive buffet I’ve ever seen, suited to feeding 400 people at a shot without running out of anything. There were at least five stations where things were being made fresh – a grill (for pork skewers, YUM), a fresh-fried profiterole (not cream filled) stand, a stir-fry (four chefs!), something involving duck, and a do-it-yoursef soup … I couldn’t sort this one out so passed. There were also a table of many kinds of fresh fruit (chili infused salt to go on the fresh pineapple – gotta try it), a bread carousel, a table of funky desserts, fifteen or so vegetable dishes, curries, and a tea/water/fruit juice/coffee stand. There was drink service if you wanted it; I was of course happy with tea. Little concessions were made to European food preferences (although everything was labelled in English) – I couldn’t have cared less and let it be said that I did eat well and it was tasty. Yet oddly the bathroom had no toilet paper and the floors seemed puddly and the whole thing was a bit whiffy despite the sign outside declaring the awards from the international toliet association. Still, the food was great and after a long day of travel I was glad of it.
So … the show. The whole thing was a Broadway production values, over the top, video projections included extravaganza complete with water feature and giant talking statues. It was a little bit “background of the art of Angkor” heavily peppered with “walk through Khmer history” and giant lashings of patriotism and Buddhist/Hindu religious teachings on top. We started with a little child addressing a 10 foot tall carved head – the ones that are associated with the temple of Bayon – asking about its smile, then being transported back into the rise of the Khmer kingdom. We got battles (with some nice acrobatics), building of the temples, mythology (the “churning of the sea of milk” showed up, always nice to see a tug of war on stage), temple dancers, and some bits showing how people lived then and how they live today. All of this was done with simultaneous four language translation (English, Chinese, Korean, and something else), though much of the actual dialogue (all pre-recorded) was done in English. And no, the whole Khmer Rouge thing wasn’t mentioned. And the Chinese members of the audience talked throughout – nearly justifying the extremely loud volume.
In the end, while I liked the village scene with live geese and people playing in the pond in front of stage, the greatest excitement of the evening was without doubt the live frog that got into the audience right in front of me, clinging desperately to a wicker chair (which is what we had instead of normal theater seats) and looking rather a lot like a spider as he moved around. I felt terrible for it and wanted to rescue it from the screaming Chinese girls sitting in front of me, but couldn’t move fast enough … it’s reappearence thirty minutes after the start of the show ended, I’m afraid, with the death of the frog.
Did I get my Apsara dance? Well, I think I got about five minutes of it, but far more demons fighting gods and human battles and general running around and the kind of thing that plays well to people who are easily bored, full, and wondering when they could call it a night (answer: five minutes before the curtain, apparently). It was beautiful to watch as a show, shallow, full of information on current day Cambodian society (if you read between the lines), and a rah rah session for Buddhist values. But it didn’t give me what I came for. I know think that for a really good dance show the $25 one advertised at Angkor Village was probably the one I should have caught, but I may never know. However, if you find yourself in Siem Reap, you at least know what kind of a show you’re going to get now, what the food is like, and that you should bring your own toilet paper. And please, be kind to any frogs you should see in the auditorium.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 6 2015.)