Travel Report: The National Museum of Cambodia.
The National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
September 2020. Imagine having a national museum all to yourself. A private audience, so to speak, with a nation’s most treasured historical relics. That’s what Sladja and I got to experience when we stopped by The National Museum of Cambodia during our final few days in the country.
It was the height of the pandemic and Phnom Penh, much like most of Cambodia, felt like a ghost town. Located in the leafy commune of Chey Chumneas, Cambodia’s largest history museum sits in a fabulous traditional Khmer structure designed by the French polymath George Groslier.
Groslier dreamed up this stunning collection of buildings based on temple images he saw on a number of ancient bas-reliefs. It opened in 1920 with a grand ceremony attended by King Sisowath.
In the mid 1970s the tyrannical rule of The Khmer Rouge saw the building evacuated and abandoned. In fact, Pol Pot’s men murdered most of the staff that worked here. Moreover, they destroyed hundreds of sculptures and sold others to wealthy collectors abroad. At the end of their reign in 1979 the museum was a mess, with a rotten roof, overgrown garden and resident bat colony.
Nevertheless, the museum bounced back and, over the intervening forty two years, has become one of Cambodia’s essential sights. Entering the complex on a burning hot September afternoon, we paid the entrance fee ($10 per person) and made our way into the main hall.
The National Museum of Cambodia.
Historians and archaeologists have spent decades hunting, collecting and restoring relics from across Cambodia. The first sculpture we saw was this fearsome 10th century sandstone garuda, unearthed from the temple ruins of Koh Ker.
It was certainly surreal wandering the deserted entrance hall, with its glass cases of ancient sculptures. One could spend hours checking out each piece. I particularly liked this 12th century bronze Bull of Shiva, recovered during an excavation of Angkor Wat.
In a corridor leading to the next hall, I stopped in my tracks to admire this giant sculpture of a reclining Vishnu. Archaeologists found it at Baphuon Temple, a ruin Sladja and I didn’t manage to visit during our explorations of Angkor.
The hall also houses a fascinating doorjamb dating back to 682-83 AD. Discovered in 1891 by the French politician Adhémard Leclère in northern Cambodia, it features twenty one lines of ancient Khmer language. The text relates to a local temple and lists the names of those who made donations. It also mentions the slaves that helped operate the place, in addition to a full rundown of livestock!
According to historians, the text also contains the first graphical representation of zero! The symbol apparently appears in the third line pictured below. It looks a bit like a full stop, wedged between two squiggly symbols. Can you see it?
What to See & Do, Phnom Penh.
In the next hall the museum’s sculptures get bigger and bolder. Take, for example, this 8th century sandstone Leper King. It is one of dozens of statues retrieved from Angkor Thom‘s so-called Terrace of the Leper King. The image depicts Yama, the Hindu god of death.
However, its nickname is due to the fact that archaeologists discovered it highly discoloured with a cracked, moss-infested face. Which made him look a bit like a leper.
Another striking creation is this pair of wrestling apes. Archaeologists found them buried among the crumbling towers of Prasat Chen in Koh Ker. They represent the monkey kings Sugriva and Valin from the Hindu epic Ramayana.
Over our seven months in Cambodia Sladja and I became familiar with the linga, a complicated, phallic symbol of Hinduism. We’d seen a whole bunch of lingas across various temple sites. Especially in the course of our day exploring The Linga Temples of Koh Ker.
But we’d never heard of a Mukhalinga until we came to The National Museum of Cambodia. In short, they are lingas decorated with human faces. This one is a 7th century creation discovered somewhere in the Angkor region.
The National Museum of Cambodia.
Moving through hall after hall, there was so much to see it would have taken us all day to cover everything. Hence I found myself honing in on those really unusual pieces that caught my eye.
In that respect, this incredible 19th century rattan boat cabin fit the bill perfectly. Historians found it in a temple near the floating river village of Kampong Phluk in Siem Reap Province.
I was lucky enough to visit the village in late 2015, though I definitely didn’t see anything like this. While there is no historical info about the cabin, it looks so fancy I’m guessing it belonged to a royal vessel.
I also loved this stunning Brahmanic stone marker. There was virtually no info with it, just a note saying “provenance unknown”. Still, the detail in the rows of tiny, finely carved golden figurines is amazing.
In one of the last halls, I stopped to check out this 19th century Khmer loom. What’s more, it showcases what is apparently the world’s longest handwoven scarf at 1149 metres. That’s the official world record certificate hanging above the loom. It says a team of expert weavers finished the scarf in Phnom Penh on July the 1st 2018.
We were approaching the end of the last hall when I came across something that literally made me cry out in surprise. What? Someone found a lump of moon rock in an ancient Cambodian temple? No, of course not. Rather, this is one of 135 fragments of moon rock that Richard Nixon sent to various countries as a goodwill gesture in 1973.
What to See & Do, Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian Goodwill Moon Rock was collected as part of the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt collected the samples, composed of basalt. It sits protected in a ball of acrylic lucite.
Finally satisfied that we’d seen enough, Sladja and I emerged into the interior courtyard. It is lovely, with its lily pad pond, trimmed hedges and stooping trees. Taking a stroll, we realised there are even more sculptures packed into the covered walkway that provides shade from the sun.
What’s more, we actually saw another human being! She was so quiet we hardly noticed her cleaning a Khleang style 11th century lintel. Totally focused on the task at hand, she didn’t even look up as we stopped to watch her at work.
I’m sure we’ll never forget our perfectly tranquil visit to The National Museum of Cambodia. While writing this piece up, I read that in normal times photography is forbidden and that there are guards who enforce this. Man, we really got lucky.
For more info on my adventures in and around the city, have a leaf through my other reports from Phnom Penh.
Like these? Then why not have a look at my articles from across Cambodia.
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