Photo Essays

The Gliding, Glowing Giants of a Cambodian Puppet Festival

At the 11th annual Giant Puppet Project festival, artists and children proudly paraded gleaming puppets down central Siem Reap, a bustling tourist city in Cambodia.

Snake Goddess, ពស់កេងកង, (Puos Keng Kang) (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — The 11th annual Giant Puppet Project (GPP) recently took place on February 18 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The event was founded in 2007 by Jig Cochrane, Stuart Cochlin, and Sasha Constable, and is currently directed by Cochlin, a British architect based in Siem Reap. Every year, young Cambodian artists work collaboratively with over 500 children to create large, glowing, moving, shrieking puppets. The children are brought together by local NGOs, which work with orphanages, the physically handicapped, and the children of immigrants. The project intends to raise awareness around health, poverty, and the environment, with some puppets taking the form of endangered species. Children participate in weeks-long workshops, constructing the puppets (some as big as 100 feet) and then proudly parade these gleaming creatures down central Siem Reap, a bustling tourist city.

Puppet of famous Cambodian musician, Kong Nay, playing the ចាប៉ីដងវែង (Chapei dong veng)

Over the years, the event has grown, and now thousands of Cambodians and tourists line the streets to watch in wonder. It is by far the largest non-religious and non-royal public event I’ve attended in Cambodia. Many of the puppets have music playing inside of them, and the children dance and sing along as they go, the puppets moving to the beat.

There were two highlights of the parade this year. The first was the Giant Snake, ពស់កេងកង, (Puos Keng Kang) puppet, based on a Cambodian myth about a woman who sleeps with the Snake King, and the following drama that ensues, most popularized by the movie, The Snake Man, released in Cambodia in 1970. The puppet was the most stunning and imposing; its long fingers reached out above the crowd, and her long tail slithered about.

Another successful (and popular, as far as I could tell) puppet was the one depicting Kong Nay, who is considered a great master of the chapei dong veng, a Cambodian two-stringed, long-necked guitar. Impressively, Kong Nay’s hands, fingers, head, and mouth all sang along to music recordings, emitting from speakers inside.

As the crowds snowballed, and many onlookers snuck past the ropes to join in the procession, the parade turned into an exuberant celebration. It culminated in a concert, featuring the living and breathing Kong Nay, who performed at the Royal Gardens, right near the royal residence. The concert was abruptly cut short to clear the crowds out for King Norodom Sihamoni and his mother, Queen Norodom Monineath, who drove by the lined-up puppets, waving. Throughout the next few months the puppets will remain publicly displayed throughout Siem Reap.

The leaders of the parade
Kids push the giant rooster.
The traditional peacock dancer
A paperless puppet
Puppet of a Khmer fable about a crocodile and an old man
A demonic-looking filmmaker.
The rooster
Kong Nay
Crowds near the end of the parade, before the real Kong Nay took stage
The Snake Goddess nearly ready for the parade at Wat Damnak
A monk, with one of the artists, blessing the artists and the puppets before the parade

The Giant Puppet Project took place in Siem Reap, Cambodia on February 18.

comments (0)