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Tradition goes airborne

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A unique museum in Phnom Penh preserves a high-flying tradition and encourages a new generation to go fly a kite

RICK VALENZUELA

Kite-maker Roeung Sareth assembles a kite on Monday at the Kite Museum in Phnom Penh.

KITE flying throughout Cambodia's history has always flourished during times of freedom and diminished during times of war," says Sim Sarak, mastermind of the one-of-a-kind National Kite Museum in Phnom Penh.

"Kite flying is all about peace and happiness," said Sim Sarak, who is also co-author of the book Khmer Kite.

"Since 1992 a small number of older people who flew kites before the civil war and still remember ways to make them have taken to making kites again."

Kites have a long and vibrant history and hold an important place in the country's culture.

"Kite flying in Cambodia dates back to 400BC when the Phnong people of the northern provinces invented the ‘khleng', or rapacious bird, an unsophisticated version of today's kite," Sim Sarak said. "In Angkorian times kites were considered as gods of the wind as they were thought to create winds when flown."

The kite-flying festival traditionally marked the end of the wet season, Sim Sarak said. Ancient Khmer kings celebrated the festival on the full moon of the first month of the Khmer calendar, which falls in November or December.

"This is the time of the year, after planting and before harvest, when the farmers could spare the time to make and fly kites," Sim Sarak said.

Sim Sarak never forgot his early fascination with kites before the Khmer Rouge put a stop to the tradition in the 1970s. "When I was nine, I used to fly kites in Kampong Cham province. My friends and I would compete with each other to see who could keep their kite in the air the longest."

Building on this childhood obsession and the wish to preserve the tradition, Sim Sarak and his wife, Cheang Yarin, created the National Kite Museum in 2003. The museum now holds a collection of 200 kites from various times and different parts of the country, as well as kites flown at national and international festivals.

Most famous is the Khleng Ek, or musical kite, equipped with a vibrating hummer that produces seven different sounds and comes in 27 distinct designs.

"The Khleng Ek is fitted with a musical bow which produces a beautiful and ‘eerie' sound when it vibrates in the wind," said Sim Sarak. "The bigger Khleng Eks have a wing span of more than four metres, and around 5 people are needed to get the kite up in the air."

Making a Khleng Ek is a difficult process which usually takes around a week. "The kite is made out of natural materials including bamboo, rattan, slek trang [leaves prepared for writing], or silk."

The nation's first kite-flying festival in 135 years was held in Phnom Penh in 1994 and brought together enthusiasts from nine provinces.  By 2007, all provinces were represented.

"This year the kite festival will be held December 6," Sim Sarak said. "Last year about a hundred competitors attended, and I am expecting a similar number of participants this year."

A location has yet to be chosen, but past festivals have been held in Hun Sen Park.

Sim Sarak hopes that Cambodia will not lose the tradition of kite flying again. "With elders passing on their knowledge, kite flying is becoming more popular among the younger generation, and I am hoping that as long as there is peace in the country the tradition will not be lost again."

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