Khmer shadow theatre are forms of shadow play in which leather shadow puppets are used. The two main genres include Sbek Thom, which features the Reamker, the other being Sbek Toch uses smaller puppets and a wide range of stories. And another genre called Sbek Por uses colored leather puppets. Among them, Sbek Thom is the most excellent genre that every tourists want to experience.
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. 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.
Before a performance of Sbek Thom, the 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.
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.
Dedicated to the divinities, performances could only take place on specific occasions three or four times a year such as the Khmer New Year, The King's birthday or the veneration of famous people.