Nightly light and dance show hopes to bring more people to temple.
Performers bring the ancient Angkorian courts to life at the Angkor Wat Night Festival.
When the president of the Executive Council of UNESCO, Benin's Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yai, strolled across the causeway at Angkor Wat on Sunday evening, dressed in traditional African garb and accompanied by Cambodia's deputy prime minister and other high-level officials, he walked into a ferocious battle being fought by Angkorian warriors.
His walk on the wild side was a promenade into the past, represented by actors reliving the glory days of ancient Angkor during the reign of King Suryavaram II, as part of the Angkor Wat Night Festival, a cultural entertainment extravaganza that is now a nightly fixture within the hallowed precincts of the famous temple.
The show, staged by the Sou Ching Group in conjunction with Apsara and with the blessing of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, is massive - moving across the interior of Angkor Wat each night and culminating in a traditional dance show held on a stage with light gantries that have been permanently erected deep in the heart of the temple grounds.
About 250 employees now turn up each evening to stage the show, including more than 150 dancers and circus and martial arts performers, 45 night lighting technicians and engineers, and another 50 support staff.
The entire temple interior is lit up and wired for sound, with a dining area near the stage providing a five-course Khmer dinner for pre-booked guests.
On Sunday night, 85 VIP guests dined in the temple, including high-level officials from the government and UNESCO, in Siem Reap to investigate whether more temples should be earmarked for listing as World Heritage sites.
Unesco's presence at the function signals the organisation's green light to the nightly temple event. And, despite the fact that the show could be viewed as a commercial intrusion into the sacred temple that could make preservation purists balk, there has been no resistance to this development, organisers said.
"There has been no controversy over the show, absolutely none," said Jamie Rossiter, director of marketing for the Sou Ching Group Co Ltd.
Rossiter said Sou Ching launched the show, which had been in planning for more than six months, on February 9 amid a carnival atmosphere, with free admission for Cambodians for the first fortnight. Admission fees are now US$15 for foreigners and $3 for Cambodians.
"We had 600 to 700 people turning up when it was free. We were absolutely chocker around that stage area, and the people seemed to really enjoy it," Rossiter said.
"All the food vendors were turning up, which became a problem because at the end of the night there was food everywhere. Our lighting crew was spending an hour-and-a-half every night just cleaning up because it's a temple and we have to leave it in pristine condition. All the lights, all the equipment, gets packed away every night and then put out again. The stage is a permanent fixture, but everything else is taken away each night."
The show was scripted by Rossiter and a New York producer, Mark Rowley, and is loosely based on accounts written by Chinese ambassador Zhou Daguan after his visit to Angkor during the reign of its builder, King Suryavarman II, who ruled from AD 1113 to 1150.
"UNESCO approved the script and they suggested that stage area," Rossiter said.
The dancers' costumes were supplied by the Ministry of Culture.
"We worked together on designing the costumes, drawing on the reliefs around Angkor Wat, but of course they show no colour," Rossiter said.
"The ministry then made the costumes in colour on our behalf. Several choreographers came in and hired their own dancers over a six-month period."
Area residents were hired as warriors for the fighting scenes and trained by a circus performer and a Khmer martial arts Grand Master. "A performer from the circus in Battambang taught the men how to do things like back flips," Rossiter said.
Bokator Grand Master San Kim Sean was recruited to train the men. Bokator is an ancient Khmer martial art, the predecessor of pradal serey, which is now known as Muay Thai.
Rossiter said the creation of a nightly show at Angkor Wat is the result of encouragement the Sou Ching Company received about two years ago directly from Prime Minister Hun Sen's offices to ramp up visitor activity at the temple.
"Apsara, UNESCO and the government together said we need to use the temple more, we need visitors to be visiting more and enjoying it more, that there is more we can be doing with these temples.
"We were approached two years ago by the prime minister's office, and we then did the night lighting of Angkor Wat, which was successful. We then wanted to expand on that. We thought there is still more we can do. We can create another experience involving Angkor Wat," he said.
Sou Ching Electronic began advertising Night Lighting tours of Angkor last year, after a November 28, 2006, decree from the government granting the Siem Reap-based company the right to distribute electricity to several zones, including the temple zone.
This followed agreements between Eletricite du Cambodge and the Apsara Authority that came in 2006. The decree listed Va Chouda as one of three registered owners of the company. Va Chouda is now a director and CEO of Sou Ching, which is named after his daughter.
Rossiter said the extension of the original night light tour, the Angkor Wat Night Festival, is "essentially Va Chouda's project and he's overseen the whole thing".
"It was his personal connections that got the Grand Master involved, and with his connections to the Ministry of Culture, he's a driving force behind the show".