Giant Puppet Project Parade snakes through Siem Reap on a Saturday night each February. If you’re heading to Cambodia in 2017 try to time your trip to coincide with this wonderful event. It’s a fun-filled night that’s made for families with kids.

Getting along to local festivals and events, whether as an observer or participant, is a wonderful way to get an insight into a local culture and community. If you’re going to be in Siem Reap in February 2017 do try to get to the Giant Puppet Project Parade.

To get an idea as to all the work that goes into making the Parade the success that it is, read our behind-the-scenes story from the puppet-making workshops for the 2015 Giant Puppet Project Parade.

The Giant Puppet Project Parade in Siem Reap

In a not-so-quiet corner of the leafy grounds of Siem Reap’s historic Wat Damnak pagoda, young Cambodian artists from Battambang and foreign volunteers are teaching children from the Human and Hope Association school to make rattan and bamboo skeletal frames.

These enormous frames will form the skeleton of the colossal animal puppets that will snake through Siem Reap’s streets on Saturday night for the ninth Giant Puppet Project Street Parade.

There is chatter, laughter, giggles, and every now and again the children’s enthusiastic shouts of “Zip!” “Zap!” “Boing!”, the loud calls of a motivational game created by British artist Jig Cochrane.

Cochrane, one of the founders with Siem Reap-based architect Stuart Cochlin, designed the game to refocus excitable and easily distracted kids on the tasks at hand. It has become a rallying cry for the teams of small children behind this big public event.

Cochlin conceived the idea for the Giant Puppet Project and co-founded the event in 2007 with Cochrane. An artist who had worked with communities affected by war and poverty, Cochrane had been passing through Siem Reap, seeking opportunities to run puppet-making workshops for children.

Cochlin, who had a long relationship with NGOs, believed that the workshops wouldn’t be enough, that the children should have a public space to celebrate their creative achievements. The Giant Puppet Project Street Parade was born.

“Jig started the “Zip Zap Boing” game to get the kids attention at the beginning and end of each session,” volunteer Lucy Gaskill, a lighting designer from Cornwall in the UK, explains as we watch the children from the steps of the monk’s ordination hall that has become the project’s headquarters for two weeks. “It’s perfect for building team spirit.”

This year there are 500 children involved in the project from NGOs including Salariin Kampuchea, Kaliyan Mith (Friends International), Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC), Helping Hands Cambodia, Husk, Cambodian Land Mine Museum Relief Fund (CLMMF), Stepping Stones, This Life Cambodia, ABCs and Rice, Learning Foundation, Kruasar Thmey, Together for Cambodia, and the Human and Hope Association, which is where the kids in this afternoon’s session are from.

“Our students are quite under-confident when it comes to being creative and the arts. Usually when we do art activities, they will say ‘ot jeh’, meaning ‘I don’t have the ability’,” explains Sally Hetherington, Operations Manager at the Hope and Human Association. “By participating in these workshops they can see they do have the ability to be creative, and it is a great confidence booster for them. The kids have never had anything like this growing up.”

“On the night, our students and staff love the attention they get walking through town and dancing proudly with their creation,” Sally says. “We are always so exhausted the next day, but it is totally worth it.”

Each group of children collaborate on the puppets over four morning and afternoon sessions spread over two days during the first week of the project, under the guidance of 16 Cambodian artists and art students from Battambang’s Phare Ponleu Selpak visual arts school, assisted by eleven foreign volunteers.

In the second week the artists and volunteers will work with Gaskill and UK artist-designer Martin Matthews, to complete the technical aspects, including rigging lights to illuminate the puppets.

Gaskill had worked with Matthews for a decade at Cornwall’s Eden Project, an environmental tourist attraction with a captive rainforest that attracts 1.2 million visitors a year, where they designed fun, interactive exhibits to engage visitors, along with events.

Gaskill had been looking for a project to volunteer on for years when she met Matthews who had been to Siem Reap and told her about the Giant Puppet Project.

“This was something that I had wanted to do for a long time without finding the right project,” Gaskill explains.

“When I was in my twenties I did some travelling in Africa, starting in Egypt and went down through Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia to Kenya in 4WD vehicles,” she tells me. “Every time we showed up in little villages I felt like we were a circus rocking up to town. We were a major event but we weren’t actually bringing an event to a place where nothing actually happens.”

“For 20 years I’ve been working on events in the UK where you struggle to get people to care, to really want to do it, and be passionate about it, because there are just so many events happening and so many opportunities,” Gaskill elaborates.

“I felt like it was much more meaningful to work with people who have fewer opportunities to do something. When I looked at the Giant Puppet Project website, I thought that sounds just gorgeous. Here I am.”

Gaskill is here to use her lighting expertise to better illuminate the puppets as well as improve the safety of the event and make it more eco-friendly. The puppets had been illuminated by light bulbs fixed inside and cheap fairy lights strung around the outside, with power provided by car batteries and inverters that converted the voltage up to 220/240 volts.

It was risky in that there was a high chance of electric shocks or fire, as well as being energy-inefficient. Gaskill got rid of the dangerous inverters and introduced safe 12-volt batteries and LED products that use a lot less power.

The lights, including 250 sets of fairy lights, 300 LED lamps, 400 metres of cable, and a pile of 12-volt batteries, all of which will get recycled next year, were generously donated by Pactics Cambodia.

The event wouldn’t be possible without the help of sponsors that this year includes the Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa, Shinta Mani Club and Resort, Teacher Horizons, Angkor Sayana Hotel and Spa, Navutu Dreams Resort and Spa, and private donors Janet and Allen Johnson. Not to mention volunteers, including 50 Cambodians from the Pactics factory who act as safety stewards on the night, and staff from Miss Wong bar and Cochlin’s architectural firm who have acted as runners and problem-solvers.

“It’s the first time that we’ve all worked together as a team – although many people are returning from last year – so we couldn’t have been more happy with the way it’s already turning out,” Matthews smiles proudly.

“I find the expression of art in the community to be really healing and empowering,” he elaborates. “Art is magic and it can create magic however you define it. The energy that all of these young hands put into the puppets makes it something really special.”

Today’s groups are beginning to wind up for the afternoon. An Oriental bay owl lying on the lawn is almost done, and its orange and gold body shimmers in the late afternoon light.

By the weekend they will have completed the bodies of seven giant puppets including a leaf insect, a goat to celebrate Chinese New Year, and Mekong river fish. The puppets are animals, because the environmental message is an integral element of the event.

Yon Tony, a Cambodian biodiversity specialist was responsible for a biodiversity survey at Kulen Mountain, which confirmed that wildlife there is endangered due to illegal logging, land clearing for farming, and hunting.

Yon is training local farmers to work in eco-tourism so the additional income discourages them from engaging in behaviour that threatens the flora and fauna.

“I tell the children about the wildlife, what the animals are, and how they live,” Yon explains. “The children don’t know anything about wildlife and they don’t have a chance to see those kinds of animals.”

“But wildlife and forests are really important for Cambodia, for the world, and for humanity,” Yon says. “So I tell them we need to protect the animals and that this is a chance for us to get these messages across to the people.”

“After I tell them, I look at their faces and listen to them and they say “Oh, these are beautiful insects and beautiful animals!” They know there is a thing called a bird, but they don’t understand how many varieties of birds there are, forest birds, water birds, and that we have so many different species in Cambodia that we need to protect,” Yon elaborates. “I think the project is a great way to communicate messages about protecting the wildlife.”

A group of small children is working on the rattan body of an animal. Tony asks them how they are. “Happy!” they shout in unison. Are they excited about the Parade, he asks?

“It will be beautiful,” says twelve year-old Savit, smiling.

How To See the 2016 Giant Puppet Project Parade

The 2016 Giant Puppet Project Parade starts at 7pm on Saturday 6th February on the corner near Viva and the former Warehouse Bar, passes Old Market before snaking around and along Pub Street, before returning to the riverside, where it crosses the bridge and moves along River Road. It should arrive at the Royal Gardens by 8pm, where a children’s carnival will take place. Map here.

More information on the Giant Puppet Project Parade website and Facebook page.

A shorter version of this story was published in the Phnom Penh Post.

UPDATED: February 2016

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