If a giant tiger or a five-headed Naga walking down the street doesn’t make you look twice then not much will. You can see those and other wondrous sights at the giant puppet parade in Banteay Srei district of Siem Reap this April.
The purpose of the parade is to attract tourists and raise awareness about art, culture, environmental issues and animal conservation and that’s why Siem Reap’s residents work together to make the giant creations come to life and march down their streets.
The giant puppet parade was started 15 years ago by British artist Jig Cochrane and Siem Reap-based architect Stuart Cochlin. The event has always been held in Siem Reap with many of the artists involved coming from Battambang.
The project also serves as a creative platform for disadvantaged children to foster and promote self-expression and confidence through art.
Before the pandemic, there were hundreds of people involved in the project and several thousand people attended the event each year. Though held in Siem Reap town, the parade was planned and organised in Banteay Srei, one of the province’s most popular ecotourism destinations.
Because of that, this year eight of the glowing rattan-and-paper puppets for the 2022 event were scheduled for a parade in Preah Dak ecotourism village in the district earlier in March but it had to be postponed due to the Omicron variant outbreak.
The team planned to organise the giant puppet parade in Preah Dak village to celebrate National Culture Day and International Women’s Day and attract tourists to come and see Banteay Srei, according to the Facebook page of Banteay Srei District Governor Khim Finan, who is sponsoring this year’s event.
“Unfortunately, due to the unfavourable situation of the pandemic in the community, the team decided to postpone the program,” he wrote. “However, we continued to produce these giant puppets, moving the workshop from Wat Preah Dak to Siem Reap town and temporarily displaying them in the Heritage Walk.”
Similar to the original programme held for the first time in 2007 that gave children the opportunity to make puppets for exhibitions and street parades, this year eight puppets were made by young amateur artists to encourage children’s imaginations.
Lim Leang Chhay, a 31-year-old former Phare student who has been attending the event since 2013, is leader of the giant puppet production team.
“This year we have a man selling palm juice, traditional Khleng Ek style kites, Citadel of Women, a Bengal florian bird, a woman selling nom banh chok (rice noodles), a tiger, characters from the traditional dance Lakhon Khol and a five-headed Naga. For each puppet, we take two days to produce the frame and then stick coloured paper to it and install the lights,” Chhay says.
The puppets are made of rattan, adhesive tape, glue, bamboo, coloured paper, and other materials. They usually have some moving parts and built-in lights inside to illuminate them at night and highlight their beauty. Wheels are installed underneath to make them easier to move.
Chhay has been involved in the production of many puppets, including snakes, cameramen, dragons and bees. He says that making the puppets isn’t easy because the rattan used for the frames is difficult to bend and is fragile and the older artists involved have to teach the younger people how to do it correctly.
The giant artistic creations are also designed to have moving limbs or other parts in order make the parade more exciting and enjoyable.
Finan, the governor of Banteay Srei district who is often lauded for his local development work, wrote that although the puppets are humorous and fun they are carefully selected and embody the art, culture, environment and identity of his district.
“The most special thing is that all of these giant puppets are made by the hands of children and young people with help from employees of companies, sponsors and the general public and under the leadership and supervision of professional artists from Phare Ponleu Selpak of Battambang province,” Finan says.
Impressively, considering their size, each puppet only takes two days to complete but all of them pose challenges for the team.
“The rattan is fragile and difficult to bend into shape and the paper sticks to its bones and will tear easily if we aren’t careful. When teaching children, we have to explain a lot to them during the two days they participate in making a puppet,” says Chhay.
Finan said that the giant puppet parade has been rescheduled for April 13 and will still take place in Banteay Srei district as part of their Khmer New Year events. Entertainment programmes will be held at the Banteay Srei pagoda and the giant puppet parade will take place in Preah Dak village.
He said that giant puppets were not made to match the Khmer New Year event, rather they were designed for the celebration of National Culture Day and International Women’s Day, but due to the outbreak of Covid 19 the original parade for those dates was cancelled.
“But we already have these giant puppets so we will display them on April 13 just before Khmer New Year to make the programme planned in Siem Reap bigger,” Finan told The Post, adding that all tourists visiting Siem Reap town to see the temples or attend events there are welcome to come over to nearby Banteay Srei for the parade.
Finan, who is popular in the district for installing street lights and helping local sweet melon farmers, says that although people are supposed to have fun at the events the Covid-19 preventive measures should still be followed.
“Though we have many fun activities, we’ve focused on less risky activities. The events are organised outdoors and all participants are required to wear masks and maintain social distancing. On behalf of the district administration, we would like to appeal to all people and tourists who are considering visiting Banteay Srei district to maintain safety measures to ensure safety,” he says.
Siem Reap Provincial Governor Tea Seiha says that Siem Reap is welcoming back Maha Songkran (the first day of Khmer New Year) celebrations following two years of pandemic-driven cancellations.
“We will have cultural events like we did in previous years, but we will organise them so that social distancing can be practised. Some of these events were prepared up to two years ago, but were interrupted by the pandemic,” he said.
For more information on the parade or visiting Banteay Srei district, check out their Facebook: @visitbanteaysrei