Khmer Shadow Theatre

Hannah Barnett explains the allure of this ancient Cambodian artistry

As the sun sets and darkness envelops the land, it casts the perfect backdrop for one of Cambodia’s sacred art forms, Khmer shadow theatre. The stage is set with a large cotton canvas between two bamboo sticks and a roaring fire behind it, while a live orchestra comprised of gamelan and drums begin the music. Soon, the puppets and their animators are dancing across the stage, casting shadows out into the audience while a narrator dictates the tale. This art is likely to have developed during the pre-Angkor period and was only performed three or four times a year for special occasions, such as the king’s birthday, worship, or holidays. During the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979 the practice was nearly lost, but now it flourishes with frequent performances.


The puppets represent individual characters and can measure up to two meters in length with two bamboo sticks used for manipulation. They are intricately carved from cow hide to produce characters such as the Hindu gods, Shiva and Vishnu, and can take a day or more to complete. To come to life on the stage, they are animated by skilled dancers who have specific choreography to make the puppets appear real and multi-dimensional. Up to 160 characters can be used for a single performance, which can last several nights. The most common tale performed is the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Ramayana (a prevalent Hindu epic poem).

©Pete Niesen/

The show has multiple facets and also features royal ballet and mask theatre. This is the time where the animators of the puppets come from behind the screen and showcase their acrobatics and advanced dancing skills. You will find no silk Pointe shoes or frilly tutus. Instead, the ballet dancers are garbed in Cambodian attire of elaborate golden headdresses adorned with flowers, golden bangles on the wrists and ankles, with ornate silks and fabrics to fashion skirts, shirts, or trousers. Mask theatre on the other hand transforms the dancers into different characters or animals by the beautifully decorated masks worn. The dances mimic whichever animal or character they portray, from a monkey or a dog. 

The show in its entirety continues to preserve a sacred art and share its splendour with many audiences around the world.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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