Apsara at Theam’s House. Photo credit: Karen Kao

An apsara is a female spirit of the clouds and water. You can find their images in both Hindu and Buddhist temples. In Khmer, the language of Cambodia, you call them tep apsar (ទេពអប្សរ). Apsara appear in paintings, bas-relief and in three-dimensional sculpture.

Angkor Wat is rich in apsara. The complex spans an area of some 400 acres, the largest religious site in the world. It is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, Buddhists and the Cambodian people to celebrate their rich Khmer heritage.

Apsara are always young, elegant and full-breasted. They are associated with fertility. An apsara dances to pleasure the gods and sometimes to do their bidding. In that sense, you could call an apsara an angel.

Modern Apsara

We’ve come to Siem Reap to see the temples. Instead, we meet angels. Take, for example, the Ponheary Ly family. They own the Seven Candles Guesthouse, where we’re staying, as well as operate a foundation whose slogan is: school is the answer. Their goal is to get kids selling postcards off the streets and into the classroom.

Ammo earrings
My AMMO earrings. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Down the street is the social enterprise AMMO. They buy bullets to create jewelry. Founder Madeline Green tells us that her long term goal is to train her jewelers — in design, production, pricing and marketing — so that they can create sustainable businesses of their own.

Across town, we spend an evening at the Phare circus, the Cambodian answer to Cirque du Soleil. Phare is a social enterprise that uses visual arts, music, dance and circus training to give young rural Cambodians the chance to build a decent life as artists. It’s a truly Cambodian answer to real life problems.

It was believed that the Apsaras descended from heaven in order to entertain the gods or the kings with their beautiful dance, and thus originated the Apsara Dance.

Vanly Keomuda for Voices of Youth Cambodia, “Apsara Dance: The pride and joy of Cambodia” in Medium, 16 Oct 2017

Year One

So, what are these problems? Poverty, illiteracy, lack of infrastructure and, above all, brain drain. The cause of all these evils lies in the killing fields.

On 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. They emptied the cities and declared the start of a new agrarian paradise: Year Zero. Oum Sophany was sent to the countryside from Phnom Penh.

When Sophany and her family finally arrived at the Base Camp in Takeo Province, they were labeled as “New People”—city dwellers who were new to the farms. The New People lived together in a basic coconut-leaf-wall structure, with no beds, furniture, or toilet. They were separated from the “Base People,” who were rural and considered by the Khmer Rouge to be superior.

Laura Jean McKay, “The Keeper: Oum Sophany” in Cambodia: Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond, Words without Borders, November 2015

To wear eyeglasses or speak a foreign language, to own paper and pens, let alone actually use them to write: these were grounds for execution. Sophany kept a diary anyway. When the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled, prosecutors used her diary as evidence of their crimes against humanity.

But the legacy of the Khmer Rouge lives on. In the loss of 2 million lives over the course of the civil war, the regime, and its ultimate overthrow. In the form of land mines planted all over Cambodia and the unexploded ordnance left behind by US carpet bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Land mines continue to explode today, killing or maiming primarily children.


The Khmer people can use all the help they can get. This perhaps explains the plethora of NGOs active in Cambodia. Yet some, like Maddy Green of AMMO, would argue that NGOs are part of the problem. An NGO takes over a task that properly belongs to the government, thus obviating any need for the government to step up to the plate.

Robyn Davidson wrote a searing indictment of the harm NGOs can do to a local economy. And while Davidson was writing about the aboriginal peoples of Australia, her Granta essay “Marrying Eddie” seems equally applicable to Cambodia.

An NGO requires local staff capable, say, of working with a computer or speaking English. They pay a decent wage, ie far higher than any local business or government could afford. Prices go up. The local English high school teacher abandons his students, depriving a generation of the skills they need. When the NGOs leave town, the local economy collapses.

Maddy Green and the folks behind Phare seem to believe that social enterprises are the answer. A social enterprise strives toward the so-called double (or triple) return on investment, ie sustainable profitability and achieving one or more social goals.

Citadel of Women

The Cambodian social enterprises I’ve run into are all run by women. Many more focus their efforts on enabling women to practice, say, traditional Cambodian handcrafts for a decent wage. Perhaps this reflects a social structure in which the matriarch plays a pivotal role. Or maybe this is yet another instance of the damage done by the Khmer Rouge.

The earliest recorded writing in Cambodia dates back to the 5th century. In the 1930s, the first Khmer novel appeared.

A new Khmer term was invented for the novel, pralomlok, which means a story that is written to seduce the hearts of human beings.

Sharon May, “Cambodian Literature: From Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond”, Words without Borders

The Khmer Rouge banned religion, literature and art. They turned the National Library into a pig farm and Buddhist monasteries, the traditional repositories for learning, into prisons. It’s astounding, really, that any of Angkor Wat temples still stand.

Banteay Srei is one them: the Citadel of Women. Its stone carvings are among the finest in the world. The apsara here smile from their columns and lintels. Their arms wave gracefully and their hands dictate a message that has survived the ages.

Every single movement of the fingers denote a particular meaning that describe the process of a blossoming flower.

Vanly Keomuda
Apsara hands
Apsara hands at Theam’s House. Photo credit: Karen Kao