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Nang Sbek Thom or Sbek Thom

(Large Shadow Theatre)

History and background of Court Dance

Dance Costumes & Dance Characters

Royal Dance Spectacle

Classical Court Dance Music

Masked Theatre (Lakhon Khol)



Ken Kunthea's Dance Homepage

Youthful Optimism

Chamrouen Yin's Classical Cambodian Dance Page

Danse Celeste

Apsara Dance

Poetry In Motion

Classical Cambodian Dance

A Determined Survivor Revives Khmer Classical Dance

Classical Cambodian Court Dance

Sovannaphum Assoication

Sam Ang Sam's Khmer Music page

Scott's Cambodian musical instrument report

Khmer Classical Dance at the Temple

The Dance Spirit of Cambodia

The Dance Spirit of Cambodia Arts & Culture


  photographed and courtesy from Prof. James R. Brandon

Nang sbek thom or sbek thom (large leather puppet shadow theatre) corresponds to the nang yai of Thailand. Yet the origin of nang sbek thom is very obscure, some scholars believe that nang sbek thom developed during the Angkor period who other's claim that it came to Cambodia during the 19th century when King Ang Duong introduced this art form as well as lakhon khol and robam kbach boran into the Royal Court. Prince Damrong of Thailand however suggested and asserted that nang sbek thom came from Cambodia to Thailand when Angkor was sacked in the 15th century. Either way it's origin still remains unclear and obscure therefore both countries received an art form which is old as and uniquely beautiful.  


Nang sbek thom puppeteer holding a large shadow puppet panel photographed by Jacques Brunet

Nang sbek thom is an art that involves mime, song, music and having to dance as well as narration to the accompaniment of the pin-peat orchestra. Nang sbek thom would have as many as 10 or 12 puppeteers to who perform in this ancient art form. The leather panels can be 1.5 to 2 metres high and 1 to 1.5 metres wide, weigh as much as 7 kilograms each. The leather panels are intricately incised with heroic figures, princesses, giants, monkeys and other characters as well as palaces, battle scenes, forests etc... Some of them are incised leather version of the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat showing entire scenes from the Reamker. The leather could be dyed tan and black or left clear, so the shadow or silhouette is seen in varying warms shades of yellow and brown and pure white white where the leather is incised. The leather panels are mounted on two sticks and held by a male puppeteer firmly against a white screen lit that is 9 to 12 metres wide and up to 4.5 meters high lit by flame of torches or burning coconut shells.


Ceremony before any type of performance that may commence

Before a performance of nang sbek thom, nang sbek toch or any other kind of dance including lakhon khol or robam boran khmer etc... a salutation and special offerings are made to the spirits and teachers who help to create this art. The salutation and special offerings are made to ask for the spirits and teachers blessing so that they won't be offended in or during the performance. It is always considered important and treated with the utter most respect since many fear that without the proper rites to be performed misfortune could actually happen in one way or another.


Nang sbek thom serves a very fundamental purpose besides entertainment, it is performed on special occasions and ceremonies, such as part of buong soung ceremony which calls on the heavenly deities to ask for their blessing towards the new year, for fertility, prosperity to the land and nation and also for rain. Apart from buong suong ceremony it is also performed at the cremation of the kings corse, kru's corpse (teacher), parental corpse and also to ask the the Gods for rain during a drought .


Details from nang sbek thom panel



Before the war in Cambodia, there existed two nang sbek thom troupe in the country, one in Battambang Province and another one in Seam Reap Province. Nang sbek thom was an all male tradition, but however in the 1970s when it was brought to the Royal University of Fine Arts, this changed things a little. The performers would include female puppeteers because, male dancers were far and few. Therefore this was particularly necessary when a troupe of limited sized travelled internationally.

Nang sbek thom performance could last all night with a couple of long episodes with the battle between good and evil that is always a popular theme from the Reamker and other tales. Nowadays modified with the convention of electrical light instead of flame torches and burning coconut shells, the character remained the same.