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Puppet Power


Anyone who jetted into Siem Reap last weekend would be forgiven for thinking the plane had taken a detour. Temple Town took on more of a Rio or New Orleans vibe. The Mardi Gras atmosphere was in the air as hundreds of little kids, and a few big ones too, took to the streets for the annual Giant Puppet Parade.

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This year, as promised, the creations, were bigger, better and brighter, as hoards of revellers made their way through town along-side giant Bokator fighters, assorted Bengal Floricans and all manner of massive beasts: from an elephant to a freakishly life-like pangolin. Not only were the puppets beautifully constructed but they were rather opposable too: wings flapped, heads swayed, trunks were raised and eyes were blinked. And there were also some sound effects littered throughout for good measure.

There was added rhythm this year supplied by the Cambodian Scout Band, which gave the parade a whole new carnival element with its musical marches.

But most of the noise was created by the real stars, the 500-plus paraders who injected the life into the papier mache puppets. Parades around the world could do with a Siem Reap makeover – St Patrick’s Day and Macy’s ain’t got nothing on the energy of the Giant Puppets and little ones driving them along.

Being Irish, I’m well versed in parading. Though this year’s fix came earlier than March 17, I figured the drill would be the same. Elbows at dawn to catch the best view, spectators 20-deep, people hanging off ladders and out of lampposts, crowded balconies for those seeking the best vantage. I had been told the whole town turns out to watch.

With this in mind I got to Chilli Si Dang at 5.30pm for the 7pm start, thinking I was too late and the best seats upstairs would be taken. But in typical Cambo style, spectators appeared about 30 seconds ahead of the parade itself. In fact, many ended up walking with it, not wanting to miss any of the action, from Pub Street to the Royal Gardens. My over-eagerness to get to the pub and to the best seats, made me realise Cambodians don’t do parades like the rest of the world.

The budget may be smaller but the results are just as huge, with 500-plus spirited under-agers, many from the most challenging of backgrounds, jumping, screaming and waving like they were at a Justin Bieber gig. It’s quite the spectacle. Add that to tuk-tuks decked out like flower-pots, adults dressed like fairies, and of course the super-sized, glow-in-the-dark, all singing, all dancing puppets, and you have yourself quite the show.

Organisers, who include project director Stuart Cochlin, artistic director Jig Cochrane, and Bina Hanley on fundraising and marketing, were deservedly chuffed.

“The parade was a tremendous success. We are delighted that it is now widely embraced by the local community,” said Stuart. “This is exactly what we hoped for when we founded the project six years ago.”

Despite there being no fisticuffs over spectator rights (unheard of where I come from), Stuart said the turnout was the largest yet.

“By far the biggest turnout since the projects inception in 2007. The entire parade route was filled with spectators. It has been estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 people turned out to cheer on the parade.”

We may not have the music of New Orleans, the costumes of Rio, the floats of Macy’s or the, eh, booze of St. Patrick’s, but we have puppets. Giant puppets in fact. And hundreds of wild, vivacious, infectiously-spirited kids, who know how to use them.

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