Article and photographs by Sarah St. Vincent

From Discourse 6

In the past, all Cambodian people are very sorry, because of the Khmer Rouge. They made Cambodia – for the whole world, they made Cambodia into the “killing field.” And now…I want to make the whole world know about Cambodia. Today it’s not the same as [during] the Khmer Rouge rule. Because the Khmer are the people that can…meet many people from other countries, who come to Angkor Wat temple. And Cambodia – my people – was the first united state in Southeast Asia…. We were a center of culture – good culture, like khleng ek. So I want to use khleng ek as one material to disseminate all the good of Khmer culture, and of Khmer civilization.

From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was a killing field. But now Cambodia is a civilization field. A civilization field. Like in the past. In the past, especially the time of Angkor.

– Sim Sarak

Over a thousand years ago, according to the legend, a Cambodian trickster hero invented the first musical kite while imprisoned in China. Having run a popular noodle stand outside the palace walls in Beijing for several years, Thun Chhey had gained a reputation for his audacious sense of humor and startling feats of intelligence. When the king and his ministers finally decided to investigate this eccentric (and possibly treasonous) foreigner by appearing at the noodle stand and ordering soup, Thun Chhey insisted on feeding the king his first taste of Khmer noodles by hand – so as to make note of the sovereign’s first reaction to dish, he said – and then laughed. “Who is this man,” he exclaimed, “who has the face and breath of a dog? How I wish I could look upon my own countrymen again. My king, for one, has a face as round and handsome as the full moon – nothing like this mongrel here.”

The trickster, of course, was promptly thrown into prison, where he began to assemble a strange object from dried leaves, a few stalks of bamboo, and a long strip of rattan. The night before he was to be executed, he tied a string to the object, slipped it through the narrow window of his cell, and allowed the wind to carry it over the city. The rattan vibrated in the breeze, making an eerie humming sound, and the king woke from his sleep to find what appeared to be an enormous black bird hovering ominously overhead. Summoning his ministers, he cried, “That Khmer devil! Let him out! I know this is his doing. Send him back to his country before we’re all cursed.” Ever since that day, Cambodians retelling the story will proudly say, Cambodia has been able to boast about outwitting China – while the Chinese have struggled in vain to make a kite as beautiful and melodious as Thun Chhey’s.

A family in Kompong Speu province during the harvest season. The third child from the left is holding a pao kite.

A kitemaker with a crude but typical khleng ek (minus the musical ek reed) in Kompong Speu province.

The Thun Chhey story, which thousands of Cambodians of all ages and backgrounds can recite from memory, appears at first to be a simple tale, part origin myth and part classic trickster narrative. Woven into the story, however, are threads that still recur in Cambodian kitemakers’ discussions of their art form, particularly when they seek to explain the importance of reviving kitemaking and kiteflying following the devastation of the Khmer Rouge era. From September 2004 to July 2005, with the help of a generous grant from the Drachen Foundation, I traveled through eleven Cambodian provinces asking a simple question: Why kites? Why, in the wake of a genocide, economic devastation, and continuing poverty and political turmoil, were so many families and communities rediscovering these traditional playthings and recasting them as a matter of national importance? Part of the answer was the beauty, variety, and unique construction of the kites themselves, but – as in the Thun Chhey story, and as in Sim Sarak’s discussion (above) – kites were also increasingly viewed as proof of Cambodia’s cultural resilience, historic might, and continuing pride in its national heritage, as well as an important strategy for community survival in difficult times.

As most Cambodians are acutely aware, the Khmer kingdom (“Khmer” and “Cambodian” are interchangeable terms for both the language and the people) was once the greatest empire in Southeast Asia, encompassing much of modern-day Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. In the twelfth century, at the height of the kingdom’s spectacular power and wealth, Cambodian kings ordered the construction of what is still the world’s largest religious site: Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple hewn from sandstone by Khmer laborers and slaves, a sprawling complex where every wall, window, doorway, and corridor was carefully sculpted into a work of art. Today, the silhouette of this temple (endlessly painted, photographed, sewn onto flags, and printed on t-shirts) continues to remind Cambodians that theirs was once a country of unparalleled prowess and grandeur. Yet by the thirteenth century, the kingdom had begun to crumble, its borders eroded by a long series of brutal wars with the Thais, Chams1, and Vietnamese. Angkor Wat was abandoned and gradually reclaimed by the jungle, and until the French came, it looked as though the country would vanish entirely, swallowed by its enemies. The French, however, established a protectorate over Khmer territory, drawing official maps with fixed borders, and Cambodia – a land of farmers and fishermen – became a kind of colonial afterthought, overshadowed by the much more populous and restive Vietnam.

In 1953, thanks to a young but cunning King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia regained its independence and enjoyed what its people, in hindsight, regard as a golden age, a time when peace prevailed and traditional arts flourished. Unfortunately, Sihanouk adopted a policy of persecuting and assassinating Cambodian leftists, who fled to secret jungle camps on the eastern border and sought the patronage of North Vietnam. This leftist movement gained a flood of new recruits when the American bombing campaign on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border began in the late 1960s. The bombing gradually spread to include most of the country, killing thousands of civilians and prompting hundreds of thousands more to flee from their rural villages to the safety of major towns and cities. In this climate of chaos, violence, and mass displacement, many young Cambodians chose to join the leftist rebels in the jungle: thus, the Khmer Rouge movement was born.

When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, they evacuated Cambodia’s cities at gunpoint, causing a massive reverse migration from urban areas to the countryside and creating what has been described as a national prison camp. From 1975 until the beginning of 1979, the country’s borders were sealed, with no Cambodians permitted to leave (aside from a handful of high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials) and very few foreigners permitted to enter. The Khmer Rouge executed anyone affiliated with the former government or royal family and anyone suspected of having an education, including doctors, teachers, nurses, judges, officials, and businessmen. Cambodians who survived this policy of summary execution became slave laborers, and during the three years, eight months, and twenty days of Khmer Rouge rule – a number nearly every Cambodian knows by heart – a quarter of the population died, with many perishing due to starvation or disease. In the process, as singers, dancers, craftsmen, monks, and scholars died, many of Cambodia’s most prized cultural traditions disappeared.

The genocide and its aftermath took a devastating toll on Cambodian kitemaking, a craft that had been passed down among male relatives and neighbors for hundreds of years. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, most expert kitemakers were elderly men, few of whom survived the hardships of the labor camps. Families that had been split apart by death and dislocation during the American bombing campaign and Khmer Rouge genocide fragmented further when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and swept the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, as many fled on foot to refugee camps along the Thai border or crisscrossed the country in hopes of finding their former homes intact. Many resettled in villages other than the ones in which they had been born, next to neighbors with whom they had no prior connection. The majority of my interviewees – adult men who survived this era and went on to become kitemakers – still live in communities other than the ones in which their parents and extended families lived before the war. This separation of family members, combined with the deaths of elderly expert kitemakers and the presence of landmines in many areas where kites were once flown, meant that few children learned how to make traditional kites. By the 1980s, the art form had largely vanished.

The tide began to turn in the early 1990s, when Sim Sarak, an expert in copyright law at the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, began to notice children flying simple kites (known as pao or “pocket” kites) in Phnom Penh. In 1994, Sarak and his wife, Cheang Yarin, both of whom spoke fluent French, met a film producer from Dieppe, France, who mentioned that an international kite festival was regularly held in his city. Intrigued, Sarak approached the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts to propose a national Cambodian kite festival in Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s first post-genocide elections had recently been held under United Nations supervision, and as Sarak later observed, the country was experiencing a brief window of political stability, although government troops continued to battle the Khmer Rouge in several provinces. The minister acquiesced, and Cambodia’s first kite festival was held in December 1994.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact that this festival, which is now held biannually in Phnom Penh, has had on Cambodians who remembered how to make kites but had little reason to do so in the aftermath of the genocide. Traditionally, khleng ek, which bear some resemblance to a bird of prey seen from below and usually include a rattan strip (ek) that produces up to seven humming tones when it vibrates in the wind, were flown over a village’s fields at night to frighten animals away from the crops. Constructed primarily from bamboo and paper, they often take weeks to assemble and are typically too large and delicate to transport easily. At up to two meters tall, they are also too unwieldy to be flown alone. Prior to the Khmer Rouge era, village men would often gather in groups of five or more to fly them. After the genocide and Vietnamese invasion, when village cohesion was very weak and most survivors suffered extreme poverty, even the few adults who remembered how to make khleng ek often lacked the motivation or capacity to construct them. The kite festival, and in particular the organizers’ decision to hold competitions within each province in order to select kites for inclusion, changed all of this. Men who knew how to make kites could share their knowledge with one another, and competed enthusiastically to represent their provinces when the national festival was held in Phnom Penh.

Three kitemakers (including one woman) assembling a kite in Kep City, Kampot province.

Mao Nom, an 82-year-old kitemaker in Takeo province.

My goal in traveling to Cambodia and interviewing kitemakers in different areas of the country was to learn what these men and women’s lives were like: their personal histories, their roles in their families, the type of work they did, and – most importantly – why they were devoting so much of their scarce time and resources to making (and teaching others to make) khleng ek.  Sarak and Yarin have documented the 27 most common Cambodian kite styles in their excellent book Khmer Kites. I sought to record the stories of the people who are making these kites and thereby rescuing an art form that was very nearly lost. Most of the men and women I interviewed lived in poverty, although a few were members of the country’s nascent middle class. Many were struggling in the face of a severe drought, and some were openly pessimistic about Cambodia’s prospects for long-term peace and development. Yet, nearly all of them viewed kites as a source of national as well as personal pride, and were eager to share their knowledge of the art form with an international audience. Many of them retold the Thun Chhey story to illustrate how kites had previously helped Cambodians triumph over adversity while displaying their ingenuity and artistic talents. Some even expressed hopes that making kites for international customers might someday become a viable and much-needed source of income. Nearly all emphasized that kitemaking and kiteflying provide an important way for families and community members to bond in difficult times.

Below are excerpts from the interviews, most of which took place at the kitemakers’ homes, often in full view of their families and a crowd of fellow villagers.2 The lack of privacy meant that I was unable to collect extended biographies, as I had initially hoped, but many interviewees spoke more or less freely about their kites and their lives, both before and after the war. Most were elderly, and few – if any – had taken part in an interview before. (The Phnom Penh residents I interviewed were probably more familiar with the interview format from newspapers and television news programs, which may explain their focused and comparatively detailed answers. These interviews were also much more private than those that took place in rural villages.) Nearly all of the interviewees expressed excitement about the possibility that Cambodian kites might someday become well-known in the US. It is my hope that these interviews will serve as a resource for anyone interested not only in modern Cambodian kites, but also in contemporary Cambodian culture in general. [3]


My name is Krong Nguon Ly, and I was born in 1957. I first moved to Phnom Penh in 1970, after the revolution began, and this is where I learned to be an auto mechanic. The most important thing in my life is my job, but for entertainment, I enjoy making and flying kites more than anything. I have a brother in the United States who also knows how to make them.

When I was growing up, the happiest times were always during the harvest season, which also happens to be the windy season. When my great-grandfather was seventy and I was twelve, he saw that I enjoyed flying kites, and he decided to teach me how to make them. At that time, lots of old men liked to fly kites because they had little else to do; some children knew how to fly kites, but only a few could make them. My great-grandfather taught me to make all kinds of kites, including a special kite that has a rudder instead of a tail – a design that can only be found in Kompong Cham province. We usually flew our kites at night after the harvest season. Some people tried to fly kites before the harvest season had ended, but this was usually not a good idea since the kites’ tails could get tangled in the fields. The village is quite different now, because it has more houses, better roads, and a higher standard of living. Also, not many people fly kites anymore. There’s only one other person in my hometown who learned to make kites from our great- grandparents’ generation.

In 1970, I stopped flying kites, because the revolution came and everything changed. Life definitely improved after 1985. I married my wife in 1993, right before I started joining the national kite festival. She’s from the same province but a different village, and she’s an elementary school teacher. She also tutors in the afternoon to supplement our income. Fortunately, she doesn’t mind that I like to make kites. She says that’s up to me.

We have three sons, ages twenty, seventeen, and fifteen. I taught them all how to make kites, although the youngest one is the most skilled and can even make small khleng ek. I wanted them to learn how to make kites because it’s a part of Khmer tradition. I’m worried that in the future, no one will know about this part of our culture, so I want to pass it on to my children.

I love making kites, but I wish I could advertise them somehow, so I could sell them and earn some money for my family. I agreed to this interview because I hope people can learn about my kites and order them from me. I’ve taken part in the national kite festival since the mid-1990s, and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has also sent me to festivals in France three times. In France, I was happy because although I didn’t think foreigners liked kites, I discovered that they like our kites very much. One reason I think kites are so important is that they can make us happy and help us to have good relationships with one another.


I was born in 1941 in Prey Ta Phem village, Kompong Speu province. I originally came to Phnom Penh when I was seventeen or eighteen years old, and this is where I was reunited with my family after the Vietnamese liberation in 1979. That’s why I live here now.

I began learning to make and fly kites when I was eight years old. There were some old men in my village who knew how to make kites, and at first I would only watch them, but then I started bringing them small gifts and in return they would teach me. I’d also help them roll up the kite line. It’s funny: when I was a child, only old men flew kites, but now that I’m an old man, only children want to fly kites. Today, those old men’s descendants still live in my hometown, but I’ve never seen them make a single kite. People in Cambodia rarely fly kites anymore; I think very few people still enjoy it. But I respect and admire the old men who are famous kite fliers. I wish I could return to my village and have a special kite- flying event or ceremony to honor the old men who taught me, but this is impossible since I don’t have the money.

One of Minh Sophat’s kites. He has pioneered the use of colored foil imported from Thailand as a decoration for Cambodian kites.

Chor pha-nov, the fruit whose sap once was (and occasionally still is) used as a glue when constructing kites.

Although I graduated from high school, I never studied at the university. Instead, I became a marine. I loved my job, and I used to fly kites when the boat was sailing quickly.

For three years and eight months of my life, during the Pol Pot regime, I suffered. I destroyed all the photos that I had taken with American colleagues when I was in the marines, because if the Pol Pot soldiers had found them, I would have been executed immediately. Because I kept this secret, I am still alive today. During that time I became a farmer, like everyone in Cambodia, and I did not have anything to eat. It’s difficult to talk about that time in Cambodia because it would take a lot of time to discuss. I cannot describe it in only one day. It made the Cambodian people sad. My parents and four of my siblings died, and I know they were killed by people who lived in our village. The reason I don’t want to go there now is because it makes me angry. I really don’t want to take revenge on them, but even though I once owned many fields and coconut trees in my village, I decided I should not go there anymore.

I resumed making kites in 1979, after the Vietnamese freed Cambodia. This was when my children were still young, and one day I tried to fly a kite but it went into the lake, and my son cried. That’s what reminded me that I wanted to make kites. When my youngest son was a child, I taught him how to make kites. However, he is a student now, so I don’t force him to keep learning to make kites.

Today I am old, and I have nothing to think about except kites. My life is not important. When I was young, all I thought about was getting a good job to support my family, but kites are one of the most important things to me now. It’s especially important because I think Cambodians ignore this part of their culture. My family and my neighbors sometimes criticize me, saying, “He’s an old man – why does he like playing with kites? Is he senile?” But kites are so important to me that if someone invites me to a meal, or to have tea, my response is always no because I prefer to make kites.

Sometimes children come to me and want to buy a kite, but Cambodian children are very poor, so I let them pay just 100 riel, or 2,000 riel, or 5,000 riel [about $1.25]. Some of the children just want to fly kites with me. In the past, people always had farms or land, at least eight or ten hectares, but now they have nothing because they have to pay school fees for their children. Even if the children are from poor families, I still fly kites with them, because promoting kites is so important to me. A few times, the Department of Cultural Development invited me to come and teach schoolchildren to make kites, perhaps 200 students altogether. I enjoyed teaching them.

Although making kites is an important part of my life, I sometimes feel that kites are useless. I seldom earn money from them, and many of my relatives tell me that kitemaking is pointless because it cannot help me support my wife and my family. I wish I had a market for my kites, so I could sell them and earn some money. But I am grateful to the [Cambodian] kite museum, because sometimes they buy my kites, and they encourage me to participate in the kite festivals. I’m also very glad that we now have a book about Khmer kites, so the younger generation can see how these kites are made. I want the next generation to know about this part of their culture.

Song, his wife, and villagers who gathered at Song’s house in Kompong Speu province to watch our interview. Song described this type of kite, with its unique spur-shaped additions, as a “crown kite,” and claimed to be the only kitemaker in Cambodia who knows how to make it.

Kitemaker stenciling Angkor Wat onto a kite in Kep City, Kampot province.


I am a farmer. I live here but my homeland is in Takeo province. I used to watch my father make kites, and he also taught me how to make them. My brother could make kites too, but he died. Therefore, I am the only one left in my family who knows how to make them. I like flying kites because I heard from my father that he always made and flew kites because it’s our tradition. I think this kind of kite does not exist in other countries.

Unfortunately, because of the Pol Pot regime, I stopped making kites until around ten or twenty years ago, but I still remembered how to make them. I taught my children how to make them, too. The kite-flying season begins in December and continues until May. We can fly our kites at night as well as during the day. Sometimes, I decorate my kites with lanterns [and fly them at night]. If the weather is good, I will fly them alone.

If I want to fly kites, it means that I want to relax. Sometimes I’m so busy flying kites that I forget to have lunch.

Song’s wife (joking): I am very angry with him because he does not help me very much at home – he only helps me a little bit and then he goes and flies kites in the field. I will have prepared the meal already but he says, “I am too busy flying kites.”

Sometimes at night he doesn’t sleep well because he’s listening to the kite’s sound, and when the kite falls down he goes out to bring it home. So it’s not good for my sleep! He always disturbs me. He’s always thinking about his kites. But this is okay because when I scold him, he can’t say anything in response because he knows he’s the one who made a mistake. Our neighbors have a big house, but we still have a small house because he always prefers flying kites with the children instead of working in the field.

Song: I got married when I was 21 years old. I met her because it was fate.

Song’s wife (joking): If I knew he liked flying kites so much, I wouldn’t have married him. You see? He doesn’t have any white hairs, but my hair is all white! I let him fly kites in the field, but I am afraid his kite will fall down on the house, and we won’t have enough money to fix it. Luckily, the kites always fall down in the field.

Song: I am very happy to talk with you. Making kites was not a good activity many years ago [probably during the Pol Pot regime], but now it’s good so I am very happy. Now there is only one other kitemaker here; I am good at making kites so I am the best kitemaker in our Kong Russey village. Of course, there are many kitemakers in Cambodia but not all of them are good at making kites. My happiest time is when I’m flying kites, and if the people love flying kites, that also makes me happy.


Nobody in particular taught me how to make kites – I learned how to make them by watching the old men, and then I tried to make them myself. At that time, I was around ten years old.

Today the children enjoy flying kites, but their parents usually do not want them to fly kites very often, because they want the children to help them do work at home. Even my own family does not enjoy making or flying kites. My children have their own work to do, and they say, “How much money can you earn from kites? It’s a waste of time.” So I don’t often go to fly kites. If I’m free, I’ll fly them, but I don’t tell my family about it. If they hear the ek’s sound they get angry with me and say, “You go to Phnom Penh every year [for the festival] but you still have nothing to eat. So why do you love the culture so much?”

Kong Chheng with a 50-year-old ek reed at his home in Siem Reap province.

Tong Baty with her baby at their home in Kampot province.

I want to give the ministry some suggestions about kites. Don’t say if a kite falls down on the roof of someone’s house, then it’s not good luck, because last year I paid 20,000 riel and 100,000 riel for that. [His kite fell on the house of a superstitious neighbor, who destroyed the kite and then had a blessing ceremony to dispel any bad luck, at Kong Chheng’s expense.] The ministry should promote the truth about this on TV, and tell the teachers to educate everyone about it. If a car runs into someone, we don’t burn the car. Because of these superstitions, the children are afraid to make kites.


I was born in the Year of the Dog [1982], and now I’m married and just had a daughter ten days ago.

My father didn’t teach me how to make kites, but I learned how to make them by watching him. And that was what I wanted to learn about, so I learned how to make them. I learned how to make kites when I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I can make a whole khleng ek, and I can make the ek reed too. My reeds can only make two or three sounds. If I want them to make more sounds, I ask for my father’s help.

Khmer kites are very important to us, but if there were no kite-flying festival in Phnom Penh, Khmer kites would be lost. It’s good to promote Khmer kites to the younger generations. Most of the girls in the countryside are afraid to go to the kite festival in the city because first, they’re female, and second, they are afraid of men in the city.

When my daughter grows up, I’ll teach her how to make and assemble kites. It’s really not difficult to do. It takes a day to assemble the body and secure it with thread. After bending the bamboo, we have to sew the plastic [or paper] onto it. Then we make the string and the tail. And then we fly the kite to test it. After flying kites, we tie them to a stake and keep them flying over the fields at night. We enjoy listening to their sounds.

Khmer kites are very important to Cambodians, like the other arts. They will be even more important to us if we support them continuously. We will lose our Khmer kites if people don’t like flying them anymore.

  1. The Chams are a Malay ethnic group who once claimed much of the mountainous territory that now forms the border between Cambodia and southern Vietnam. They also controlled some parts of the lowland; Kompong Cham, a provincial capital in central Cambodia, translates literally as “Cham city.”
  2. These interviews were translated contemporaneously by Cheang Yarin or Norng Piseth, tape-recorded, and then transcribed and translated again by Piseth. I am extremely grateful to both of them for their assistance, and also to Sarak, Hang Sovann, Roeung Sareth, Khlok Sarun, and the late Pol Phan, all of whom devoted hours to locating and helping me reach interviewees. (Hang Sovann, in particular, provided daily assistance in coordinating this research.) The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts generously provided logistical support for each of the research trips.
  3. Transcripts of the interviews are on file with the Drachen Foundation; the interview tapes are on file with the author.