Audiences were wowed by the spectacular opening ceremony of the Kingdom’s first SEA Games, marvelling at a series of incredible performances.
One such set-piece saw Chan Sreyleak defy the laws of physics and soar high above a celestial oceanic backdrop at the Morodok Techo National Stadium, leaving the rapt audience in awe.
The Post was fortunate to be granted an insight into the remarkable segment, where Sreyleak, a traditional Cambodian dancer, took the capacity crowd’s breath away in the role of Neang Neak, a revered figure who once ruled the submerged Naga world and presided over Kok Thlok Island.
“When I was in the air, surrounded by tens of thousands of people who were applauding our performance, the pain and fear melted away,” she told The Post.
“Instead, I felt only exhilaration and pride that i was part of such a historic event,” she explained.
As the famous tale goes, Neang Neak, a serpent princess with magical powers, emerged from the ocean and transformed into a golden-winged serpent. She flew above the ocean, searching for hope. At the same time, Preah Thong, a courageous sailor, sailed towards the Kingdom, hoping to bring positive change.
Neang Neak spotted Preah Thong’s boat and was captivated by his determination and pure heart. She landed on the deck, emanating a brilliant light that illuminated the vessel. Recognising the divine intervention, Preah Thong understood that Neang Neak’s presence signified hope and divine favour.
With her guidance and blessings, Preah Thong continued his journey with renewed strength. The encounter between Neang Neak and Preah Thong marked a significant moment in the birth of the Khmer Kingdom, symbolising the harmonious union of the mystical and human worlds, and the beginning of a prosperous future for the Kingdom.
Traditionally, Sreyleak, sometimes known as Srey Bo, is known for her mesmerising dances which are performed on the ground. However, her portrayal of Neang Neak took her artistry to new heights, quite literally, as she gracefully floated above the audience, captivating their imaginations.
The magnitude of the moment was amplified by the 32nd SEA Games platform, elevating the significance of her role.
Sreyleak said that when she discovered that she had been selected to play the role of Neang Neak, the central character in the SEA Games programme, she was thrilled and ready to be part of it.
“I was filled with immense excitement and a deep sense of gratitude. I felt incredibly fortunate that they recognised my abilities and had faith in my capabilities,” she told The Post.
She commenced rehearsals with the team in February, focusing on both perfecting the dance routine and training with the steel cable that lifted her three stories in the air.
Sreyleak’s portrayal of Neang Neak was the result of rigorous rehearsals and dedication, harmonising her movements and expressions with Sokea Kimleang, who played the character of Preah Thong. Together, they breathed new life into the iconic tale, reminding the audience of the deep-rooted cultural heritage of the Khmer people.
Reflecting on the rehearsal process, Sreyleak admitted that when she initially realised she would be performing while suspended high above the ground, fear crept in.
However, she never entertained the idea of rejecting the challenge or giving up. Instead, she remained steadfast in her determination, reminding herself of the task at hand and the commitment she had made to see it through.
At just 1.66m and 57kg, she said that from the rehearsal period to the day of the performance, she did not encounter any major challenges.
She noted that the most demanding aspect was the long hours of rehearsal in scorching heat, and sometimes late into the night, which took a toll on everyone’s health.
Sreyleak candidly admitted that during rehearsals, she could wear comfortable attire such as shirts and jeans. However, on the day of the performance, she had to don traditional attire. This posed a unique challenge as she had to wear the cable harness beneath the already fitted traditional attire.
“As you may know, the traditional dress is already snug tightly fitted to my body. When I wore harness, it not only made my body appear larger, it caused significant discomfort and pain,” she recalled.
Despite these physical challenges, she persevered, demonstrating her unwavering dedication and commitment to delivering an exceptional performance as Neang Neak.
On the day of the opening ceremony, she was forced to wear the uncomfortable cable harness under her traditional attire for several hours, from 4.00pm until it was time for her to take the stage and wow the assembled guests.
“The harness clung to my skin while I was sweating, constricting and making it difficult to breathe. It was a lot more challenging than it was during rehearsals,” she recalled.
“However, when the time came to perform, I managed to push the tightness of the rope to the back of my mind and focused solely on my dance, without allowing fear to hinder me,” she said.
Sreyleak, a native of Phnom Penh, embarked on her artistic journey when she enrolled in the Secondary School of Fine Arts in 2006, where she dedicated herself to the study of classical dance.
Her passion and commitment to the art form became evident as she honed her skills and immersed herself in the rich traditions of Cambodian dance.
In 2014, she graduated, armed with a solid foundation in classical dance and a deep appreciation for the cultural heritage of Cambodia. Her educational achievements paved the way for her future endeavours in the realm of performing arts.
In 2016, Sreyleak successfully passed the entrance examination to become a civil servant, securing a position at the Department of Performing Arts, which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
Two years later, in 2018, Sreyleak made a decision to transfer her employment to the Secondary School of Fine Arts, a renowned institution.
This move was motivated by the proximity of the school to her home and her desire to share her knowledge and skills with aspiring students.
Teaching became a meaningful way for Sreyleak to inspire and nurture the next generation of dancers, fostering a love for traditional Cambodian dance among her students.
Her educational background, coupled with her experience as a civil servant and dance instructor, provided her with a comprehensive perspective of the intricacies of Cambodian performing arts.
It was this combination of talent, dedication, and a deep-rooted connection to her cultural heritage that drove her selection for the demanding role of Neang Neak in the momentous performance at the 32nd SEA Games.
The return of this traditional dance to the birth of the Khmer Kingdom was a triumphant celebration of Cambodia’s rich history and the enduring power of its traditions.
It served as a poignant reminder of the timeless stories and symbols that have shaped the nation’s identity, evoking a sense of pride and reverence among all who witnessed it.
Through the remarkable performance, the audience was transported to a realm where myths and legends come alive. The dance not only revived an ancient tradition but also illuminated the profound connections between the past, present, and future of the Khmer people.
Preah Thong and Neang Neak hold immense cultural significance in Khmer traditions, as they are revered as the founders of the pre-Angkorian state of Funan.
Their union forms the bedrock of numerous Khmer wedding customs, tracing back to the sacred marriage between these two legendary figures.