With a fourth Bonn Phum Festival under her belt, organiser and co-founder Lomorpich Rithy talks to editor Marissa Carruthers about its origins and how she is using it to inspire an appreciation for Cambodian arts. Photography by Lim Sokchanlina.

What is a Bonn Phum festival?

It means village festival and is a traditional Cambodian celebration, but today is much less popular. Village festival is a common expression for Cambodian people, especially in the villages where they always celebrate within the community. However, they don’t really know what’s in a festival or how to organise it properly; it’s more a gathering for people to have fun. Our Bonn Phum is a folktale festival, where people feel like they are going back in time. They can see Cambodian arts and cultural activities, eat local food and celebrate Khmer New Year.

Why did you start the festival?

I was in my fourth year at university working on my thesis and was in love with Cambodian shadow puppets. I wanted to make a documentary and went to research footage but there was none. The traditional performance is very special and I’d never seen it with my own eyes. I met with a master at Sovannaphum [Arts Association] and asked whether he could do it. He agreed but said it has to be at a pagoda or during a ceremony as it is sacred. I spoke to my sister and she said, “Let’s make a night of it.” It would be expensive so we thought of selling tickets but were worried no one would buy them. A friend suggested selling Cambodian noodles and sugar cane. Another friend said one day is too short and said to introduce traditional games because it’s in April, just before Khmer New Year. I asked at a pagoda if they had space, and they did, so we started organising it.

How has it evolved?

The first year was small and the shadow puppet performance was the main art form. We knew nothing and it was more like people came and it happened. For the second year, we wanted to make it bigger and looked at how we could organise it better. We lacked the song and dance that gives the feeling of new year, and we really wanted to promote Cambodian performing arts. We started to introduce more performances, music and stages, and last year it really boomed. We had 12,000 people each day. This year, we had four stages: contemporary, traditional music, folk music and performing arts stages, Khmer archery and traditional games, shadow puppet making, food and drinks and more, with about 20,000 people each day.

Why did you choose to hold it in Takmao?

The festival is a village festival so we wanted to do it somewhere that wasn’t in the city, and make people feel like they’re going back in time. We picked Toul Krasang Pagoda because it’s old and has kept a lot of the original features. It also has a nice environment, with paddy fields and lotus lakes; as you enter the pagoda you get the feeling of going into a village.

Is this the first time many young Cambodians have see traditional arts?
Yes. Many, even of our volunteers, say to me, “Wow, this is my first time listening to this kind of music or dance, or seeing it.” Even myself, when I started, I didn’t really know anything about some of the arts, such as Lakhon Khol [masked dance]. The first time I saw it, I thought, “Is this really Cambodian?” I Googled it and almost had a heart attack. Why didn’t I know about this and I am a university student? I was very ashamed.
Why is it important you keep these traditions alive?

Our aim is to preserve the performing arts but also to develop them. Every year, with the main evening performances, we not only keep traditional art shows but find new artists; we try to mix the two together. For example, we try to find artists to make contemporary music using traditional instruments.

How do you find volunteers?

We announce it on Facebook and people can apply online, then have two interviews. This year, we had 150 volunteers covering four zones. Everything is made and designed by the volunteers, and each team can create their own ideas for their zone. We want to provide a platform where youths can express themselves rather than come and just be a volunteer. Volunteering in a Cambodian context now is confusing because some people only provide jobs such as selling tickets or carrying things around. Here, we try to provide work where the volunteers want. So, if you’re a graphic designer, you do that. It’s good practise for them.

What about the eco-friendly side of the event?

Each year, we build everything, from the stages to the tables and walkways. Everything is made from natural materials, and we offer the benches, tables and other useful things to the pagoda afterwards. We also don’t want to have any plastic so we make our own reusable bottles for people to fill with water rather than use plastic. This year, we also provided public transport from Phnom Penh so people could catch a bus, taxi or tuk tuk from the National Stadium rather than one person per moto or car. We want to promote a green environment, that is very important for us and something we will continue to develop.

For more information on the festival and how to get involved in next year’s event, follow BonnPhum on Facebook.