Cambodian Living Arts

Lifting up lives, preserving Khmer culture

What we say: 4 stars

Getting a private view of anything in “Angkor” is usually a luxury few travellers can afford. But thanks to not-for-profit organisation Cambodian Living Arts you can now go behind the scenes and learn about one beautiful traditional Khmer art form with an exclusive shadow puppets experience.

Yes, you can have these talented puppeteers virtually to yourself.

Yes, you can have these talented puppeteers virtually to yourself.

Just $15 will buy you a ringside seat at a training class and rehearsal with the acclaimed shadow puppet troupe at the lovely 18th-century Wat Bo, accompanied by just a handful of fellow spectators and your very own guide.

Now if you think shadow puppets are just those hilarious bunny rabbit or puppy dog shapes you used to throw against the wall with your hands as a kid, think again. Traditional Cambodian shadow puppets are large, intricately carved cow-hide panels depicting characters from history, literature and legend. The largest puppets measure about a metre and a half by one metre and are heavy. They have two bamboo rods attached with which the puppeteers lift and manoeuvre them in time to music, creating magical scenes against a giant back-lit screen.

Working the beautiful - and heavy - puppets requires both strength and skill.

Working the beautiful — and heavy — puppets requires both strength and skill.

In the case of the Wat Bo puppeteers the puppets represent characters from the ancient Hindu epic narrative The Ramayana. Don’t worry if the thought of any epic narrative instantly gives you the urge to “close window”on this review. Part of the appeal of this “experience” is that it is not a full-on show but a live class, complete with warm up, drilling of new moves and short sequences of near-perfect performance with gamelans and drums, and accompanying narration.

Each class starts with a rather atmospheric warm-up and stretch.

Each class starts with a rather atmospheric warm-up and stretch.

Unlike a formal stage performance, you don’t have to sit still in silence and pretend to understand what is happening – the narrators narrate in Khmer after all and if you’re not up to speed with the finer details of the Ramayana it could understandably leave you unmoved. You can get up and walk around — no bad thing since you will be sitting on a cushion on a hunk of stone — talk to your companions, and take photographs. Flash photography should be avoided, but the nature of a shadow puppet show means it is relatively easy to take good shots sans flash, provided you have a very steady hand or a tripod. Your guide is there to answer any questions you may have, except for when it’s his turn to rehearse — he is a member of the troupe too.

The puppeteers are also talented dancers who occasionally abandon their puppets to provide interludes of acrobatic, graceful and comic dance – which helps to explain why they need such incredible levels of fitness, agility and poise, and why they spend a significant amount of time warming-up before the class proper.

The puppeteers are also extremely talented dancers.

The puppeteers are also extremely talented dancers.

An evening at the Wat Bo Shadow puppet school is an intriguing mix of the spectacular and the educational and will appeal to anyone who is curious about traditional Khmer performing arts but doesn’t want to sit through a run-of-the-mill tourist show. After an hour or so in the privileged company of the puppeteers and their teachers it should come as no surprise to learn that they are probably some of the best shadow puppeteers in the world, and have recently returned from highly acclaimed performances at the Season of Cambodia Festival in New York City.

A bit like the Kids from Fame, The Wat Bo puppeteers are also big in New York.

A bit like the kids from Fame, the Wat Bo puppeteers are also big in New York.

Classes take place every week from Friday through Sunday but you will need to make a reservation at least three days in advance through Cambodia Living Arts. Once your booking is confirmed, they will give you the mobile number of your guide and ask you to call him when you arrive at the pagoda, just a few minutes by tuk tuk from downtown Siem Reap, so he can meet you. The pagoda has several entrances but the nearest to the puppet classes is on Samdech Tep Vong Street, near the junction of Wat Bo Road. You can pay your guide when you arrive.

In dry weather the classes take place outdoors in a nondescript corner of the sprawling grounds of the 18th century pagoda so insect repellent is an absolute must. If it’s raining the class moves inside. A flashlight is also recommended to help avoid those nasty trip hazards as you pick your way through the darkness to your seat. The class runs from 20:00 until 21:00 but you are asked to arrive around 19:30, and should it run over, and you have another date, proceedings are informal enough for you to leave whenever you wish.

It sounds like a lot of hard work but it is worth the effort, and all money raised is invested back into the puppet school, helping to preserve a beautiful facet of traditional Khmer culture.

Last updated: 2nd October, 2014

About the author:
Simon is fluent in English, Spanish and French, but to date he has only mastered a few carefully chosen words of Khmer, like "Food" and "Beer" and "Fat".
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