In Siem Reap, an art form passes on

In Siem Reap, an art form passes on


Siem Reap

Cambodian shadow puppetry is as old as the Angkor temples, but the craft is at risk of being lost to more modern forms of entertainment. One young Cambodian, however, is fighting to keep it alive.

Photo by:
Jason Leahey

Goun Koung (left), a master in the Cambodian art of shadow puppetry, works alongside a student in the NGO House of Peace, which hopes to preserve the ancient craft. 

In a humble building on National Road 6's extravagant hotel row in Siem Reap, 75-year-old Goun Koung laboured meticulously in his workshop, creating puppets, a craft he has practised since he was 18.

In the morning he makes puppets in the workshop that is part of the House of Peace NGO, and in the afternoon he teaches the younger generation the ancient art of Khmer shadow puppetry.  

"When I was young, I loved the pictures of the Ramayana carved on Angkor Wat," he explained.  

"I did not want Cambodia to lose the heritage. I want the children to know it, too."

Shadow puppets - tanned hides manipulated between cloth screens and roaring bonfires - date back to the golden age of the Angkor empire.

The icons and legends they depict still adorn the walls of the temples, but puppetry itself has become a dying art.

The youthful House of Peace director, 20-year-old Koung Sovannra, said only four or five shadow-puppet schools still exist in Cambodia.

Most puppet masters were butchered  by the Khmer Rouge, and revitalisation of the art has been difficult in a society riddled with poverty.

But the workshop at House of Peace rings with activity. On plastic-reed mats, Goun Koung and his disciples squat over tanned cow hides, punching holes with wooden mallets and metal awls, cutting tiny half-moon incisions with scalpel-like knives, tracing delicate ink lines with fine brushes.  

No one uses a guide pattern; no one references a text-book.  Skill, patience, a steady hand and a keen eye are the essentials that the puppet master teaches his 15 adolescent students and the few older boys who have stayed on to further hone their craft.  

A craft, not livelihood

Though the students' work is beautiful by anyone's measure, that beauty does not necessarily lead to a livelihood.

Koung Sovannra said, "Khmer people, they only like looking at the puppet. They do not want to buy".  

House of Peace students are advised that they probably won't be able to make a living from the craft.

Their efforts should be a source of pride, not necessarily financial gain.


Woleak, a 13-year-old student, has been learning puppet carving for almost a year.  
Like all House of Peace students, his family is poor, and like all new puppet makers, he specialises in carving small puppets - the elephants, chickens and cows used in the Ramayana iconography.

When one of his puppets is sold, Woleak receives 30 percent of the takings, which he uses to buy school supplies.  

"I am very proud," he said.  "I do not have to go ask my mother and father for money like most boys."  

Director Koung Sovannra elaborated on the benefits of the workshop, saying, "Imagine you have the big sea and there is a place you want to go to eventually. Well, Woleak wants to study English and computer skills, and then he can study at the university".  

"Then he can find the job, maybe be the manager of a hotel.  That very good job is the place he can go," Koung Sovannra said.  

"Shadow puppetry is the ship that can take him there," he added.  

The House of Peace itself is mostly reliant on sales to tourists, especially during the high season.  

But during the low season, the puppet school and the NGO's neighbouring day school are subsidised by Dr Chan Thon Serey, a Cambodian who lives in Germany and established House of Peace in 2004.

Mobile theatre

Chan Thon Serey sees shadow puppetry as important in improving the lives of Cambodian people, along with education, so he has extended operations by buying two vans dubbed Theatre Mobile and Library Mobile.

The latter is lined with bookshelves, and Koung Sovannra has begun assembling a collection of Khmer language and culture textbooks.  

The Theatre mobile will transport the materials and puppeteers that bring a performance to life in the provinces.

The newly mobile Koung Sovannra's ambitions, however, are not limited to books and performance.  

Orphaned by Aids, he has taken it upon himself to educate his students and Cambodians at large about the omnipresent dangers of the disease.  

"The people in the countryside, they don't know how to keep Aids away," he said.  

"We will tell the story."

When the students are ready, Goun Koung and his House of Peace mobile division will hit the road to include HIV education and prevention alongside the more traditional theatrical productions.

But the theatrical tradition remains secure in Koung Sovannra's heart.  

He is also honing his puppet-making skills and his grand plan includes  branching out beyond Siem Reap's borders to establish schools in other Cambodian provinces.

"If I don't do this, then I think maybe puppetry will be lost."


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