It may be world-famous for its Angkor Wat temples, but Siem Reap is now about so much more than ancient history.
Millions of travelers head to Siem Reap each year to visit Angkor Wat, the spectacular 12th-century tribute to the Khmer empire. However, if you do nothing but shuttle between that UNESCO World Heritage site and your hotel, you’d be doing yourself a disservice.
Decades have passed since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and now a new generation is reexamining its heritage and modern identity. “After a 30-year artistic and cultural vacuum where Cambodians were more concerned about food than an interest in aesthetics, there’s now been a renaissance in all artistic fields,” says Lim Muy Theam, the artist and proprietor behind the multi-purpose Theam’s House gallery space in Siem Reap.
That city is now home to a thriving arts scene, one that pays homage to and draws inspiration from its Khmer roots while empowering young creatives to elevate contemporary Cambodian art through paintings, ceramics, fashion, and more.
A legacy of art
“Art and culture were entwined with the Khmer [the country’s dominant ethnic group] for millennia,” says Lim. “The pre-Angkor kingdoms of Funan and Chenla and then the Angkorian empire, [which spanned from] the 7th to the 13th century, have left major artistic and architectural footprints all over Southeast Asia.”
At Angkor Wat, elaborate, floor-to-ceiling friezes depicting religious and mythical scenes wrap around entire structures. Painstaking details adorn stone window columns and serpentine staircase railings. And five years ago, digital analysis revealed the presence of hundreds of previously undiscovered paintings in the temple. “The arts represent the identity of this country,” says Maddy Lim, who helps run Theam’s House with her brother.
After the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, the country experienced another artistic golden age. “In the 1950s and ’60s, Cambodia experienced a revival of artistic expression that manifested in the planning of the capital Phnom Penh, thanks to the pioneering architect Vann Molyvann but also in the fields of music, dance, film, and art,” Lim explains. Molyvann, whose style was dubbed “New Khmer” and combined inspiration from Cambodian spirituality and modernism, spent a decade as the state’s chief architect.
“The artistic and cultural dynamics of the time were stopped abruptly by the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in the ’70s,” says Lim. The brutal, nationalist movement was responsible for the death of more than two million Cambodians in only a few years, by execution, starvation, and forced labor. Ancient structures were damaged in battles, some temples were purposefully destroyed, and widespread looting lead to the loss of many invaluable artifacts.
A creative renaissance
Lim and his sister fled the country as refugees of the Khmer Rouge; now that they’ve returned, they take great pride in nurturing young Cambodian artists and celebrating the Cambodian way of life. “He wants to show Khmer people to be proud of their culture, and Theam’s House is a short immersion into that, the forgotten category of modern Cambodia,” Maddy Lim says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area around Angkor Wat is at the heart of this resurgence. “Siem Reap is surrounded by unique energy from the temples, something that everyone can embrace and use to get inspired to create a magical atmosphere in art, handicrafts, textile, fashion, and decoration,” says Eric Raisina, a Madagascar-born, Paris-trained fashion designer who has called Siem Reap home for the past decade and a half.
“Siem Reap is the place in Cambodia for both emerging and established artists to show their work, as young, emerging artists know that it’s where visitors from all over the world come,” says Robina Hanley, owner of Siem Reap Art Tours, which leads guests on art crawls to the city’s buzzing galleries and artistic hot spots.
There are a number of prominent, young standouts on the scene. Maddy Lim points to photographer Kim Hak, whose stunning images have been on display across the country and around the world. Born shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he seeks to raise awareness of Cambodia’s past and its social history.
Another name to know is Nou Sary, a multi-disciplinary Khmer artist who works with painting, photography, and sculpture to celebrate Cambodian culture. From a family of farmers, he’s particularly inspired by nature and agriculture, as depicted in his “Harvest” series of acrylic paintings.
Hanley notes Kek Soon, a female woodcut artist from the southern Cambodia town of Kampot. Not only is woodcutting uncommon in the Cambodian arts scene, but Soon also showcases a fresh perspective. “From women workers in fishing and farming communities to the lady who sells her fish in the market, Soon’s keen perception reveals a curious and often comical view of life in and around Cambodia’s tranquil but fast-developing coastal province,” Hanley says.
And some major players started as visitors to Siem Reap, such as Raisina himself. “Siem Reap is definitely an art scene destination for curious visitors who appreciate galleries, workshops, ateliers, and shops from both Cambodian and the expat communities,” he says.
Lim and Raisina have also both made a concerted effort to foster the artistic capabilities of the next generation. Theam’s House employs dozens of craftsmen in the creation of pottery and sculptures, and when Raisina built his workshop in Siem Reap in 2004, he knew that the lack of art schools meant he’d need to train local workers to handle sewing, weaving, crochet, and embroidery. Providing this kind of professional development became one of the most rewarding parts of his career.
More ways to experience this new wave
Hanley’s Siem Reap Art Tours stops at One Eleven Gallery, an art space, cocktail bar, and artists’ hangout that Hanley runs. The gallery features Cambodian artists such as Nou Sary and Kek Soon, as well as the Belgian painter Christian Develter. The expat is well known for his “Chin” series, which depicts the unique facial tattoos of the women of Myanmar’s northwestern hill tribes, and he has become an enthusiastic supporter of the local Cambodian arts scene. His private studio and residence, Studio WARP, was constructed by a French Khmer architect and inspired in part by Phnom Penh’s Central Market. (Select hotels and tour operators can arrange a visit to this space, which is closed to the public.)
Several leading travel companies that operate in the region also offer specialized or custom local art tours. “We have more and more requests for art to be included in a tour of Siem Reap,” says Andrea Ross, managing director of the tour operator Wild Frontiers. Ross’s current personal favorite stop is the Ammo Jewellery Workshop, an offshoot of the long-running social enterprise Saomao, which trains artisans in the creation of silks as well as jewelry made from spent bullets and bomb casings. Visitors can take a DIY jewelry class; employee-students receive ongoing instruction in jewelry craftsmanship and are able to showcase their own designs.
The Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Centre is a workshop and a gallery that focuses on reviving high-fire ceramics, a craft the Khmer empire was known for during its height. The center offers pottery classes, guided tours, and demos to visitors, while employees receive in-depth training on the history and production of ceramics, pottery, and porcelain. All of the profits are reinvested into the project, which works to empower disadvantaged and underprivileged women and children in the community.
Eric Raisina’s Couture House is open to the public, and his work there revolves around a fascination with Cambodian silk that he first discovered during his studies in Paris. “It’s been 17 years and I still feel very inspired about this magic city,” he says.
Your choice of accommodation can also add an artistic flair to your stay in Siem Reap. The Treeline Hotel currently houses an exhibit (until June 30) on the aforementioned late Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, along with art by Cambodian artists such as Sopheap Pich and Sothea Thang, hand-picked by the property’s owner, Hok Kang, an architect himself. Jaya House River Park displays over 400 paintings highlighting Cambodia’s golden era across the property’s 36 gorgeous rooms. The art includes a selection commissioned by the Small Art School Siem Reap, a program providing free arts education to underprivileged Khmer children. The hotel’s managing director Christian De Boer also created the Made in Cambodia Market, a public market in Siem Reap that showcases locally made art and handicrafts, including jewelry, silk scarves, clothing, bags, and paintings.
>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Siem Reap