Ancient sandstone Buddhas sit outside the closely guarded Angkor Conservation storehouses.
One hot night in February 1993, some 50 bandits on motorcycles stormed the town of
Siem Reap armed with rockets and assault rifles. Their target was a sleepy, but heavily
fortified, compound near the bank of the Stung Siem Reap known as Angkor Conservation.
More than 6,000 ancient treasures, most of them Angkorian statuary, were kept there.
But the bandits were determined to break the rules. Having terrorized the town, they
made their way to the conservatory where they shot a guard in the stomach with an
AK47. With a rocket launcher they blasted open the chief storeroom and made off with
11 rare relics, collectively estimated to be worth more than $500,000.
The remaining treasures of the conservatory are still among Cambodia's most closely
guarded secrets. Many have been hidden from sight since the French started the conservation
program nearly 100 years ago. About 40 guards patrol the compound every night. Special
permission is required to enter any of the three storerooms, let alone photograph
what is kept there. Many archaeologists and conservationists who have worked in Cambodia
for years have never been allowed beyond the locked gates.
But something is happening in Siem Reap town to change all that. As many residents
can tell you, many of the treasures of the conservatory will be unveiled to the public
for the first time next year when a new multi-million dollar museum opens its doors.
Million dollar views
A massive concrete skeleton is rising slowly at a construction site opposite the
Angkoriana Hotel on the road from downtown Siem Reap to Angkor Wat.
When completed, the Siem Reap National Museum and accompanying tourist complex will
be two storeys high and cover approximately 30,000 square meters. The private Thai
company behind the project, Vilailuck International Holdings, hired a team of Bangkok
architects and engineers from the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization's
architecture and fine arts division (SEAMEO SPAFA) to design the building. Estimates
for the total cost of the project were not available, but construction of the building's
exterior alone is expected to cost $10 million. Five octagonal pagoda-style towers
will top the complex in homage to the famous towers of Angkor Wat.
"Now visiting the temples is like houses without furniture," said Angkor
Conversation employee In Phally.
After more than 20 years guarding the collection at Angkor Conservation and giving
English-language tours, Phally is outspoken about his country's heritage. He hopes
to see the conservatory's collection on safe display to the public and worries that
the conservatory is not sufficiently equipped to manage their preservation. Phally
gave the Post for a rare peek inside one of the conservatory storehouses.
The conservatory's grounds are sprawling and scruffy and ringed by a tall metal fence.
The center protects about 6,000 mostly Angkorian pieces of statuary, balustrades
and lintels that the conservationists who brought them here feared would be stolen
from the temples they were made for hundreds of years ago. Only about 3,500 of those
objects were housed in the center's three storerooms, but not because the remaining
pieces were less precious, Phally said.
"We need to keep everything in storerooms, but now we have no room. Full house."
With sandstone rubble from the temples arranged in uneven rows, the dusty grounds
resemble a moldering gravesite. Line upon line of damaged naga balustrades, lions
with smashed faces, bas-reliefs adorned with big-breasted apsara, and enormous bodiless
smiling Buddha heads man the storehouse walls. Phally said the center staff maintained
the statuary by hosing the collection down once a week.
Phally stopped by a life-size statue of Hindu god Vishnu that had been restored-with
concrete prosthetics-to its former four-armed glory. It carried a bright orange parasol
over one of its many shoulders.
The three storehouses are unimpressive two-storey blocks with bars covering the windows
and padlocked doors. It was dim inside Storeroom A, the home of 2,000 pieces of ancient
statuary. The first impression was of a war hospital crowded with wounded stone monsters-lions,
elephants, giants and gods. A row of amputated torsos lay on their backs along the
back wall exposing rough stone stumps. The relics were arranged in neat rows according
to type across the 1,300-square-meter concrete floor. Vishnus together, lions together,
cross-legged Buddhas together. One corner contained a collection of feet amputated
at the ankle. Elsewhere, a queue of headless goddesses posed on chunky concrete pedestals
supported by red bricks. Each piece was carefully labeled and numbered. Half of the
ground floor was devoted to Hindu remains, the other half to Buddhist. Brightly painted
gilded Buddhas from the post-Ang-korian 18th and 19th centuries caught the eye in
the latter section. A narrow flight of stairs led to the second floor, where rows
of basic shelves held small plastic baskets filled with fist-sized stone chips.
Back in the dusty courtyard, Phally pointed out the damage done to some statues when
smugglers roughly cut them from temples long ago. People who could do such things
were not true Cambodians, he said.
"Body is Khmer, but the heart is not," Phally said. "I had an American
tourist ask me which pieces cost more. I say this is Khmer art: It's priceless. These
belong to Cambodia first, but second to everybody in the world. We need everybody
in the world to protect this heritage."
A private affair
Khun Samen, director of the Phnom Penh National Museum, also expressed concern over
the conditions of the Angkor Conservation treasures, saying they were dirty and poorly
cared for. He wants to see such objects on display in museums throughout Cambodia,
"not only in the towns, but the villages too."
The Siem Reap museum was a welcome step, Samen said, but time will tell how significant
the new institution would be.
"It depends on the collection and the management of the objects. It depends
on the owner of the museum," he said.
Unlike the National Museum, the Siem Reap museum is privately funded and will be
a determinedly commercial enterprise. Almost half the complex will be occupied by
a shopping center.
According to reports, the museum was initiated by Thai mobile phone barons the Vilailuck
family, who will oversee its management. The family's Cambodian holdings include
the Samart phone network and the Kingdom's only air-traffic control system. Vilailuck
International Holdings struck a deal with the Cambodian Government to build the museum
on Cambodian People's Party land in 2003, according to the Bangkok Nation newspaper.
In exchange for the 25-year agreement with a 99-year ground lease the government
would receive an undisclosed share of ticket sales, the Nation reported on June 2,
The chosen few
Ministry of Culture Secretary of State Chuch Poeurng defended the privatization of
the future cultural center, saying that private funding enabled such projects to
"We need this kind of participation from the private sector," Poeurng said.
"The government thinks that the private sector increases the wealth."
Vilailuck International Holdings general manager Som Chai and SEAMEO SPAFA director
Pisit Charoenwongsa refused to discuss the project.
Poeurng said he could not comment on the 2003 contract because he was not familiar
with the details, but said he had agreed to allow objects to be transferred from
Angkor Conservation and from the Phnom Penh National Museum to the Siem Reap museum.
Samen said he had selected more than 1,000 objects from the two collections for the
new museum, but was tight-lipped about what he had specifically chosen. He said that
some objects now on display in the Phnom Penh museum may find their way to Siem Reap.
Poeurng said most of the objects-about 80 percent-would be Buddhist icons from the
late and post-Angkorian period, according to the wishes of the Vilailucks.
"This museum is dedicated to the spirit of Buddha," Poeurng said.
The revelation could be a disappointment to the archaeological community, given that
so many of the country's ancient treasures predate Cambodia's embrace of Buddhism
and instead celebrate the colorful Hindu gods.
Heritage Watch archaeologist Dougald O'Reilly said he found the news surprising.
But O'Reilly, like many others, had words of welcome for the project, which promises
to open many more eyes to the beauty and mystery of Cambodia's rich artistic heritage.
"A museum in Siem Reap is something that's long overdue," O'Reily said.
"These pieces, as long as they're secure, should be on display to expose the
world to the grandeur of Cambodian art in antiquity."