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Dance During the Reign of King Norodom

After King Ang Duong’s death in 1860, he was succeeded by his eldest son Norodom.  Facing a revolt led by his half-brother Prince Siwotha, the new king was forced to sign a treaty that established Cambodia as a “French Protectorate” (French gunboats were anchored outside the palace should he not sign).  And, “[i]n exchange for their assent and the return of the royal regalia, including the sacred sword, Thailand received the provinces of Angkor and Battambang from France.”[222]  The coronation of King Norodom finally took place in June 1864.

During his reign, there were accounts of three troupes of dancers in the palace.  And, in keeping with Angkorean fashion, his wives and other royal women managed these troupes by taking charge of everything from training to costuming.[223]  The dancers performed in a rong ram, a dance theater constructed inside the palace during that time.[224] 

The king, who was educated in Bangkok, was a monarch of international tastes.  “In the early years of his reign he was eclectic in support of numerous Southeast Asian musical traditions, allowing performers from Laos, Burma, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and, of course, Thailand to reside in the capital under royal favor.”[225]  Cravath notes that the king returned with musicians after his 1872 visit to Manila; that same year, a visit to Singapore saw his return with “‘Malayan coachmen’ [who resided] in Phnom Penh under his protection; the daughter of one of these eventually became a leading dancer in the royal troupe and subsequently one of the most respected teachers of princess roles.”[226]  All these artists were given access to Khmer classical dance lessons, additionally performing dances and songs from their own traditions for the entertainment of the king.

An account by Kukrit Pramoj, former Prime Minister of Thailand, references the intercultural history of the Khmer court during this time.  Pramoj detailed the story of his aunt who fled the Thai court:

“Aunt Chawiwat hired a sailing boat, put in all her household treasures, took the lakhon troupe of Chao Chorm Manda Ampa [a high-ranking court lady], which subsequently became her own, together with all its accessories and the phiphat orchestra, embarked at the nearby river in front of the palace at sundown and sailed all night.  In the early morning, reaching the mouth of the river, she looked back and saw the royal steamboat in pursuit.  Offering a prayer to a nearby wat for the success of her escape in the much slower boat, she saw the steamship break down and anchor immediately, permitting her to sail all the way to Cambodia.

When Aunt Chawiwat reached Cambodia, Norodom was the ruling king.  Norodom and Sisowath [his brother] had grown up in Thailand during the reigns of the third and fourth kings and were accustomed to the Thai court.  When she arrived, therefore, she went directly to Norodom’s palace, and, being of his station, he welcomed her . . . But Aunt Chawiwat was clever enough to have brought the lakhon of Chao Chorm Manda Ampa—the famous lakhon nai teacher—with her, which was the key that opened Cambodia to her.

In that time this lakhon was a significant thing because in the area khon, lakhon, and the nang were considered as treasures which enhanced the owner, and every country wanted to have their own.”[227]

In Pramoj’s story, the suggestion is that Cambodia’s absorption of an entire Thai dance troupe along with a phiphat orchestra and costumes are what explain the origins of the entire Khmer dance and music traditions.  He claims: “[King Norodom] accepted [his aunt] in the palace and gave her troupe the status of Cambodian lakhon nai, and authorized her as the teacher of lakhon Thai to the Cambodian court.”[228]  This belief can sometimes consciously and unconsciously manifest itself amongst some Thais today, and can be seen in the words of a prominent choreographer who once said to me in Los Angeles:

“I love to be in Cambodia.  The dancers are very good there because the spirit of the dance is very strong there.  The old teachers told me that if I wanted to see real Thai dance that I should go to Cambodia because in Thailand everything is changing.”[229]

This same choreographer would later explain before Khmer, Thai, and Indonesian dancers in Cambodia that Thai khon was a modern invention because he couldn’t find any pictures of it before the nineteenth century (never mind that modern photography was only invented in the nineteenth century).  The implication here then—one in line with Pramoj’s assertion—is that the art form originated during a time of Thai political eminence and Khmer dance is a mere derivative of Thai traditions.  I, however, quickly shared that his rationale was like saying you don’t have a mother because you have no pictures of her.  Furthermore, la Loubere had already mentioned the “Cone” centuries earlier, in 1688.  Speaking to the choreographer’s quoted words now, of course everything in Cambodia has been and is changing too.  And finally, addressing Pramoj’s story, there are simply no Khmer sources that support his claim.  In fact, we know otherwise.

First off, just prior to King Norodom, during the reign of his father, a missionary by the name of Bouillevaux noted that “in the palace of his Majesty Duong, the first of that name, there is a great deal of music and theatre; I have caught a glimpse sometimes, much in spite of myself, of his concubines who simulate battles between the ancient heroes of India.”[230]  Secondly, Sam Ang Sam and Terry E. Miller have noted that the phiphat orchestra of Thailand was once called the phinphat, thus indicating its succession from the Khmer pin peat orchestra.[231]  Although the Khmer orchestra no longer uses the pin (vina) from which it takes its name, the semblances of the modern pin peat orchestra can already be seen in the wall paintings of Angkor Wat commissioned by King Ang Chan—pre-dating Norodom’s reign for 300 years and tracing its lineage to the musicians at Angkor.

In actuality, Pramoj’s account and the words of the Thai choreographer above are reflections of a prevailing dilemma in the Thai nationalist psyche, a myth of pure “Thainess” that cannot exist alongside a sovereign Khmer polity.  So powerful is this concept that certain Thais have manipulated and fabricated their history in order to “project a ‘Thainess’ back into time immemorial.”[232]  A clear example of this is the controversial Ram Khamhaeng stele that was originally commissioned in 1282 CE.  Taking its name from the founder of the Sukhothai nation, the stele was further inscribed upon in the nineteenth century to glorify the king’s life.  Some believe that it was King Mongkut (1804 – 1868 CE), who felt the need to establish Thais as a civilized people in the face of British and French colonial power, that did this.[233]  Although the authenticity of the Ram Khamhaeng stele is hotly contested—with some calling the entire thing a nineteenth-century fabrication—what we know for sure is that other “famous and ‘traditional’” literary works officially attributed to Sukhothai are actually late Ayutthaya or early Bangkok eras in origin.[234]

Khmer arts and customs, as they are the primary foundations of Thai royal culture, have a particularly warped place in the Thai nationalist agenda.  The accounts above indicate the inherent value and authenticity accorded Khmer artistry and culture by Thais.  All the while, these accounts and the political agenda they take life from seeks to own the Khmer legacy exclusively in order to assert Thai ethnic, cultural, political, and national superiority.  This strategy to simultaneously own and erase—erasing “Khmerness” by owning it, owning “Khmerness” by erasing it—can be seen clearly in a model of Angkor Wat that was built in the Thai palace under the orders of King Mongkut and in contemporary Thai nationalist discourse, both of which I will address later.


That said, Thai contributions to Khmer dance are real and their nature is revealed most in Pramoj’s description of dancers as “treasures which enhanced the owner.”  These words hint at dance as a distinctly secular commodity, one that marked the king’s social status and strengthened his political aura.  In short, Thailand did not give to Cambodia an entire classical tradition nor an entire repertoire.  Rather, Thai influence on Khmer dance came in the form of certain works associated with secular palace entertainment.

Supporting this, and writing on the development of Khmer theater, I will quote Khmer scholar Ly Theam Theng in length from his October 1971 article published in Kambujasuriya, which I accessed in Reyum’s Cultures of Independence:

“Khmer theater has a long standing history, as do the theaters of other countries.  Our ancestors created a culture with forms of theater which they have passed down to us.  According to the dictionary, the contemporary word for theater—lakhaoun—came from the Thai word lakon which means ‘a kind of theater performing either long or short stories’ (Coedes).  The origin of the word lakhaoun might confuse us into thinking that the Khmer just began to perform theater during the era in which cultural influences from the new Kingdom of Siam began to enter our country (that is, during the [seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth] centuries CE).  But this is not really true since, before there was the word lakhaoun, we had different names for theatrical performances such as those witnessed by [Zhou Daguan] who wrote an account of his travels in 1297 CE in which he noted performances of a dance theater called aylam which seems to have evolved from our Khmer word [re ram], the narrative dance performed at the time of Khmer New Year . . . This evidence clearly shows that Khmers in the [twelfth] and [thirteenth] centuries CE already had dance troupes which performed stories, it was just that these performances were not yet named by the new word lakhaoun . . .

The word lakhaoun only began to be commonly used in the [twentieth] century, and it became particularly popular among officials, ministers, and the King.  Although ordinary people enjoyed theatrical performances, they called such events by names such as yike, apei, nang, and khaol.  These older types of theater weakened in the face of new types of theater such as lakhaoun bramothai and lakhaoun bassac which came from abroad, were strongly promoted, and thus took up roots in Cambodia.  People were attracted by the somewhat unfamiliar forms of performance designated by the new word lakhaoun, and these new forms spread quickly throughout the countryside.

The first theater troupe to put the word lakhaoun in their name was the theater troupe of the Royal Palace, established by King Norodom.  The King financially supported the dancers of the troupe, and brought teachers from Siam [Thailand] who were well versed in the gestures of dance positions as well as the methods for training, conducting rehearsals, and directing lakhaoun.  Most of these teachers had the fate of being either khun or maum, that is concubines or wives of the King.  These teachers strove to please the King through training and improving their lakhaoun troupes so that the troupes could perform during various ceremonies.  Each Royal troupe of lakhaoun, no matter their status or skill, was always looking for ways to make their performances new and different in order to yet again please the King.  The elderly of Phnom Penh, who were used to entering the palace to watch performances, had a saying: ‘Lakhaoun Khun Than is like the Trakiet flower, lakhaoun Khun Preah Niet is like the Trakuan flower, lakhaoun Maum Suon is like the Vietnamese hat baoy.’  According to Mr. Chum Huon, a person who likes all kinds of lakhaoun, both old and new kinds, the reason for this saying was because: ‘Khun Than was the favorite of the king and she had many opportunities and had beautiful dance form, thus she was like the Trakiet flower.  Khun Preah Nhiet was another favorite of the king but she came later and her dancing form was a little bit less skilled than Khun Than.  As for Maum Suon, she was of the lowest rank and didn’t have means or opportunities.  She picked the children of Chinese and Vietnamese to come and dance in her troupe.’

From this saying we could conclude that the Palace had three newly formed dance troupes at that time.  Really, however we think that dance troupes, and the form of dancing designated by the long-standing term [re ram], is a heritage of the Khmer who have had such forms since ancient times.  The lakhaoun teachers [who came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries] had learned new techniques and ways of performing in Siam [Thailand] which they introduced to Cambodia.  Their influence added elements, and inflected portions of the pol or narration.  Words used to name characters, costumes, and jewelry became Siamese so that, for example, the female character came to be called nang aik (our neang aik) while male characters came to be called nai roong (our neay roong).”[235]

Ly Theam Theng’s assertion that Khmer dance came to be “named by the new word lakhaoun” and that certain aspects of its elements “became Siamese” in name is echoed in Thai scholar Wilaiwan Khanittanan’s study of Ayutthaya’s Khmero-Thai, in which Khmer words were given to things that Thais already had words for.[236]  To complicate and illuminate things however, it is important to note that some believe that lakhaon “came from the Javanese word lakuan or lagon.”[237]  It is a form of male chant used in performances of Javanese bedhaya, is poetry of “non-specific nature, describing the beauty of the dancers, their elegant movements, and announcing the beginning of the performance.”[238]  Alternatively, it can be translated as "play" or "drama" or "act."


This complicates the history as Cambodia remained in contact with Java before, during, and after Angkor.  The Thai word nak, for example, is derived from the Old Khmer anak, which was “initially borrowed . . . from Old Javanese since the dawn of history.”[239]  Linguistic, religious, and artistic evidence for this cultural connection is further supported in the Khmer word for the gesture for prayer, sampeah, whose Javanese relative is a “solemn salutation” known as the sembah in the dance. [240]  Sampeah has been used in Cambodia since the times of Angkor (and very likely before), as even Zhou Daguan noted that “all had to kneel down and touch their head on the ground in a gesture called sanba” before King Indravarmann III.[241]  


I will not focus on whether lakhaon was introduced by way of Java or Thailand.  I will however note that if it came directly by way of Java, we must question traditional historiographies of how certain secular dance dramas took root in Cambodia.  But if it came from Java by way of Thailand—thereby supporting Ly Theam Teng’s ideas—we can tie the term to the introduction of secular theater exemplified most by the Thai work of Inao, which is derived from the Javanese drama of Panji according to Thai historical sources. 


Regardless, the Thai presence in Khmer dance history is undeniable.  Roland Meyer’s Saramani, a fictional story that feels “true even down to the characters,” mentions that dance troupes inside and outside of the palace in Phnom Penh were led by Siamese dance mistresses.[242]  These troupes, however, were never in the exact image of dance in Thailand.  As Saramani explains in her early years of training, contrary to the words of the Thai choreographer above: “I noticed that from one teacher to another the dance technique was slightly different, they each added and removed elements according to their individual visions.”[243] 

It is likely that Thai artists introduced certain melodies, dramatic conventions, and aesthetic values with secular works of theater.  But never did they bring a completely new classical dance form or dance drama form.  Nor were their contributions enough to completely subsume the tradition as there was already a long, pre-existing tradition of dance and dance drama in place at the Khmer court and throughout Cambodia.  In fact, during his time as a professor at the University of Fine Arts in the 1970s, Chheng Phon has said that “two schools of thought concerning technique developed in Cambodia, and today there are still two groups of teachers: the Thai tradition technique and the Khmer technique.”[244]

King Norodom’s reign however—although seen as the most open to Thai culture—was actually the beginning of the end.  Since the moment of his coronation, “Thai influence in Cambodia began to wane, fading even more sharply and more or less for good after King Mongkut died in 1867.”[245]  Eventually, a history of rival internal politics, Khmer nationalism and, even more so, civil war and genocide would leave Cambodia without the Thai style of dance today.  But let us look at what the differences between those two styles may have been.


[222] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 155.

[223] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 156.

[224] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 161.

[225] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 155.

[226] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 155.

[227] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 159 – 160.

[228] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 161.

[229] I have excluded the choreographer’s name out of sensitivity.  March 2009.

[230] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 148.

[231] Miller, Terry E., and Sam Ang Sam.  “The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand: A Study of Distinctions”.  Ethnomusicology, Vol. 39, No. 2. (Spring – Summer, 1995), Pages 229 - 243.

[232] Vail, Peter. “Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority”’. Asian Ethnicity, Volume 8, Number 2, June 2007, Pages 111 - 130.

[233] "Thread: Centuries-old Stone Set in Controversy." Thailand Forums RSS. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

[234] Wongthes, Mukhom.  Intellectual Might and National Myth.  Matichon Public Co., Ltd., 2003.  Page 3.

[235] Ly, Theam Theng.  “Research on Lakhaoun Khmer.”  Originally published in Kambujasuriya October 1971, republished in Cultures of Independence. Ed. Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan.  Reyum, 2001.  Pages 90 – 99.

[236] Wilaiwan Khanittanan. "Khmero-Thai: The Great Change in the History of the Thai Language of the Chao Phraya Basin." Papers from the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society. Ed. Somsonge Burusphat. 2004, Tempe, Arizona. Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 375 – 391. 

[237] Mehta, Julie B.  Dance of Life.  Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd., 2001.  Page 261.

[238] Brakel-Papenhuijzen, Clara.  The Bedhaya Court Dances of Central Java.  BRILL, 1992.  Page 103.

[239] Pou, Saveros.  Selected Papers on Khmerology.  Reyum Publishing, 2003.  Page 269.

[240] Brakel-Papenhuijzen, Clara.  The Bedhaya Court Dances of Central Java.  BRILL, 1992.  Page 104.

[241] Daguan, Zhou.  A Record of Cambodia.  Translated by Peter Harris.  Silkworm Books, 2007.  Page 83.

[242] Meyer, Roland translated by Chan Bophal.  Saramani.  Angkor Bookshop, 2005. Page 6.

[243] Meyer, Roland translated by Chan Bophal.  Saramani.  Angkor Bookshop, 2005. Page 12.

[244] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 161.

[245] Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  Westview Press, 2008.  Page 172.

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