Hello Madame ! Welcome to Cambodia, Madame ! Upon our arrival in Siem Reap, our guide greets us with a genuine smile. A smile that shoots directly in our hearts. A smile that we have seen over and over again throughout our trip in Cambodia: on the airplane, at the local market, or in the jungle. That same smile worn by many female sculptures carved on the walls of the Angkor temples. Sculptures that are commonly called Apsaras or Devatas.
Right on our first day in Siem Reap, we both fell under the spell of the Apsara’s and Devatas’s smile. Amid the splendors of urban and jungle temples, like silent sentinels, they greeted us with their sensuous smile – a smile carved with elegance and care.
In the Hindu and Buddhist mythology, a Devata is a symbol that represents different things in different forms of knowledge, commonly translated as “goddesses”, whereas Apsaras are known as celestial nymphs or maidens. In Cambodia, these female figures are mostly depicted on the pillars and walls of the Angkorian temples, which flourished between the 9th and 15th century.
In fact, they are omnipresent in Angkor: wandering around the ruins in the jungle, we couldn’t help but be mesmerized by their elegance and magnitude. If these ladies are not dominating the whole structure, they will appear as tiny illustrations in the upper or lower corner. There is no spot untouched by their refined grace.
If Devatas are depicted in a more formal manner (standing still and facing forward as if they were the temple’s guardians), Apsaras are often pictured as youthful, elegant, and superb dancers, adorned with golden headdresses and silken tunics and skirts.
Legend has it that they are the most beautiful female beings, born in the Ocean of Milk, an elixir churned for thousands of years by the Devas (gods or benevolent spirits) and the Asuras (demons). In the middle of the 20th century, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia created the “Dance of the Apsara Divinities”, featuring professional female dancers who narrate religious stories with codified graceful and sinuous ballet-like gestures. Nowadays, this Khmer classical dance is performed in many places.
As we stroll through the Angkor temples and contemplate the thousands of Apsaras and Devats, we wonder what role women actually played in the Khmer Empire. According to recent studies, they were important contributors to the Khmer culture, and were very much respected by men. Exactly what roles women played in shaping Khmer society is however still largely unknown. But some scholars have suggested that women were politically, socially, spiritually and economically empowered in the Khmer Empire. As non-experts in this field, we could not help but notice that female representations became more prominent the deeper we penetrated into the temple complex, and even more so as we made it to the tops of the highest towers.
When we reached the heart of Angkor Wat, we also reached the heart of our reflection on the image of the Asian woman.
Who hasn’t heard of Geisha Girl, China Doll, Lotus Flower, Prostitute and Mail-order Brides? All of them are sexually connoted. And not only men, but also Western women sometimes like to believe that Asian women are nothing but docile housewives and/or dangerous sex toys. But guess what: that’s a fiction. Nothing but a Western projection on the female as an object of desire. An exotic illusion, a colonialist approach, a fetish.
Throughout our trip in Cambodia, we’ve seen tourists, may it be Westerners or Chinese, treating young and beautiful Khmer women as if they were hookers. But these women did not respond with rage. They all kept wearing this wonderfully authentic smile. Why ? Are they really submissive? Could they be timid, passive or docile? Or may it be that they just ignore the Western fetishism, because in their eyes it has no credit?
We like to believe that Khmer women are above all that. They know their value, and their power. And that’s exactly what their smile is: a sign of strength, and of resilience. In spite of decades of civil war, terrors and multiple hardships, and maybe even because of these atrocities, Cambodians continue to smile. They smile the way we forgot to smile: not just their lips, their eyes smile too.
A smile is a powerful gift. It is also one of the most underrated gifts in the world. Think about it: the only thing more powerful than a person offering a smile is two persons smiling at each other. It is the greatest communication tool. It is free, but means the whole world.