Lakhon Basak (Basak Theatre) Searches for Support in the Modern Age​

Phnom Penh- Theoretical art, called Lakhon in Khmer, used to be one of the most popular pieces of work in Khmer culture. However, what was once viewed at ceremonies and pagodas is slowly replaced by concerts and loud bass speakers. 

The actor (left) is acting and the actor (right) is playing before the play starts. Photo: Chea Darapech

The support for Khmer folk theatre, Lakhon Basak, is fading as people are shifting towards modern forms of entertainment such as comedy, concerts, and cinemas. 

Owner and director of Lakhon Basak in the Department of Culture and Fine Arts of Tbong Khmom province Mr. Ong Peng Ngan said that, “Nowadays support for folk theatre comes from only a few places and compared to modern arts, the gap between them is significant."

He added, “Some hosts of a ceremony don’t usually have enough money to rent these performers. They only have enough for the ceremony, which is why they choose to put on small concerts with bass speakers instead. Others think a folk theatre will take up too much space and they are too lazy to organize the performance. However, there are still a few people out there who have enough money to rent both folk theatres and bass speakers since the older generations love to watch Lakhon Basak and younger people like to dance to music from the bass speakers.”

An actor is putting on makeup before the play. Photo: Chea Darapech

Mr. Ong Peng Ngan continued, “Money is one problem, but from what I notice, people tend to like comedy more. A comedy show nowadays pays $3000 per show for only two hours at most. For Lakhon Basak performers, however, a show pays only $2000 and they have to perform from dusk until dawn.”

On top of these problems, Lakhon Basak performers’ transportations also face security checks from police officers along the road. Prime Minister Hun Sen used to request police officers to be considerate of vehicles that transport performers and instruments used for the performances. However, until today, these checks are reappearing. 

Another problem is the busy schedule when it comes to performing a month. Hey have to travel from one province to another, but these security checks are making it even less convenient and harder for them. Sometimes, if they are late for a performance, they won’t get paid to perform again.

He hopes that the law enforcement force would be considerate towards these performers and stop checking their vehicles.

In terms of the salary, Mr. Ong Peng Ngan’s performers do not get paid enough to support their daily lives. In the rainy season, he has to borrow money from family members and pay them back in the dry season, the time of the year when there are performances. 

Between 1983-1990 there were around 100 groups nationwide to perform. Now, there are around 10 groups left. In Phnom Penh, there is only one group called, “Lakhon Basak  Ol Som Ang.”

Teacher Ol Som Ang is the director of the “Ol Som Ang Basak Theatre Group” in Phnom Penh. He stated that “Nowadays, my group faces a lot of difficulties because people do not really rent Lakhon performances in Phnom Penh.  Some performers become tuk-tuk drivers or construction workers because they will not survive from just being a Lakhon performer.

He also encourages the public to help support this profession and field through renting performances and conserve this important piece of art. Mr. Ol Som Ang also wants the leaders to strengthen and support Khmer folk theatre because this aspect of our culture will disappear without constant cooperation from performers, the public, and government officials. 

In an interview, Yean Sokhunthea, a first-year undergraduate from the Institute of Foreign Languages, shared her thoughts about this art. “I used to watch these theatres when I was small. In fact, I just watched it last year at a ceremony. The Lakhon is very entertaining at first, but it comes boring after a while and sometimes the jokes are not even appropriate.”

“Because most of the stories performed come from Buddhist literature or old folktales, we can predict the plot of the story. Furthermore, it takes a long time to get ready to perform and we have to wait at least an hour, from 9 pm until 10 pm. Some of us are already sleepy at that time.”

Looking back at the government’s contributions, we see that each year government officials organize National Culture Day on March 3rd. This year, the theme is “Youths for Culture” since youths are important forces in helping to conserve and empower the nation’s culture. 

Prime Minister Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen announced at the event held at Koh Pech on the 3rd of March 2020 that “This National Culture Day is a way to endorse and spread knowledge about the talents and technical skills in our culture. It is also a reminder for everyone to love and be proud of our culture and country.”

He added that “Youths are the bamboo shoots that have the duty to protect and preserve the national and multicultural heritage of the national community in Cambodia in order to maintain national unity, peace, and development.