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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A HOUSE OF HIDDEN TREASURES

A HOUSE OF HIDDEN TREASURES

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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.

Full house

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."

he said.

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.

Wounded gods

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,

2003.

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

go ahead.

"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."

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