More than 1000 Siem Reap school kids and their families participated in an hour-long parade through town on Saturday night as part of the fifth annual Giant Puppet Project.
One of the aims of the project is to revive the lost art of Cambodian street parades, and organisers said crowds attending the march were the largest since the project was first started in 2007. Up to 5000 spectators thronged the route to catch a glimpse of the 10 giant tissue paper and rattan puppets on parade, many based on creatures from Khmer folklore, or designed to promote causes such as road safety.
The puppets, assembled by students and volunteers at a series of local workshops over the past few months, wound their way through the streets of downtown Siem Reap before the parade terminated outside Raffles Hotel d’Angkor, where spectators witnessed a display of bokator by children from the Green Gecko Project.
Many tourists in the crowd praised the parade as one of the highlights of their visit to Siem Reap. Dutch tourist Marleen Herten said she stumbled across the parade and “did not expect to see a street carnival like it while visiting Cambodia”.
US charity volunteer Elliot Linzer said the parade was the second he has witnessed. “It’s a great example of a project serving the local community in an original way.”
The Giant Puppet Project is the brainchild of a trio of UK artists and, since its inception in 2007, has grown into an annual parade with 10 different NGOs participating and financial support coming from a number of local businesses.
Giant Puppet Project artistic director Jig Cochrane said the parade’s organisers have trained an increasing number of artists and students from the Phare Ponleu Selpak Art School in Battambang to conduct workshops at local primary schools where the puppets are made.
Cochrane explained that the annual Puppet Project is tightly scheduled with planning beginning in early February before volunteers fan out to 12 local organisations and schools to conduct puppet-building workshops with an estimated 600 to 800 students.
Cochrane says that most puppets in the parade can be assembled in workshops within two days. Tissue paper used to build the outer coverings of the puppets is sourced from local suppliers following a series of fundraisers at Siem Reap bars in the lead-up to the parade each year.
Cochrane says one goal of the project is to repopularise street festivals in Cambodia.
“To me it’s a very ordinary thing but you speak to people on the streets in Cambodia and they’ve never seen a street parade before.
“All the countries in this region have carnivals and street parades, and it’s something that would have been going on here in pre-Khmer Rouge period,” he said.
Another key element to the parade is that it’s aimed squarely at children who both create the models and make up the majority of spectators.
“One of the main things is to create something wonderful and incredible and make people go: ‘Wow, look at what those kids did’.”
He said that for most of the kids who take part in the parade, “it’s really unusual to be in a situation where people are waving at them”.
This year the Puppet Project had support from 10 NGOs working in Siem Reap. Globalteer volunteers Emma Fisher and Kay Yasugi spoke at length about their experiences teaching children how to assemble the early stages of each puppet at local workshops, and explained that the process involves several volunteers spending two days with groups of between 15 and 30 children and translators assembling the frame of each puppet.
The puppets are then placed on trolleys and electrified in the days leading up to the parade.
Puppet Project marketing and communications coordinator Bina Hanley said this year’s money donated by spectators during the parade was just over $1000. She said fundraising efforts are active all year with over $3000 collected through donations to the project’s Virgin Money Giving Account and several fundraisers at local bars including Abacus and Funky Munky raising $2250. Organisers this year also received a $5000 donation from an anonymous source.
Local hotels and businesses also donated accommodation and supplies for the volunteers and participants.