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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Great Post ..💕
Thanks for reading!
Wonderful report😊! I visited this museum a few years ago and was truly impressed by the vast collection. Thank you for taking my back. It seems odd, at least from here, that the museum was open during the height of the pandemic.
Yeah, I wonder why they didn’t close? Many other big Phnom Penh sights, such as the palace, were shut. In any case I’m so glad they stayed open! Thanks for reading and getting in touch.
You’re right about the guards in normal times enforcing the no photography rule! We were given permission to photograph the Garuda and told that was the only place indoor photography was allowed. However some judicious use of the zoom lens while taking the permitted photos in the courtyard meant that I could capture a few of the other items on display near the perimeter of the rooms 😉 However that was a bit random and I couldn’t get the pieces that impressed me the most, such as that reclining Vishnu and the Leper King (although I could photograph the replica in the courtyard and of course the one in Angkor).
Ah, this hammers home just how fortunate we were. Thanks for following this series Sarah and for continuing to contribute to the various threads.
You’re more than welcome – I’m enjoying the memories of our own visit and getting your take on everything 🙂
So pleased that the museum was able to remain open during the height of the pandemic when they knew visitors would be few and far between. A wonderful museum and I particularly liked the rattan boat and old loom but it all looks impressive as do the landscaped gardens and lily ponds. Hope you have a good week Leighton. Marion
Cheers Marion, that boat was particularly impressive and a real surprise among the sea of Buddhas.
What an interesting place! Cambodia seems like a place rich in history and culture. It’s on my bucket list now!
Great post! I loved reading it.
Thanks for reading Divi!
How lucky were you to take photo’s inside the museum! Both outside and inside are beautiful – I particularly liked the boat (looks very grand).
Oh yes, and I could spot the ‘zero’ … but would not know that it’s a zero if you didn’t tell us 😉.
Ha ha yeah I think nobody would be able to identify the zero otherwise. Thanks for reading!
Spectacular buildings and collection. So glad they were able to restore them both. An amazing culture that deserves to be remembered, unlike P.P. Thanks for taking us there. Allan
Thanks Allan, it is indeed a magnificent collection of historical art. Appreciate your continued readership.
So cool to have the place all to yourself! I find it harder to enjoy if I feel in the way of other people, or having to wait my turn to see something.
Totally agree. I actually find people incredibly annoying in these kinds of situations ha ha. So I was really in my element, thanks for reading.
Haha agreed! We went to the Statue of Liberty last September and it was relatively empty – I know my experience wouldn’t have been as fun crowded with tourists
I’m so glad you were able to take pictures while you were so that you could share them with us. What an incredible museum! This is definitely a place I think I could spend the entire day trying to take in all I could.
Thanks Meg. There is indeed a lot to take in there. Hope you and your family are doing well.
Spectacular building and lovely courtyard. Definitely a place I could spend a day at. I would be going crazy if they didn’t let me take pictures. Glad you were able to avoid that restriction. Sometimes its the “little things” like the zero that stick in your mind. Seems a little odd that they would include the 1149 meter scarf. Kind of like the Louvre including the largest ball of twine. Always enjoy a day with you in a museum. Thanks.
I knew you’d like this one Memo, thanks for exploring with me. Having the place to ourselves was really special. The Louvre quip made me laugh.
Excellent travel report, as always a great post Leighton! Enjoyed it!
I really liked the gardens here but the collection of Khmer history, culture and art is special. I had no idea photography was prohibited. I got lucky too.
Hm, sounds like it’s pot luck depending on the staff of the day. Lucky us!
I love the boat! And also just all the colours – so great they could keep it open 🙂
Thanks for reading Hannah!
I had saved the visit to the museum for the last day so as to escape the heat before taking the plane. These photos actually bring back those memories, it was like a general review of everything I had seen and not always understood. I also remember that one of the so called guards was particularly insistent that western visitors leave offerings to the gods. Another was quick to recycle the flowers bought as offerings and put them back on sale. A rather unpleasant little business.
Oh dear, that last act must have left a bad taste in the mouth. It’s amazing how different peoples’ experiences have been based on luck and the timing of visits. I would’ve hated not being able to take photos, jostled by crowds and bothered by security guards. I don’t have many things to thank COVID for, but this is at least one. Thanks for reading!
I’m not one for museums, as I prefer to be out in fresh air to take in the history, culture, and atmosphere, rather than in a sterile environment (although open-air museums are pretty cool). But the National Museum of Cambodia looks to have an extensive collection that really showcases the country’s long and rich history. Perhaps I’ll have to give museums another chance because of this. Thanks for sharing, Leighton!
I do know what you mean about museums Rebecca. When I was younger I had very little time for these kinds of experiences. Nowadays, I really enjoy them, but I do visit museums in a very particular way. I find the huge amount of info and the vastness of the exhibitions overwhelming at times, thus I entertain myself with specific things that catch my eye and just kind of hone in on them. Sladja, on the the other hand, likes to dive in very deep and could spend hours exploring. Thanks for giving this one a try nevertheless and glad it has piqued your curiosity.
This looks like a great museum to visit to learn more about Cambodia’s history. How neat that you had the place all to yourself. I imagine the rooms were super duper quiet.
They were, literally our footsteps echoing around the halls. Thanks for reading!
So many interesting places to visit in Cambodia. Still gutted that COVID cut our trip short before we got there. Can only hope that we can resume one day. Great post, fascinating detail.
Thanks for reading!
I tend not to take photos in museums anyway, allowed or not, but found your report fascinating and informative. Did you ever learn the derivation of the curves at the end of the roofs in Cambodia? They look like elephant trunks reaching.