For Khmers, Kites Mean Peace
By: Ann Creevey. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter.. ( January, 2002 Volume 2 No.1 )

One is washing the oil and grease from his hands. The others, Sim Sarak and his wife Chieng Yarin, dressed smartly, look somehow out of place next to Krong Nguon Ly's busy mechanics workshop. But their passion is the same. All are dedicated to the Cambodian musical kite, the kleng-ek, which would have died out along with so much of Cambodia's culture if it wasn't for the dedication of these few. Particularly Sim Sarak's. The Director General of Administration and Finance at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts learned to love these special kites as a boy in Kampong Cham Province. The kite was in decline even before the Khmer Rouge regime came to power.

Once an important symbol of the end of rainy season, the last king to entertain a passion for kites was King Angduong. When he died in 1859, people stopped making kleng-ek as much as before. In Khmer folklore, kites have always been a symbol of freedom. Legend has it that, many centuries ago, a Khmer man was imprisoned by a cruel Chinese king and locked in a tower. He used his time to create a kite, and the noise it made when he flew it from the window of his cell so frightened the king that he ordered him released.
"I was always fascinated by the kleng-ek especially, with its beautiful sound. The kleng-ek is the only truly musical kite in the world-a great kite maker can get seven different tones out of the musical bow," Sim Sarak, now 52, explained. Growing up nearby in the same province, Krong Nguon Ly, now 45, learned how to make kleng-ek from his father. Kleng-ek are huge kites, sometimes more than a meter long and a meter wide. They do not transport easily and few dedicated kite makers will scale down their models to make them more attractive to overseas buyers. "Any smaller and they are much less stable. You cannot really do that," Krong Nguon Ly explained. "If we need to transport them, we dismantle them and reassemble them when we get where we are going. I can sell one of my kites for $70 to $100 overseas, but I am a mechanic. I don't have time to make kleng-ek for sale. There isn't enough money in it. I do it for love."
In the old days, kleng-ek were made of silk cloth. Now, most kite makers can only afford brown paper such as the type used to pack cement, but despite this, the elegant curves and sheer size of these unique kites means they are still beautiful works of art, and one kite will take its maker weeks to perfect. The bow at the front is what makes the noise a low, distinct humming that makes the kite seem like it is singing. This is called the ek. The bow is usually fashioned from bamboo, and a fine strip of bamboo or rattan is strung tightly across the top, giving the kite its distinctive appearance. Perhaps because people had so little freedom and lived in such fear during the Khmer Rouge regime, both Sim Sarak and Krong Nguon Ly returned to Phnom Penh after the fall of the Khmer Rouge with an aching desire to resurrect the ancient art. "When I returned to the city in 1979, the first thing I saw were children flying makeshift kites," Krong Nguon Ly said. "That's when I knew that kites and freedom are the same thing. Without kites, there is no peace. Without peace, we have no kites."
Kites are traditionally flown to mark the end of wet season and the beginning of harvest season. "Traditional Khmers will never fly a kite before Water Festival (in November)," Sim Sarak explained. "That would be bad luck. There is a time for everything, and that includes kites." Kites must not be flown after February. So for nine long months, lovers of the kleng-ek must wait and watch over their kites in their homes before they can fly them once more. The two passionate kite makers eventually met when Sim Sarak made his dream come true. In 1996, he organized the first National Kite Flying Competition. Krong Nguon Ly came second, but the two became friends across the wings of kites.
Now the kite competition is an annual event, and various traditional kites besides the kleng-ek also compete-butterfly kites, lantern kites and moon kites. But for Sim Sarak, the kleng-ek is the greatest of the kites. It is the one he and Krong Nguon Ly take to Dieppe, France, for one of the world's top annual kite flying events. "He is the father of modern kite makers in Cambodia," Sim Sarak's wife Chieng Yarin said proudly. "Without him, there may not be any kites any more." "I am proud to have helped save a tiny piece of Khmer culture. I do it for love," Sim Sarak said.