The lights dim and the room falls silent. A soft light issues from behind a white screen as the drums begin to play.

Suddenly, shapes appear dancing across the screen. A narrator’s voice emerges telling a tale of a monkey, Hanuman, trying to rescue his wife, Sita. If this sounds like something out of legend, it is. It is legend brought to life by Sbek Thom, or Khmer shadow theatre.

The History & Tradition of Sbek Thom: A Sacred Story

Sbek Thom – also known as traditional Khmer Shadow Puppet Theatre – is a sacred art form dating back over 1000 years to before the time of the Angkor Empire. This week at Phare Ponleu Selpak, our performing arts students had the opportunity to study Sbek Thom with performers from Tok Klok of Phnom Penh, bringing this ancient art form to life.

Learn how Phare students are bringing back Sbek Thom, or Khmer shadow theatre, for the next generation

Sbek Thom is performed using leather non-articulated puppets that can be up to 2 meters tall. The making of the puppets is a time-honored tradition, and the exact process depends on the character that the puppet will represent. Each character requires its own special ceremony.

Before the performance begins, artists gather to pray and meditate. They burn incense and chant prayers, preparing themselves for the performance. They are about to tell a sacred story and must have a calm mind that will allow them to display their characters authentically.

The performance itself is a fluid expression of storytelling and movement. Dancers guide the puppets behind a white sheet to the sounds of Cambodian music. With the help of one or two narrators, the performers eloquently act out religious stories and legends.

Sbek Thom, Phare Style

This week in our Artist Residency, students from Phare Performing Arts School spent two days studying this Sbek Thom shadow puppetry, learning to put on a performance of one chapter of the Reamker, Cambodia’s version of the Ramayana.

Khmer shadow theatre being performed at Phare Performing Arts School

Joining our artists were the dancers and performers from Artonik, the group visiting us from France this month to build a contemporary dance routine. In this collaboration, the artists from Artonik had a chance to learn a traditional Khmer art form, and bring aspects of this new style into their own art form.

The result was a performance of Sbek Thom unlike any other. Phare students worked with their European partners to tell us the tale of Hanuman, the monkey, trying to rescue his wife Sita from a demon.

The Tragic History of Sbek Thom

This Sbek Thom performance had a deeper significance to a Cambodian audience than just the cross-cultural collaboration, or the religious story.

Sbek Thom shadow puppetry at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, Cambodia

Sbek Thom as an art form, preserved for centuries in Cambodia, was nearly eradicated during the brutal Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s. Today, thanks to the hard work of artist collectives such as Tok Klok, the Khmer shadow theatre is experiencing a revival.

Phare Ponleu Selpak is proud to encourage the next generation of Cambodian artists and performers to continue studying this vital aspect of Khmer cultural heritage.


Help preserve Cambodian arts for future generations: Contribute to Phare Ponleu Selpak to give more students a chance to learn – and build on – their Khmer cultural heritage.