Making Sbek Thom: An Interview with a Phare Teacher

Our teacher Sopheavy showcasing one handmade shadow puppet


If your home had been ripped apart by civil war, and your culture and arts almost completely erased, what would you do? For the teachers at Phare Ponleu Selpak, the answer is clear: study these ancient arts, and pass them on to the students.

This January, through workshops and knowledge sharing, our teachers worked to preserve the beautiful Cambodian tradition of Large Shadow Puppet Theatre, or Sbek Thom.

We sat down with one teacher, Ms. Sopheavy, to find out how to make a leather shadow puppet, and why she thinks this art form is important for the next generation of Cambodians.

Sbek Thom: Large Shadow Puppet Theatre

Picture this: you sit with family in friends in a pagoda. It is late at night in a world before electricity. Your surroundings are dark, with only the light of the stars to illuminate your surroundings. The night is filled with the sounds of crickets and other insects. You sit facing a white sheet, a fire burns behind, creating a soft glow. A sound grows into a crescendo: a Cambodian orchestra begins playing. Suddenly behind the sheet, shapes appear. Characters from the Ream Ke, or Ramayana, dancing across the screen. A narrator speaks, telling an epic tale of gods, men and fantastic journeys. This is Sbek Thom Theatre, and the art form that Phare Ponleu Selpak is helping to preserve.

To learn more about the history of this tradition, read our earlier blog post.

Sbek Thom: The Importance of Giant Shadow Puppets

Last November, a few of our teachers travelled to Phnom Penh to study the making of Sbek Thom Puppets with the experts at Kok Thlok. Sopheavy, a dance teacher in our Performing Arts School, joined the training in Phnom Penh to learn how to create her own puppet, and perform a piece of the Ream Ke.

For Sopheavy, learning to make and perform with Sbek Thom is an experience with a unique importance to Cambodians. Carrying on this ancient art form is important for Cambodian national identity, and for the knowledge of the younger generation. In a country where many traditions and ancient art forms are disappearing, Sopheavy is proud to be bringing them back to life.

This month, Sopheavy, along with her fellow teachers, decided to share their new knowledge and skill with the students here in Battambang. She felt that this was an important and logical next step to take after the training in Phnom Penh.

“In Cambodia, this art form has almost completely faded away. We want to preserve it, and to pass this knowledge to the youngest generation.”

This art form has yet another significance in a modern Cambodian economy where rural families are getting left behind. In the hands of modern artisans, Sopheavy tells us, Sbek Thom becomes a tool for economic empowerment.

“This process of creating puppets from leather is inexpensive for Cambodians. But if they learn the skill, they can sell the handmade puppets to support their families.”

Many of the families in our community struggle to support themselves, and parents sometimes leave their children in Cambodia while they travel to Thailand for work. Through artistic pursuits like Sbek Thom, artisans can support themselves and keep their family together.

How To Make Sbek Thom Puppets

Making a shadow puppet out of leather is a slow, intricate process, one that can last for many days. It begins with the death of a cow. Cattle is common in Cambodia, yet they are valuable animals, not sacrificed lightly. The skin of the cow is cleaned, stretched out, and left to dry in the sun for at least three days. As it dries, a dye made from the Cambodian Kodal plant is applied to the leather.

After three days, the hair is shaved off of the leather and dye is applied once more. Now dried and dyed, it is time to work the leather into the sacred characters. The artist draws the shape of the puppet she wishes to create. This can be a character from the Ream Ke, or anything they wish. Drawn on paper, the illustration is laid atop the leather and pinned in place.

Next, it is time to create the puppet. Using a hammer and nails of various sizes, the shapes of the puppet are hammered out of the leather. Point by point, hour by hour, the character is born from the leather. The last step is to apply paint to draw out the character further, and then attach the puppet to its frame.

The entire process can be finished in 5 days, or longer, depending on how long the leather is left to dry in the sun. But for Sopheavy, she can knock out a beautiful puppet in less than one day.


Promoting The Rebirth of Cambodian Culture: Why Phare Teaches Sbek Thom Creation

As one of the premier art schools in Cambodia, the teachers at Phare Ponleu Selpak feel inspired to preserve and pass down the knowledge of sacred and traditional Cambodian art forms. With this training, we have added Sbek Thom to the list of artistic disciplines that are taught on our campus.

At the end of the training, Sopheavy and her fellow teachers were proud of themselves, and honored to be a part of the continuation of this knowledge.

Our next steps? To use this knowledge to create our own Sbek Thom performances in Battambang, promoting Cambodian culture and bringing together our community. Because of the passion of our teachers and students, we will secure this sacred art for the next generation.



Want to support the rebirth of Cambodian artistic culture? A donation to Phare Ponleu Selpak goes directly to support the education of the children in Battambang in Performing and Visual arts.

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