Sim Sarak fell in love with kites as a boy wandering the rice fields of Kampong Cham
with a simple, little, diamond-shaped creation, watching as the grown-ups flew magnificent
two-meter-long musical kites in the cool of the evening.
Half a century later, Sarak has become custodian of an ancient tradition, and together
with his kite-loving wife, staff at the Phnom Penh kite museum and international
enthusiasts, he is preparing to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Khmer Kite
For Sarak, the flying of kites is more than just a fun way to spend a windy day.
He sees kites as symbols of peace and freedom and says the popularity of kite flying
in Cambodia has always run parallel to the kingdom's history.
"When Cambodia was in war, in turmoil, no people fly kites," said Sarak,
now director of general administration at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
Sarak's wife, Cheang Yarin, calls him the "father of the Khmer kite", but
it is definitely a team effort, with Yarin calling out dates, names and English translations
when Sarak's narrative falters. The couple co-authored Khmer Kites, published in
English last year.
Cambodia has 27 kinds of kites, says Yarin, as she walks between displays at the
Khmer Kite Museum, opposite the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh. She points out
the monkey fighting kite and the giant fighting kite, and explains that they usually
take to the sky together, acting out a scene from the epic poem, Reamker.
But the most impressive is the kleng ek, fitted with a musical bow that catches the
wind and can make up to seven tones.
It is the kleng ek that steals the glory at kite shows around the world, such as
the Dieppe International Kite Festival in France, which attracts 400,000 kite fans
every two years, or the exhibition in Cervia, Italy, where the kleng ek featured
on the promotion poster in May this year.
Each of the musical kites takes up to five days to construct from tear-resistant
rice paper, rattan and bamboo that is soaked for a month to protect it from insects.
Generally, it is older men who make the large kites for young people to fly at night,
after the rainy season has ended, says Sarak.
The history of kite flying in Cambodia is entwined with the cultural shifts, territorial
battles and fluctuating agricultural prosperity of the kingdom, says Sarak, dating
as far back as 400 BC when the kleng ek style of kite is thought to have been invented
by the Phnong people of the northern provinces.
In those times, kites were flown at the start of the rainy season as an invocation
to the spirits to provide rain for crops.
Over the next 24 centuries, kite flying would wane when Cambodia was under attack
and wax in times of peace and bounty. The symbolism of kites and their rituals changed
slightly with each revival to reflect the cultural influence of the ruling king.
It was under the legendary 'builder king' Ang Duong in the nineteenth century that
kite festivals became an annual celebration. Buddhist monks would chant protective
prayers at all five lantern-lit halls of the ancient capital of Udong and the people
would hope for good weather and crops.
The festival tradition died with King Ang Duong in 1859, but kite flying remained
popular among rural Cambodians and flourished under former King Norodom Sihanouk
in the 1950s and 1960s.
The civil war and Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s crushed this playful spirit, and while
kite-making skills were not forgotten by the surviving elders, Sim Sarak says people
were afraid of wandering in land-mined fields for years after the fighting ended.
The resurgence of an annual kite flying festival in Cambodia is a testament to the
efforts of Sarak, his wife and the few kite enthusiasts who survived the grimmest
chapters of Khmer history.
As Sarak puts it: "The revival of kleng ek explains that our motherland of Cambodia
is living in peace and tastes a happiness."
The Phnom Penh Kite Festival will be held on December 11 and 12 at Hun Sen Park.
The Khmer Kite Museum is open weekdays 8 to11a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m., with free admission.