Thanks to a popular festival and devoted local troupes, Cambodian shadow puppetry is being passed down to the next generation.
By Keith Mundy.
Every Cambodian New Year, in early or mid-April, revelers flock to a rural festival outside Phnom Penh that celebrates traditional Khmer arts. Bonn Phum (tentatively April 10–12) is a lively reinvention of the age-old temple fair, a fading New Year’s tradition as Cambodia undergoes rapid economic development and social change.
Founded by a group of university students in 2014, the affair has become a firm favorite among young Cambodians; last year’s event attracted as many as 200,000 visitors over its three-day course. Festival bunting and star-shaped lanterns festoon the grounds of a pagoda (changing each year), animated by stalls selling local handicrafts and clothing, snacks, and drinks. Visitors can join folk dances and traditional games like hitting the k’orm, akin to a piñata, while singers serenade the crowds from a series of bamboo-built stages. Previous editions have sought to blend the traditional arts with modern mediums such as film and technology, though the high point is arguably the performances of sbek thom—the ancient Cambodian shadow play using large leather puppets—by a troupe from Phnom Penh’s Sovannaphum Theatre.
As night falls, elaborate figures of gods and demons are silhouetted on a long white screen, lit from behind by an open fire. Cut from buffalo hide and fashioned with chisels, the puppets—up to 1.5 meters tall—are held up on poles by athletic young men, who then emerge in front of the screen, gesturing, prancing, and mock-fighting. Telling a story from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana epic, the actors move and mime to a narrator’s poetry and the percussive soundtrack of a traditional pinpeat orchestra.
Sbek thom originated in the royal courts of Angkor more than a millennium ago, living on after the Khmer Empire’s fall in the 15th century by touring the towns and villages of Cambodia. But the art was almost obliterated under the savage reign of the Khmer Rouge, with performers killed and puppets destroyed. Today, only three amateur ensembles carry on the tradition. Two of those are in Siem Reap, namely the Wat Bo Leather Puppet Troupe, which has its own hall in one of the city’s oldest temples, and Ty Chean’s Troupe (855-12/857-532). Viewers may balk at the cost of up to US$600 for a private 90-minute show, but considering how rare sbek thom has become, that seems a small price to pay.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Out of the Shadows”).