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Children’s giant puppets set to light up streets once again

Hundreds of children are hard at work with paper, rattan and LED lights to put on another spectacular show in Siem Reap’s streets

In a not-so-quiet corner of the leafy grounds of Siem Reap’s Wat Damnak, young Cambodian artists from Battambang and foreign volunteers are teaching children to make rattan and bamboo skeletal frames.

The youngsters, from the Human and Hope Association School, will create enormous animal puppets that will snake through Siem Reap’s streets on the night of Saturday, February 21, for the ninth Giant Puppet Project Street Parade.

The lanterns are lit with LED lights.
The lanterns are lit with LED lights. Terence Carter

There is chatter, laughter, giggles, and every now and again enthusiastic shouts of “Zip!” “Zap!” “Boing!” the loud calls of a motivational game created by British artist Jig Cochrane, who founded the Giant Puppet Project with Siem Reap-based architect Stuart Cochlin.

An artist who has worked with communities affected by war and poverty, Cochrane was passing through Siem Reap in 2007, seeking opportunities to run puppet-making workshops for children. Cochlin, who has a long-standing relationship with NGOs, believed that the workshops wouldn’t be enough and that children should have a public space to celebrate their creative achievements. The Giant Puppet Project Street Parade was born. 

This year there are 500 children involved in the project from NGOs including Salariin Kampuchea, Kaliyan Mith (Friends International), Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC), Helping Hands Cambodia, Husk, Cambodian Land Mine Museum Relief Fund (CLMMF), Stepping Stones, This Life Cambodia, ABCs and Rice, Learning Foundation, Kruasar Thmey, Together for Cambodia, and the Human and Hope Association.

Each group of children collaborate on the puppets over four morning and afternoon sessions spread over two days during the first week of the project, under the guidance of 16 Cambodian artists and art students from Battambang’s Phare Ponleu Selpak visual arts school, assisted by 11 foreign volunteers. In the second week, the artists and volunteers will work with Lucy Gaskill, a lighting designer from Cornwall, and fellow British artist-designer Martin Matthews, to complete the technical aspects, including rigging lights to illuminate the puppets.

Gaskill had worked with Matthews for a decade at Cornwall’s Eden Project, an environmental tourist attraction with a rainforest that attracts 1.2 million visitors a year, where they designed fun, interactive exhibits to engage visitors, along with events. Gaskill had been looking for a project to volunteer on for years when she met Matthews, who had been to Siem Reap and told her about the Giant Puppet Project.

“This was something that I had wanted to do for a long time without finding the right project,” she explains.

“When I was in my twenties, I did some travelling in Africa, starting in Egypt and went down through Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia to Kenya in four-wheel-drive vehicles … every time we showed up in little villages, I felt like we were a circus rocking up to town. We were a major event, but we weren’t actually bringing an event to a place where nothing actually happens.”

“For 20 years, I’ve been working on events in the UK, where you struggle to get people to care, to really want to do it and be passionate about it, because there are just so many events happening and so many opportunities,”
Gaskill elaborates.

A sketch of one of the giant lanterns.
A sketch of one of the giant lanterns. Terence Carter

“I felt like it was much more meaningful to work with people who have fewer opportunities to do something. When I looked at the Giant Puppet Project website, I thought that sounds just gorgeous. Here I am.”

Gaskill is here to use her lighting expertise to better illuminate the puppets as well as improve the safety of the event and make it more eco-friendly. The puppets had been illuminated by light bulbs fixed inside and cheap fairy lights strung around the outside, with power provided by car batteries and inverters that converted the voltage up to 220/240 volts. It was risky in that there was a high chance of electric shocks or fire, as well as being energy inefficient. Gaskill got rid of the dangerous inverters and introduced safe 12-volt batteries and LED products that use a lot less power. 

“It’s the first time that we’ve all worked together as a team – although many people are returning from last year – so we couldn’t have been more happy with the way it’s already turning out,” Matthews smiles proudly. “I find the expression of art in the community to be really healing and empowering. Art is magic and it can create magic however you define it. The energy that all of these young hands put into the puppets makes it something really special.”

The groups are beginning to wind up for the afternoon. An Oriental bay owl lying on the lawn is almost done, and its orange and gold body shimmers in the late afternoon light. By the weekend they will have completed the bodies of seven giant puppets, including a leaf insect, a goat to celebrate Chinese New Year and Mekong river fish. The puppets are animals because the environmental message is an integral element of the event.

Yon Tony, a Cambodian biodiversity specialist, was responsible for a biodiversity survey at Kulen Mountain, which confirmed that wildlife there is endangered due to illegal logging and land clearing for farming and hunting.

Tony is training local farmers to work in eco-tourism so the additional income discourages them from engaging in behaviour that threatens the flora and fauna.

With only a week to go, the children are hard at work.
With only a week to go, the children are hard at work. Terence Carter

“I tell the children about the wildlife, what the animals are, and how they live,” Yon explains. “The children don’t know anything about wildlife and they don’t have a chance to see those kinds of animals. But wildlife and forests are really important for Cambodia, for the world, and for humanity, so I tell them we need to protect the animals and that this is a chance for us to get these messages across to the people.”

A group of small children is working on the rattan body of an animal. Tony asks them how they are. “Happy!” they shout in unison. Are they excited about the parade, he asks?

“It will be beautiful,” says 12-year-old Savit, smiling.

The parade starts at 7pm on Saturday, February 21, on the corner near Viva and the former Warehouse Bar, passes Old Market on its way to Pub Street and then crosses the river and snakes along River Road, arriving at the Royal Gardens by 8pm, where a children’s carnival will take place.

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