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Other Than Angkor – Pt. 2

  • January 25, 2007

By Gabrielle Low

Among the lesser-known temples at Angkor is a pyramidal mass of hewn stone blocks called Baphuon, completed in the 11th century as a representation of the mythical Hindu Mount Meru. Partly due to its size, the temple was also structurally unstable. By the time the French explorer Henri Mouhot stumbled upon Angkor in 1860, Baphuon had almost completely collapsed.

In 1960, a team of French archaeologists began reconstructing Baphuon, using a process called anastylosis that the Dutch had successfully applied in the restoration of Borobudur in Java. The process involved reassembling Baphuon out of the temple’s original building material. Each of Baphuon’s 300,000 stone blocks was coded and its exact placement within the structure was carefully recorded.

The archaeologists had only completed a part of the painstaking reconstruction process when unrest forced them to stop work in 1972. In 1975, Khmer Rouge began their four-year reign of terror — which was then followed by almost two decades of civil war. During the turmoil, the records that mapped the placement of the stone blocks vanished, resulting in what has been described as “the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle”.

When restoration recommenced in 1995 (anticipated completion date: 2008), the new generation of EFEO archaeologists had developed a computer programme that identified 800 different shapes of stones — but to a large extent, the task of restoring Baphuon now depends on guesswork. When I visited the temple in 2005, it had largely regained its pyramidal shape. The base of the temple, however, was still littered with dozens of stone blocks, each still bearing coded markings.

The Revival of Sbek Touch

In many ways, Baphuon is the perfect metaphor for the state of the Cambodian performing arts. Cambodia’s artists are still reconstructing traditional art-forms, lost during the upheaval of its recent history. They are reconstructing these forms in the most literal way: fragment by fragment.

When Mann Kosal began his own restoration of sbek touch (the Cambodian folk tradition of shadow puppetry, involving small puppets with animated limbs) he had to either research or independently develop every single aspect relating to the form — from the process of leather-tanning to the technique of holding the puppets during performance.

Shortly after he set out to learn about sbek touch, Kosal met Delphine Kassem, the co-founder of Sovanna Phum Arts Association (the name means ‘Golden Era’ in Khmer). The organization was established to resurrect and promote Cambodian performing arts, including traditional forms of music, theatre, circus and dance. Kosal joined Sovanna Phum and, together with Delphine, began building a set of puppets.

In order to find out how to brew the plant-based dye used to colour the leather, Kosal had to persuade an elderly villager to remember the recipe. Sbek touch puppets, themselves, were difficult to locate. Until today, Kosal has managed to find only one original sbek touch puppet, given to him by villagers who couldn’t remember how the puppet used to be played. To create more puppet designs, he looked at classical motifs on temple walls and adapted designs from sbek thom (‘large shadow theatre’) puppets.

The technique of manipulating sbek touch puppets was something Kosal developed on his own, using his observations of how ordinary people walk as the exemplar. The movements of classical characters, like Preah Ream (Rama) and Seda (Sita), were based on the vocabulary of classical dancers. He developed his own method of forging puppet-making tools through sheer trial and error.

Explaining the destruction of Cambodian art-forms is not as straightforward as it seems. The knee-jerk reaction is to point the finger at the Khmer Rouge: it is a well-documented fact that, in trying to create a new society and a new people, the regime destroyed almost everything that served as a reminder of the past. Kosal related to me what his own mentor had told him — that almost 300 of his fellow artists did not survive the purges.

Delphine, however, cautioned me against placing the blame squarely on the Khmer Rouge, which many observers do for dramatic effect. Village art-forms were on the decline even during the era of French rule. Royal patronage under King Norodom Sihanouk during the pre-war period was limited to courtly forms of performance — apsara dances and sbek thom, for example. And once the Khmer Rouge had been overthrown, Cambodia went through nearly two decades of civil war, which continued the destruction of cultural artefacts and traditional art­ forms.

That these art-forms are now being revived is almost heart-warming — but, as I learned later, the situation is not entirely untainted.

I had been under the impression that most Cambodian artists could afford to forgo teaching jobs because it’s more lucrative to focus on performing. The Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), for example, is the training ground for some of Cambodia’s finest artists. But it is also under the administration of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts — which, like most Cambodian government departments, has very limited resources. My assumption was wrong.

“I wanted to teach at RUFA”, one artist told me, “But they wanted me to pay them money before they would let me teach there,” he continued, explaining to me how some RUFA officials supplement their income.

Wild Democracy

Sovanna Phum first performed The Life of the Wild Animals at the Jakarta International Puppetry Festival, in November 2006. The performance is classic sbek touch; like wayang kulit Siam, it is performed behind a screen to the accompaniment of music, and allows a lot of room for improvisation and spontaneous humour. One difference, though, is that sbek touch (as practiced by Sovanna Phum) can involve numerous puppeteers.

The Life of the Wild Animals is a fable. Pursued by hunters, a monkey tries to hide in the nest of a heron. The heron turns him away and, in revenge, the monkey destroys her nest and eggs. The two animals then rally support from other creatures — a wolf, a tiger, a crow, an elephant — thus escalating the tension. Finally they ask a rabbit to arbitrate the dispute; he resolves the situation by submitting it to a referendum. The heron wins, the monkey is remorseful, and all the animals get together to build a new nest.

The troupe that travelled to Indonesia to perform returned after a week, bringing home batik handicrafts and Indonesian newspaper coverage of their performance. The headlines read: ‘Hewan Pun Tahu Demokrasi’. Mildly interested in the fact that Cambodia too has its own tradition of wayang kulit, the politically­-conscious Indonesian audience was more riveted by what they read as a thinly­-veiled political statement. In a discussion session that lasted two hours after the Jakarta performance, the Indonesians analyzed the message of Savanna Phum’s performance, attaching their own interpretations to the simple narrative.

Back in Phnom Penh, Kosal shrugged. He had created and directed the piece, and performed with the rest of the troupe in Indonesia. But he insisted that it isn’t about democracy.

It was a poignant example of how meanings can shift across borders — the Indonesians had read into The Life of the Wild Animals a political message, because that is something that is important to them, especially at this stage of their history. Kosal, on the other hand, appeared disillusioned by the subject.

“I call it ‘demo-crazy’,” he said with a wide grin, using a joke he would repeat several times during my residency with Savanna Phum. Cambodia, officially, is a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy. That makes it the same as, say, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. But Cambodian democracy probably does not fit most people’s understanding of the term.

When the country’s first ever elections were held in 1993, Funcinpec, the royalist party led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, won a seat majority in the National Assembly. But because the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by the former Khmer Rouge officer Hun Sen, threatened to lead Cambodia’s eastern provinces in a secession, power had to be shared. Cambodia found itself with two prime ministers. When the country’s second elections rolled around in 1998, the CPP won the largest number of seats, but fell short of obtaining a two-thirds majority. Following this gridlock, Funcinpec, and its coalition partner, the Sam Rainsy Party, launched mass demonstrations that unravelled into violence. A settlement was reached when a coalition government was formed between Funcinpec and the CPP.

Throughout the 1990s, the Khmer Rouge, its aging leaders still holed up in jungles in the east, still figured prominently in national politics, with various parties vying to appear as the one that finally secured their surrender. In 2003, elections were held once again — and, although the CPP won, further disputes prevented the formation of a new government for almost a year.

There’s a measure of truth in Kosal’s joke. Election results in Cambodia can be disregarded; governments can be formed if the right power-sharing deal can be brokered between contesting parties.

Tanning Leather

In Phnom Penh’s markets, the skin of an average-sized cow costs between US$60 to US$100. What you get for that money includes the hair, skin tissue, tail, ears and nose of the animal, slaughtered only three or four hours before the purchase.

“What will you do with the ears and the nose?” I asked Chap, who had just hauled two pieces of skin back from the market and was busy cutting off these extremities. I could see, from the hair, that one piece of skin came from a black cow; the other was a brown paint cow. In a corner, Savanna Phum’s resident dog, Rodi, was yelping at the smell of the fresh hide, and had to be restrained. As I leaned closer to the skin, I saw a fat yellow maggot nonchalantly making its way across its surface, which still had pieces of flesh clinging to it.

“I will make soup,” Chap replied. I wasn’t sure if he was just teasing me, but I asked if I could have some too. Chap, who also has the un-envied task of being in charge of leather-tanning at Savanna Phum, begins the work by calling up a butcher and making a reservation one day in advance. Savanna Phum is perhaps the only buyer of raw cow skin in Phnom Penh. The rest of the butcher’s supply of skin gets exported to Thailand.

When I first arrived at Savanna Phum, I had informed Delphine — who is also in charge of the company’s day-to-day administration — that I wanted to learn all aspects Cambodian shadow puppetry: from leather-tanning and puppet-making, right up to the manipulation of the puppets. I was eager, and everything seemed possible. At the end of my speech, I think I saw an amused smile flash across Delphine’s face for a fleeting moment. However, throughout my residency, she tried to ensure that I was learning as much as my month-long stint would allow.

With leather-tanning, once the raw cow skin is stretched on a wooden frame, the next step is to remove remaining bits of flesh and connective tissue. Chap handed me a knife. Then he climbed on the skin and began shaving off the tissue and flesh, his thumb pressed on the blunt side of the knife and his arm moving in smooth arcs.

Classic Cambodian pedagogy, as I eventually learned: observe, follow and wait for the instructor’s assessment.

When I stopped to examine my sloppily shaved corner of skin, Chap said to me, in halting English: “No problem. When I start, I no good. Again!” And then he warned me: “Cut,”– he pretended to pierce the skin — “No good.” I had to apply enough pressure to disengage the web of tissue, but I also had to be careful not to puncture the hide.

As I clumsily tried to imitate Chap’s movements, I considered the fact that the job of tanning leather, relegated to social outcasts in many societies, actually requires a significant degree of skill. In all truth, it wasn’t a loathsome experience. But it helped that there were four people working on only two pieces of skin. The entire process was completed before noon, before the heat hastened the rotting of the flesh.

Weyreap’s Battle

Twilight in Phnom Penh begins around 5:30pm. There are very few street lamps in the city, and what little illumination there is emanates from the flashy neon lights of karaoke bars with black-tinted doors. When I had decided to see a lakhaon kaol (traditional mask dance) performance, I was vaguely hoping that it would be held in a packed auditorium in the middle of the city — and, in the best case scenario, in the middle of the afternoon.

Over the phone, the show’s producer asked to speak directly with my driver, not bothering to tell me the location of the performance. I gave the phone to the driver of the motorcycle taxi — moto — I had just flagged down.

Getting onto the moto, I clenched my fingers around the metal frame of a back seat modified to accommodate up to three passengers. As we entered parts of the city that were unfamiliar to me, parts where there weren’t even any karaoke bars, I began to worry. I thought about various emergency escape plans. It also crossed my mind that maybe I should have offered the moto driver more than 3000 riel (RM 3).

The moto slowed down at a busy traffic circle. A motorcycle ahead of us had stopped in the middle of traffic and was slowly turning around, ready to drive against the flow of traffic — by no means an unusual occurrence in Phnom Penh. A young man, running, jumped onto the back of the bike. It took off.

From behind, several other men emerged from the crowd, dressed in light­-coloured shirts and black slacks — ordinary, civilian clothing. They began running after the bike that was speeding away. One of these men carried a pistol in his right hand, wielding it openly at chest-level.

Produced by Amrita Performing Arts, Weyreap’s Battle — the lakhaon kaol performance I was on my way to see — is one of those traditional performances that awe you with movements that are precise, full of intent, and seemingly effortless. The performers’ bodies, that night, showed a stamina and malleability that could only have come with a lot of pain.

Like all stories in the lakhaon kaol repertoire, this one was an adaptation from the Ramayana — which, in Cambodia, is called the Reamker. And like other Reamker adaptations I watched, the story hinged on an ethical dilemma. In the show’s most dramatic scene, Machanub realizes that he has been asked by his godfather, Weyreap, to battle his biological father, Hanuman.

When we arrived at the theatre, I had asked the moto driver if he could pick me up in an hour. He agreed. But, a little later, I saw that he had stayed. Too shy to take a seat among the audience, many of whom were foreigners, he had seated himself on a raised platform by the stage. In his modesty, he had failed to notice that the platform was designated for the orchestra.

Not wanting to see him expelled from his spot, I asked him to sit next to me, which he did. He watched the entire performance with me, laughing at parts that were funny.

When he dropped me off at the guesthouse, I gave him US$2 (the riel and the US dollar are used interchangeably in Cambodia, with US$1 being roughly equivalent to 4000 riel) for the round trip. He greeted me with “Hey lady!” every time I saw him, after that. It made me uneasy that the small tip I had given him made him so happy.

I met many moto drivers during my one month in Cambodia — many of whom, even as they attempted to overcharge me for rides, tried to teach me about their country: pointing out local street food along the way, teaching me new words, and correcting my mispronounced Khmer without laughing at me.

Making Puppets

Savanna Phum has 12 full-time staff members and is a network of over 120 affiliated artists. The association has its own premises on a rented corner lot in Phnom Penh, a space that serves numerous functions: workshop, rehearsal studio, theatre, office and a gift shop selling puppets. It produces all its puppet-­making materials and tools onsite. Almost nothing is bought ready-made. Throughout the day — except between the 12:00-2:00 pm lunch break — there are people beating mallets on chisels to perforate puppets, repairing damaged woodwork, tuning instruments, rehearsing performances, preparing publicity posters, sewing clothbags for the puppets. The momentum is sustained by both Kasal and Delphine, who each employ very different management styles.

Delphine, with her expressive Gallic face and her gentle way of speaking Khmer, tends to use cajolery and persuasion to get things done. Kasal, on the other hand, takes a sterner approach, at least with the male staff. With the girls, he is flirtatious.

One of those girls, Lekhana, is 21 years old. She has been working at Savanna Phum for one and a half years. A girl with a perpetual frown on her face, she had been assigned to guide me in making puppets. Sometimes she seemed more interested in learning English from me, and teaching me Khmer in return. Being especially interested in jewellery, she would ask me to teach her phrases related to shopping, using a Khmer-English phrasebook that she brought to the workshop on a regular basis, after my arrival. She wanted to learn how to say “What is it made of?” and ‘It is made of silver,’ and “Is it available in other colours?” Then she would make me say all those phrases in Khmer. I wasn’t sure how to explain to her that I wanted to learn more practical phrases.

When we weren’t having our language lessons, Lekhana and the other puppet­-makers would look for diversions: making small talk among themselves turning on the radio. I could always tell which were the latest hit songs — everyone would be singing along to it. Sitting amidst all these people, with whom I did not share a common language, gave me a lot of time to think about what I was doing.

There’s something very meditative about working with your hands. I used to think that craft was primarily the manipulation of tools, that it was the act of forging a connection between your intent and the tools in your hand. It actually has more to do with making a connection between your intent and your own hands. The tools are just an extension of your hands.

I began developing the habit of holding up my unfinished puppets against the light every 15 minutes or so, to see the form slowly take shape on the leather. The puppets seemed like intricate sculptures composed of only two things: light and leather.

On stage, the dueling of light and shadow on a two-dimensional screen becomes something that is elegantly reductive. Savanna Phum’s The Sokacha Story -­ another Reamker adaptation — was a contemporary reinterpretation of classical Cambodian dance and sbek thom.

Sbek thom, the more courtly form of shadow theatre, uses large puppets with no movable parts. Often entire scenes, ranging from battle scenes to love scenes, are depicted on a single piece of leather held up by a performer who is as much of a dancer as a puppeteer. Performers can appear both behind and in front of the screen.

Sokacha remains, for me, one of the most compelling examples of how shadow theatre can create images and moods that no other genre of performing arts can achieve to the same degree.

In one scene, Seda collapses in her chambers. The set — an ornate Cambodian­ style pavilion — is composed entirely of a shadow projection on a white screen, with the light source placed strategically to create a full-sized set on stage. The dancer playing Seda first performs in front of the screen and, therefore, in front of the pavilion. She then withdraws behind the screen, thereby entering the pavilion, and falls onto the ground in sobs. All the audience sees at this point is only shadow — the dancer’s trembling shadow amidst the full-length pillars of the pavilion, also created from shadow. The effect of the shadows is particularly fitting because the sense it creates for the audience is that every single one of us is furtively observing a very private moment when a woman enters her room to cry.


‘Most foreigners tend to define Cambodians according to Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge,’ I told Delphine. ‘The time I’ve spent here makes me think that that’s not the case, that there’s much more to Cambodian identity than that.’

Cambodians, it appeared to me, have desires and aspirations that make them no different from people anywhere else. They looked to the future, and not just to their past, tragic as it was. Corruption, politics, pop songs, soap operas, growing commercialisation, the latest hand-phone models — these are things that seem to preoccupy Cambodians on a daily basis.

A few weeks before, the proprietor of the coffee shop where I had become a regular customer invited me to go with her to the local ‘sports club’.  It turned out to be the neighbourhood gym, a well-equipped facility that was also remarkably well-attended.

Talking to Rasy, the proprietor’s teenage daughter, I gathered that they went to the gym at least twice a week, for health reasons — and in Rasy’s case, for the sake of vanity. It was also affordable. A single entry to the gym cost only 500 riel (RM 0.50) — which Rasy’s mother insisted on paying for me.

‘Cambodians don’t just see themselves as people who have inherited Angkor and survived the Khmer Rouge,” I repeated to Delphine.

‘I think you’re only saying that because you don’t know the language,’ Delphine observed, pointing out my inability to engage in meaningful conversation with most Cambodians. Even the younger generation of Cambodians, she maintained, have inherited the trauma inflicted on their parents by the Khmer Rouge.

I couldn’t argue with a woman who has spent the last 14 years living in Cambodia and working closely with its people. Still, I didn’t want to be convinced.

‘Well, I’m still glad I saw a different side of Cambodia,’ I said stubbornly, but uncomfortable with the thought that maybe I was wrong.

Shortly before I left Phnom Penh, I purchased a woodcarving from one of the many NGOs in Cambodia that train disabled people in local crafts. The carving depicted a figure with a flaming head swallowing a round disk. I bought it because I liked the image.

Delphine stopped in front of me as I was examining the fine workmanship. ‘It’s the sun eating the moon,’ she said. ‘Sometimes it’s used as a symbol for art in Cambodia.’

I thought of asking her how that image could be interpreted to represent art. But I changed my mind. There are probably many ways to interpret it. And I wanted to interpret it for myself.


Gabrielle Low spent one month in Cambodia, between November and December 2006, on a residency with Savanna Phum Arts Association. The above is the second part of a two part account she wrote about her time there.

First Published: 25.01.2007 on Kakiseni