SIEM REAP - Cambodia's first international cultural festival in twenty-five years
was a huge success, Cambodians and expatriates agreed.
Dance groups from seven countries in the region converged on Angkor Wat for a four
day cultural extravaganza that emphasized national diversity while reinforcing a
deep trans-national cultural heritage.
Seven countries which share the tradition of the Ramayana presented dance sequences
from their national conceptions of the Indian epic on the Elephant Terrace (Angkor
Thom) and in Angkor Wat. Dance troops from India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore,
Thailand, and Cambodia participated.
The Cambodian Minister of Culture Nouth Narang eloquently argued the importance of
the festival to Cambodia and to the region.
He linked the renaissance of Cambodia's culture to political and social reconciliation
in Cambodia, and, the trans-national cultural sharing that lay at the heart of the
festival, to peace in the region.
"I strongly believe that cultural re-birth in Cambodia is the means by which
all Cambodians can be brought together," Narang told reporters before the festival.
"Cambodian culture was heavily wounded for twenty-five years; it is now starting
"This festival is no contest. It is no challenge. It is an exchange of differences.
In the region we have to take care of our cultural identity. We need to preserve
our uniqueness. But by exchanging our heritage we can maintain peace in the region,"
"Whatever its name, Ram Lila, Sri Rama, Reamker, Ramakien, or another name ...
the Ramayana is the expression of a common culture throughout South and South-East
Asian countries," Narang told the guests and dignitaries the first night of
the festival as dancers from all the countries were presented to the First Prime
Minister and his entourage, which included Princess Marie.
Responses from Cambodians and foreign tourists alike were positive. Samnang, an English
speaking moto-driver who made quite a bit of money over the four day New Year week-end
ferrying tourists to and from Siem Riep said: "This is good for Cambodia. We
have international standing because so many countries came to Angkor to participate."
A pair of tourists from Germany said the dances were "fantastic." Hans
and Julianne Müller of Hannover attended the afternoon public dances at the
They said that they were struck by the intensity with which the Cambodian people
listened to the music and followed the dancers.
"We never saw a more disciplined, quiet audience in our lives."
If there was a sour note at all it had to do with the organization of the staging.
But complaints came from expatriates, not from Cambodians.
Neither in the daylight performances at the Elephant Terrace, nor in the evening
perfomance inside Angkor Wat did the staging make viewing easy.
This was particularly true at the Elephant Terrace where 150 folding chairs had been
set up at $5 a ticket, and roped off areas to the left and right of these seats constrained
those without tickets.
All seating faced to the west, and at 4 to 5 p.m., the crowd had to peer throught
the dazzle of the sinking sun to view the dancers on an enclosed raised platform
to their front. Viewing was made more difficult because of the height of the platform,
and from the crowd's location the dancers could generally only be seen from waist-up.
Further, because the stage was partially enclosed and relatively dark many of the
movements of the dancers were difficult or impossible to see.
The night performances at Angkor Wat were even more private. Even on the first night,
when security was relatively lax, the vast majority of those who entered the temple
saw very little. But that night, and in the presence of Prince Ranariddh in the 300
seat viewing stand, Cambodian people were allowed quite close to the stage area.
In contrast, on the last night of the performance, when the Second Prime Minister
Hun Sen replaced the expected King to close the ceremonies, security was extremely
stringent, entrance was by invitation only ($10 tickets were not sold as they had
been for previous performances) and the crowd that entered the temple were kept at
a much greater distance than before. Viewing anything for them was impossible.
As one western photographer put it, "This was organized by someone who has little
conception of mass participation or of creating the possibility for good press coverage.
It is impossible to get a good picture, and I don't think there are many Cambodians
who can see what is going on. There is a feeling of elitism about this."
But comments like these were in the minority. The Cambodians to whom I talked enjoyed
themselves. It was a festival, there were fire-works and crowds and some excitement.
They said that they did not mind paying 500 riel to enter the Angkor park (organized,
policemen told me by Lok-Kiet, which I took to be the Governor of the Province),
and the 1000 riel that it cost to park their motor-bikes. They liked the music, the
dances, the extravagant costumes, and they said that they liked the idea that it
was Cambodia who was the host.
In Siem Riep guest houses raised their prices, and moto-taxis and temple guides did
The stadium area just outside town hosted a night market, where the biggest attraction
was pay-by-the-song dances in rope corrals.
Four dance "corrals" filled the night air with Cambodian and American music
at full volume. New Year's was celebrated with an extravagant fire-works display,
while a New Year's Evening Ball was hosted by the Grand Hotel.
The four day festival was opened on Friday night, January 29.
King Norodom Sihanouk had been scheduled to open it, and Prince Norodom Ranariddh,
the First Prime Minister was to close it.
However, the First Prime Minister came in the King's place, and in spite of information
made public by Ministry of Culture officials in Siem Riep that the King would close
the festival, the Samdech Hun Sen, Second Prime Minister, did instead.
Some expatriates at the festival speculated that the switch was simply a security
precaution, violence would be unlikely if the King was likely to be present.
Others speculated that it was simply indicative of the shifts in power in Phnom Penh.
One expatriate resident of Siem Reap (who asked not to be named) remarked: "You
know what's great about this? This is Khmer culture. This isn't the f****** French
promoting cultural hegemony. This isn't some f****** American evangelist telling
the Cambodians that what they are missing is the real truth, which only he can give
them. Here you have Cambodians celebrating something that is important to them and
deeply rooted in their own unique culture. And I say, more power to them!"