Photo credit: Anna Baranova
It was a hot tropical night. The streets of Siem Reap were bustling with life, audience waiting with anticipation, hearts pumping with delight, eyes focused, fingers on the shutter buttons. At last, the silence was pieced by a loud drum-roll. The street then suddenly filled with an array of colorful dancing lights. Giant mystical and woodland creatures from the wildest of imaginations came to life and started to make their way through the crowd of spectators. As they proceeded to the river, their reflections bounced off the mirrored surface of the water, as the air was saturated with light, children’s laughter and contagious enthusiasm.
It was the night of the Siem Reap’s annual Giant Puppet Parade – a children’s community project aimed at fostering self-confidence and promoting personal expression through art. It has been taking place for the past five years and is considered to be the largest community art project of its kind in the province with more than 800 children and 12 organizations participating this year. It all started in 2007 when a professional UK puppeteer, Jig Cochrane, and Siem Reap expat Stuart Cochlin came up with a creative idea to bring art to local children while raising awareness about important issues in Cambodia. Thematic floats address subjects such as endangered wildlife, road safety, and cultural awareness.
Photo credit: Elise McNamara and Anna Baranova
This year featured, amongst many other creatures, a judge rabbit – a popular creature in Cambodian folklore – and a Kouprey, a wild forest-dwelling ox, whose dwindling population is estimated to be no more than 250 in the world. In addition to giant puppets, the event also showcases famous cultural personalities. Last year participants enjoyed the performance of Kung Nai – a renowned Khmer performer and one of the few surviving masters of the chapei, a Cambodian long-necked lute.
While the Giant Puppet Parade brings endless amusement and excitement, its most powerful impact is the long-term effect it has on the children and local community. Both participants and the organizations supporting them are given a unique opportunity to express their creative side and work alongside their peers. As children complete their projects they are able to gain cultural appreciation for their home country and boost their confidence by creating something extraordinary.
Photo credit: Anna Baranova
In future years, the organizing committee is hoping to make this an entirely Cambodian-run event. For the past three years Jig has been training a team of artists from the PHARE Ponleu Selpak Art School in Battambang. His hope is that these artists will take the reigns and continue to encourage creativity, build confidence, and put smiles on the faces of children in the Siem Reap area for years to come.