Siem Reap is experiencing an art revival of epic proportions, with more to see than meets the eye
Endless construction lines either side of a seemingly endless highway leaving the main airport; clear signs of a burgeoning tourism industry. But while an undeniable growth is evident, a tale of two cities is taking place – Cambodian culture is being claimed, reclaimed and restored through a resurgence of classic and contemporary art forms.
The ancient city of Angkor Wat needs little introduction. But beautiful though the World Wonder may be, it (like many of its counterparts) has scars to bear; looted artefacts and defaced facades the result of waves of conflict since its erection in the 12th century.
Neighbouring city Angkor Thom suffered an altogether different fate, sandstone structures wearing after years of erosion; structures like Ta Prohm (known to many as Tomb Raider Temple) reclaimed by nature. But their resilience only serves to mirror the resilience of the Cambodian people; these cultural artefacts a symbol of national identity.
A popular cultural excursion in Siem Reap is a visit to Phare, The Cambodian Circus. Performers are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak – a non-governmental organisation in Battambang dedicated to education and the performing arts. The circus opened in Siem Reap in 2013, using a unique blend of music, dance, theatre and acrobatics to portray folklore, heritage, and modern society – Cambodian culture both past and present.
But it isn’t just the performing arts being re-contextualised for a 21st century audience. Angkor Wat ticks many a bucket list and provides a snapshot of ancient society, but Theam’s House (the private residence of artist Lim Muy Theam) is an immersive experience into dynamic Khmer culture.
Theam was among the first wave of refugees arriving in France, and among the first to return to Cambodia – a fleeting visit in 1995 rekindled a lifelong affair with the nation. The house’s many wings are dedicated to elements of Khmer history and filled with sculptures, paintings and other reflections created throughout his career.
Ly Pisith shares a similar vision. Fleeing to Thailand and later France, Pisith sought solace in the arts, experimenting with various mediums before returning to Cambodia and turning his hand to jewellery. Pisith founded Garden of Desire – a boutique jewellery brand paying homage to his heritage, from childhood fables to the flora and fauna of the surrounding countryside.
The visual arts are experiencing a resurgence of equal scale; contemporary galleries cropping up on seemingly every street corner. The latest addition to the scene is Batia Sarem, whose inaugural exhibition showcased works by acclaimed sculptor and installation artist Savey Sareth – known for his unique social commentaries.
But visitors need not travel far to experience art in its many mediums. The newly opened Treeline Hotel offers guests an immersive artistic experience. The hotel – itself a work of art – was designed by owner and architect Hok Kang, whose own installation piece takes pride of place in the courtyard. Treeline’s first exhibition, Face Forward, features pieces by Cambodian artists Sopheap Pich, Thang Sothea, Nov Chineak, Asasax and HKA & Partners.
Then there are those who have made Cambodia their home. Eric Raisina is one such individual. The Madagascar-born, Paris-trained textile designer and his eponymous couture house pride themselves on ‘Haute Texture’ – adapting and refining raw silk for its womenswear and accessories collections.
While the city’s artisans are honing their crafts in all manner of mediums, there is one common thread that unites them. The passion behind each project has aligned both international and local talents to produce art with heart, with Cambodia at its very core.