Siem Reap's giant puppets revive tradition, but with a modern twist

Siem Reap's giant puppets revive tradition, but with a modern twist


The third annual giant puppet project is reviving the lost tradition of lantern puppets, with a parade of educational art pieces made by Siem Reap children in a series of workshops

Photo by:

Dave Perkes

Giant puppet of Hanuman, the monkey king, being paraded around Siem Reap Saturday night.

Siem Reap
On Saturday night, a 15-metre long Siamese crocodile with a dozen children inside it staggered through the streets of Siem Reap before being strung up in the Royal Independence Gardens.

It was joined by larger-than-life artistic representations of a giant helmet, Hanuman the monkey king and a rocket ship - all part of the third annual giant puppet project.

The noisy and colourful parade featuring 10 giant puppets, 12 NGOs and 550 children snaked its way through Siem Reap's streets for an hour before ending in the grounds outside the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor.

Puppetmaster Jig Cochrane said that, as well as being a lot of fun, this year's puppet festival had a serious goal - to revive the  fading tradition of lantern puppetry.

"For thousands of years, lantern puppets have been a big thing in the East," Cochrane said. "There's been a lack of that in Cambodia, which might have a lot to do with the fact that a lot of the artists were killed by the Khmer Rouge. It used to be part of the culture here and you don't see it anymore. But it's coming back."

The giant puppet project is a modernised version of the traditional lantern-puppet parade, although the flaming lanterns have been replaced by the more child-friendly alternative of fairy lights.

The puppets have been made by Siem Reap children in two-day workshops led by Cochrane, with the assistance of volunteers and apprentices from Battambang.  

The project gives [children] a sense of achievement, pride and teamwork.

Simple goals

The giant puppet project was started in 2007 by Cochrane, Stuart Cochlin and Sasha Constable. Now Cochrane and Cochlin manage it, with an increasing help from the Battambang Phare Ponleu Selpak circus school, which they hope will eventually run the event.

Helping children with limited English to create and carry the puppets is a tricky process, but Cochrane said the goal of the operation is simple.

"My biggest aim is to find kids who've had a rough time and make them have a lot of fun. I really enjoy the kick kids get out of making something enormous and taking it to the streets and making people on the streets go ‘Wow'. ... The project we've made here really reaches out to kids at the bottom, and puts them on a platform where they are the centre of the attention, they're superstars. The project gives them a sense of achievement, pride and teamwork that they might not get elsewhere."

In addition to the puppets already mentioned, this year's procession included likenesses of painter Svay Ken, one of Cambodia's most celebrated artists who died recently; a giant catfish; a Sarus crane; dragon boats; flowers and several planets. And each puppet carried a message, said Cochrane.  

"Every single puppet we make has an educational angle ... [The children want] to know who Hanuman is and what he is, and get excited about this great monkey king who's all over the temples," he said. "We want to teach the kids about endangered species in their country like the giant catfish. Tell them why it is disappearing. We're teaching children about the planets, because it's not on the school curriculum. And we built a big puppet rocket that children can fly around in, which is the fun part."

A giant motorbike helmet was also a big feature at the parade, and Cochrane hopes that it will save lives by making children remind their parents that wearing helmets is important.

"When people's sons and daughters are on the streets in a giant helmet, everyone will start thinking about it.

"Svay Ken was an artist who died recently, and we are celebrating his life with a piece of art - a big, giant Svay Ken puppet. Also we have dragon boats, which is part of Khmer culture. It's fun to get a lot of kids in puppet dragonboats, celebrating one of the greatest events that happens in Siem Reap - dragonboat racing."

The success of this year's parade has started Cochrane's mind buzzing with ideas for 2010. "I want it bigger, better, brighter, more fun, bigger things, more kids, more education, and to draw in more Khmer artists. I want to attract funding to pay local Khmers to make stuff for the carnival. I would love if we could spread the load between different artists, working in different places, who come together in more of a traditional carnival."


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