Cheang Yarin and Sim Sarak have proven to be very special kite ambassadors for their home country of Cambodia. After publishing Khmer Kites in 2003, and after countless trips to the countryside to teach kite making and ferret out lost Cambodian kite heritage, Cheang and Sim have now published an updated version of Khmer Kites. Illustrated with many more photographs, the new edition continues to shed light on the obscured past of Cambodian kite culture.
As in the first edition, contemporary Cambodian kite makers are featured in the book, with more detailed pictures and drawings of their kites. Cambodian kites fill a very interesting niche of South East Asian kite culture, and the efforts of Cheang Yarin and Sim Sarak provide a model for kite preservation.
Text by Cheang Yarin
Until recently, most Cambodian people’s livelihoods were agriculturally based, and their main crop was rice. In the 1960s, Cambodia was even able to export about 500,000 tons of rice per year. As most of the people were farmers, their beliefs and festivals were related to farming. Today, Cambodian people are Buddhists, but their beliefs are a blend of animism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism.
Every month at least one festival is held. Cambodian people call these Pithi Tvear Tuos-meas, or ceremonies of twelve months of the year. These festivals have been consistently held from the past until the present. They are classified into two major groups: those organized during the rainy season and those in the dry season. This chapter briefly describes two festivals held at the beginning of the rainy season and two others in the first part of the dry season.
The two festivals performed at the beginning of the rainy season are the Royal Ploughing Ceremony and the Fete of Neakta.
Pithi Chraoat Preah Naingkorl, or the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, has been observed for many centuries, and was held at the initiative of a Khmer king in the ancient times. This ceremony is held to pay tribute to the god of earth for her gracious favor in providing land to the farmers to cultivate their rice. It is actually performed in Pisak (May), the sixth month of the Khmer lunar calendar, and marks the start of rice cultivation.
The Fete of Neakta (an animistic spirit or deity) takes place a fortnight after the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. Local ceremonies of this type are organized to invoke the spirits to bring rains for farming. The Khmers believe that Neakta or ancestor spirits would stay around to look after their children. Neakta are responsible for protecting younger generations from epidemic diseases, ensuring sufficient rains for farmers, and bringing prosperity for all in general.
Marking the end of the wet season, the Khmers have more festivals, including the Water Festival and the Festival of Kite Flying.
The Water Festival is held on the full moon day of Kattik, the twelfth month of the Khmer lunar calendar, which usually falls in October or November. It ushers in the final season of the year. The Cambodian people celebrate the festival to thank the earth and water for their gifts in the form of soil for farming. According to Buddhist belief, the festival began as a celebration of Buddha’s tooth, kept by the king of the Naga.
Exactly one month after the Water Festival, the Festival of Kite Flying follows and brings together kite makers to demonstrate their talents in the full-moon night of Maksir, the first month of the Khmer lunar calendar, which usually falls in November or December. For Khmers, the festival means an occasion to pray for good weather, good harvest of crops, and a favorable situation free from destruction by floods or heavy rains.
Buddhist Belief in Flying Kites
The locals also believe that they perform the festival in honor of the Preah Chula Muni Chetdei, a stupa (a structure containing Buddhist relics) at the second level of paradise where the Buddha’s tooth was kept.1 At the end of the kite flying season, the locals organize a ritual ceremony to offer a meal, gift, or contribution to the monks, and they dedicate these offerings to their ancestors and the former sage Thmenh Chey for his kind contribution of the Pnorng kite to ancient China.2 These days, not many people are aware of the meaning of this prayer.
Hindu Faith and Cult of Flying Kites
As Hinduism inspired several religious cults and also became a dominant form of worship in the past, the locals flew their kites in honor of various Hindu gods, namely Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, and other minor divinities, including Preah Suriya (the sun), Preah Chantr (the moon), Preah Phiruna (the rain), Preah Mer Thorinee (the earth), and Preah Agki (the fire).
The Festival of Kite Flying is also to express gratitude to Preah Peay (the wind) for giving us air to breathe, for blowing clouds that create the annual precipitation of the country, and for bringing no rain but dry weather to ripen crops.
When the rainy season is nearing an end, the southwestern monsoon brings strong winds, high humidity, and heavy rains. These torrential rains are accompanied by long and loud echoes of thunderclaps, which the locals call Pkor Pdam Kdam Kyang, meaning that the thunder is conveying its message to crabs and snails that the wet season is nearing an end very soon. Sometimes rains continue after the rainy season and create havoc, but the locals are inclined to believe that flying kites can help prevent floods. Therefore, the locals try to get up to seven different tones out of the musical bow of their Ek kites in order to express gratitude to the divinity of wind. By doing so, they believe that the beautiful sounds of their kites can convince the northeast wind to blow huge clouds away and not create any precipitation.
For their part, a segment of local inhabitants of Pursat district in Pursat province tend to throw a dog into the water as an offering to Ganga (the water), hoping that this action can help prevent flooding while they harvest rice.
In Khmer folklore, the kite has always symbolized many things. A good number of locals hold the Festival of Kite Flying annually and wish for peace, freedom, and happiness for everyone.3 Others prefer flying kites to welcome the new year’s goddess who should assume her
responsibility for prosperity of the country toward the end of each dry season.4
It was formerly believed that if a Khleng Pnorng or Khleng Ek kite dropped down on to any rooftop, the house owner or his dependents would suffer a misfortune. Therefore, the kite flier would have to prepare a ceremony to invoke success and prosperity in favor of the house owner’s family members, instead of leaving the house owner unhappy and resorting in a legal claim against each other.
The kite fliers performed these ceremonies because some of the people compared Khleng Ek to Khleng Srak (a type of owl, possibly Strix flammea) whose cry in a village or near a house is said to invoke a disease or to presage the death of a sick person. Out of habit, people always chase Khleng Srak or Khleng Khmoch (ghost owl) away by insulting and cursing it. And people can also throw a piece of burning firewood or fish cheese at this nocturnal bird. Now in the countryside, this kind of belief is no longer as popular as it was in the past.
1 and 2: Eveline Porée-Maspero, Etude sur les Rites Agraires des Cambodgiens, Paris Mouton & Co. La Haye, 1964.
3 and 4: Statements of Nop Nen (kite flier of Kompong Thom province), Mang Yong (kite flier of Prey Veng province), Krong Nguon Ly (kite flier of Phnom Penh), and Eng Setha (kite flier of Kandal province).