The shadow puppet theatre illuminating Cambodia’s rich folklore

Almost snuffed out by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s traditional Sbek Thom shadow puppet theatre is helping a new generation of Cambodians connect with an age-old heritage of magic and myth

A puppeteer holds his buffalo-skin puppet before the projector

Words by Paul Millar Photography by Hannah Hawkins

In the tooth-white hollow of the swelling sheet, the shadows of the gods are at war. Weightless in the unblinking stare of the electric light at their back, demons and monkeys and giants and kings billow and shrink as they flinch away from the projector. Below them, their bearers cling grimly to the creaking bamboo sticks that bind their charges close and set their feet against the squall.

These are the shadow-dancers of Cambodia, puppeteers tutored in the age-old art of sbek thom, a traditional theatre of shadow and song that stretches back to the ancient god-kings of Angkor. Once a sacred ritual steeped in myth and magic, the Kingdom’s shadow puppet shows have passed through the darkness of the Khmer Rouge years to become a symbol of a cultural heritage still stirring in the depths of the nation’s memory.

In the open-air theatre of the Sovannaphum Arts Association in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, a group of fresh-faced performers is relearning steps and songs that once thundered from the towns and temples of the Khmer Empire. Wielding metre-high puppets carved from cured buffalo hide, the young men stride and shout in time with the traditional orchestra, disappearing behind the white curtain only to reappear in black and white, their puppets transformed once more into living gods.

Three actors prance about in monkey masks

Tonight, we are watching scenes from the Khmer rendering of the millennia-old Hindu Ramayana, the tale of a royal incarnation of the god Vishnu arraying his forces against the demon king Ravanna for the sin of stealing his wife. As the ringing music thunders to a climax, the stately steps of the puppeteers give way to a frenzy of leaping shadows as roaring warriors whirl across the white sheet walls of the theatre. Behind us, torch-bearing troupers move between the high benches, throwing another wave of flickering troops into the fray.

Not all the action is confined to the silver screen, though. In one intermission, a group of actors hidden behind peeling monkey masks slither and writhe through the audience, their movements mirroring the white monkey-king Hanuman on the screen. They tumble onto the stage, snatch up a clutch of bananas from the sacred shrine and launch into cackling laughter.

As the projector flickers to a halt and the eerie half-light recedes, we emerge blinking onto the dusty streets of Phnom Penh. Behind us, the white world of the shadow-men shudders in the rising wind, waiting for a new story to begin.

Sovannaphum Theatre features one-hour performances every Friday and Saturday at 7pm. Tickets are available at the door for $10.

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