housands braved a ridiculously hot night in Siem Reap last Saturday to check out the fourth annual Giant Puppet Parade.
The story this year, said director Stuart Cochlin, was the strong Khmer turnout. Thanks to a targeted heavy advertising campaign – flyers at local schools, markets and restaurants, as well as ads in local newspapers and on the local cable TV station – Cambodian families packed every intersection on the parade route.
Khmer kids sat on their parents’ shoulders, wide-eyed and cheering as the brightly lit apparitions floated by to a fanfare of traditional drums and music.
Especially popular were a pair of green cheeky monkey puppets, who bobbed and swayed to the beat, and a cranky crab that continually charged forward, claws snapping. There was also a gigantic glowing red fruit bat and a peacock with a multi-coloured sparking tail. The lighting and animatronics really made the paper-maché puppets come alive, with circling eyeballs and moving appendages.
Perhaps upstaging the puppets, though, was the sheer joy of the children carrying the floats and watching on the sidelines.
Due to an early heat wave everyone looked like they’d taken a fully clothed shower, especially the participants who had to carry the darned things, but everybody was all smiles.
The parade started by the Old Market then did a lap through Pub Street before crossing the bridge and heading up the road on the east side of the river, with a gang of Siem Reap motorcycle cops bringing up the rear. The river road was the stronghold of Khmer spectators, said Cochlin. He also said that they got most of their bucket donations from the Khmer area.
“In years past we’ve gotten most of the donations from Pub Street, but this year the majority came from Khmer people,” said Cochlin.
The procession then crossed the river again at National Road 6 and finished with a big party for participants at the park near Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, where project manager Savann Oun whipped the crowd of kids into a frenzy with a lot of call-and-response shouting.
At the party, a slide show of photos from the puppet-making workshops was projected, giving the kids a chance to laugh at themselves.
Over 400 children from 12 NGOs for disadvantaged youths participated in the project.
“You can tell this is pretty special for all the kids because they’re all wearing their best clothes,” said Mark Bennetts, general manager of NGO New Hope, which had 24 kids carrying a puppet in the parade. “This is the first one I’ve seen, and I think they had a really great time.”
Clowns from the Phare Art School in Battambang, which participated in the workshops and construction of the puppets, performed at the final gathering as well. The audience squealed with delight as one balanced on a precarious tower of stacked tubes and then jumped into the other’s arms for a kiss on the cheek.
Keo Phun Phalla, an artist from the Phare Art School who helped construct the monkey and crab, was clearly having a blast. “This year is better than the last because it’s so big,” he said.
Art director for the project Jig Cochrane agreed.
“Everything went fantastically. There were far more people than expected, and we were especially excited about the brilliant Khmer turnout. People came like bees to honey,” said Cochrane. “We really raised the bar with the quality of the puppets. This was the best one we’ve had so far.”