Lakhon Khol, also referred to as Khmer Masked Theatre, is a traditional dance drama genre that holds a significant place in Cambodia’s rich cultural tapestry. This exquisite form of performing arts is distinctive for its vibrant costumes, intricate masks, and the unique blend of dance and drama that narrates stories derived predominantly from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Indian epic Ramayana. Lakhon Khol’s origins can be traced back to the illustrious Angkor period, a time when art and culture flourished in Cambodia, thereby making it an integral part of the country’s historical and cultural identity.
The importance of Lakhon Khol was officially recognized on March 31, 2017, when the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in Cambodia took the initiative to propose its inclusion in UNESCO’s tentative list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding. The proposal underscored the urgency required in safeguarding this unique art form as it was becoming increasingly vulnerable to the rapid socio-economic changes occurring in Cambodia. The dwindling interest among the younger generation, coupled with a lack of adequate training opportunities, were identified as significant threats to the survival of this age-old tradition.
Subsequently, on November 28, 2018, Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet, a specific variant of Lakhon Khol performed by the community living around the Wat Svay Andet Buddhist temple, was included in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. This recognition by UNESCO not only affirmed the international significance of Lakhon Khol but also reiterated the urgency required to protect and preserve it for future generations.
The journey of Lakhon Khol or Khmer Masked Theatre from the grandeur of the Angkor period to its present status as an intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding is a testament to its historical and cultural significance. However, it also underscores an imminent threat to its survival. It is now incumbent upon all stakeholders, including the government, cultural institutions, and local communities, to collectively ensure the survival and revival of this rich tradition. As we move forward, we must remember that safeguarding Lakhon Khol is not just about preserving a dance-drama genre; it’s about preserving a part of Cambodia’s soul.