San Phalla
Deputy Director, Books and Reading Department, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts
Chhay Davin
Researcher, General Department of Cultural Technique, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts

On the east bank of the Mekong River about fifteen kilometers from Phnom Penh is Wat Svay Andet, a Buddhist monastic community mainly supported by two villages, Ta Skor and Peam Ek of Lvea-em District, Kandal Province. Wat Svay Andet is home to lkhon khol, a kind of theatre with recitation in which actors are all males, wear lacquer masks, and perform only scenes from Reamker, a Cambodian version of the Sanskrit Ramayana epic. This dance drama is accompanied by pinpeat, a traditional orchestra of percussion instruments. Although the dance is performed by villagers, the costumes and ornaments are as magnificent as those of classical court dance.

Based on epigraphic studies, scholars believe that lkhon khol originated from the bhani theater. It is a form of dramatic entertainment with a narrative told by reciter and has existed since the Angkor period (9–14 centuries CE). Although lkhon khol has also survived in other places and sometimes with different names, the lkhon khol of Wat Svay Andet has been preserved with its own unique application that has been firmly integrated into local tradition and has played important and inseparable roles in daily life of the community. It is performed once a year, shortly after the Khmer New Year, by the local people. In the past, the performance took place over seven nights (or double), but now it lasts only three nights. The performance not only serves as an entertainment but also plays a significant role in the local religious belief system of rice farming communities: bringing about happiness and prosperity, warding off calamities, and appealing for sufficient rain for the coming rice cultivation season.

Current Status and Challenges

Lkhon khol of Wat Svay Andet continues today because of its significance in the community’s beliefs and identity, but over the last decade it has been experiencing difficulty. Despite of having some support from the state, NGOs, and the community itself, the troop has faced some challenges, such as the lack of dance costumes, ornaments, masks, stages, and musical instruments. Furthermore, the number of performers has been gradually decreasing due to aging and a lack of natural talent, and the younger generations show little interest since the performances generate no income and they are busy with their studies or working.

Modes of Transmission

Traditionally, the lkhon khol is transmitted orally within a family and through informal, master-apprentice relationships. Community leaders, masters, and the temple patriarch also encourage younger generations to learn lkhon khol skills to ensure that the art form remains part of the community’s living cultural practice.

Apprentices have historically learned their preferential skills at their masters’ house at night, a time they were free from their agriculture work. While the same practice continues, recently amateurs are learning their art skills in groups during the day on Sundays or occasionally Thursday at the temple compound.

Past and Current Efforts to Safeguard the Community’s Living Heritage

Although the community has been strong in its struggle to safeguard their living heritage, lkhon khol is also able to survive today through the joint support of the royal palace, the state, individuals, and local and international organizations.

A fight scene between the white and black monkeys in Reamker © Wat Svay Andet

Before the decade of war (1970s), the Svay Andet dance troop was connected to and partly supported by the royal palace, which lent all dance costumes, ornaments, and masks. During the war years, all performances were stopped. As of the early 1980s, the few masters who survived the Khmer Rouge regime gathered and tried to commence their tradition again. The performance was then supported by villagers and temples, and the then Ministry of Culture lent costumes.

In 2000, UNESCO donated a set of pin peat, costumes, and masks and built a dance stage for the community since the village’s dance hall was in poor condition and later fell into the river. There was also some support from an NGO called Good Fund to repair musical instruments and offer some compensation to masters. Today, however, the costumes and masks UNESCO provided are in bad condition, and the dance hall is occupied by local villagers, who have no land on which to live. In 2016, the performance space was moved inside the temple compound with the stage covered by temporary plastic tent.

The community’s dance drama has caught the attention of both local and international researchers, so it has been documented, and many books and articles have been produced. And various parties have been promoting initiatives to keep the tradition alive. The dance drama has been engaged in the temple and during state events to promote the art form and keeps the performers physically and psychologically dynamic. Fundraising will take place to build the dance stage. The state will allocate a budget to contribute to the troop’s costumes and masks.

The safeguarding and promotion initiatives of the community and the government are not enough to ensure the viability of lkhon khol. The influence of globalization leads people, especially the young, to be more excited with new forms of entertainment, which can result in the loss of traditional art forms. In addition, the performances produce no income, so would-be performers opt to engage in other activities to earn a living. Without a sustained mechanism, which requires resources and financial support, safeguarding initiatives will be difficult to implement. Therefore, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts is cooperating with the community and relevant organizations to nominate the lkhon khol of Wat Svay Andet for inscription on UNESCO’s ICH lists. This inscription would open opportunities of receiving financial support and thus would guarantee the well-being of the community’s living heritage.