Last Wednesday, the skies of Koh Kong province were awash with whimsical singing kites in celebration of the 23rd Annual Khmer Kite Flying Festival. It drew in 23 teams of professional kite artisans and 47 non-professional flyers.
Roeung Sareth, the deputy director of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ Department of Culture Development, says two separate competitions were held for the professional and amateur kite-flyers.
“The professional kite artisans competed in flying and making of khleng ek or musical kites while the public participated in the more general creative kite-building competition,” said Sareth.
Khleng ek are traditional Khmer kites that produce a whistling tone as they soar through the air.
“Each kite competition is judged on three different criteria. The khleng ek were judged on their musical sound, visual appeal and flight. The creative kites, meanwhile, were judged according to their structural design, craftsmanship and flight,” Sareth says.
Takeo province grabbed the first prize this year in the professional khleng ek competition, followed by Kampong Chhnang.
The third place was a draw between Koh Kong and Mondulkiri provinces.
“The first prize winner received 400,000 riel and an additional two million riels from the Koh Kong provincial administration. The second prize winner received 350,000 riel ($87.50) and 1.2 million riel from the administration, while the third prize winner received 300,000 riel and additional 800,000 riel.
“For the public kite-flying competition, the first, second and third prize winners received 350,000 riel, 300,000 riel and 250,000 riel, respectively. Those who didn’t win received 100,000 riel.
“People who have won previous Khmer Kite Flying Festivals were not allowed to compete because we wanted to give other contestants a chance,” says Sareth.
Last year, the festival was organised in Svay Rieng province.
Meanwhile in 2017, it was held in Kep. Preah Sihanouk and Koh Kong have hosted the festival twice.
“The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts aims to organise the Khmer Kite Flying Festival across the 25 provinces but we prioritise the provinces located at the border. The festival is celebrated in December.
“The exact date of the celebration falls on the full moon of the first month of the Khmer calendar, as inspired by the tradition during the reign of King Preah Ang Doung in the Oudong period.
“If everything goes as planned, the 24th Khmer Kite Flying Festival will be held in Battambang province.
“Those who do not win will receive a consolation prize of 250,000 riel,” he says.
Reviving the tradition
According to the book, Khmer Kite, which was written by Sim Sarak, khleng ek dates back to 400BC.
It is believed that the musical kites were first flown in the air in celebration of the rice harvest season.
Brought by the strong belief in animism, people flew the kites to pray for rain for their crops and to thank nature for a bountiful harvest.
Under the reign of King Ang Duong in the Oudong era, kite-flying was integrated in Buddhist belief and was held from the 12th day of waxing moon until the day of full moon in the first month of the lunar calendar.
During the ceremony, monks were invited to five celebration tents.
Each tent had a kite that would be flown across the city to ask the heavens for good weather during the harvest season.
Flying kites was also believed to grant wishes of peace and happiness.
Unfortunately, the tradition ceased after the King’s death and was only revived 135 years later by Sim Sarak.
In 1994, the nation’s first kite-flying festival was held in Phnom Penh and brought together enthusiasts from nine provinces.
khleng ek has also flown beyond national borders with its flight witnessed in several international kite festivals in countries such as Korea, Japan, France, Malaysia, Indonesia and England.
In his book, Sarak wrote: “khleng ek was born out of patience and creativity.
To make one, a kite artisan has to go through a tedious process that requires skill and persistence.
The kite needs to be refined repeatedly until it produces the desired musical sound.
“We can say that a Khmer khleng ek artisan is an outstanding person with great perseverance and creativity.
“This is a part of our history and heritage that needs safeguarding so that the tradition will not be lost again.”