The big question hovering over Siem Reap’s most bizarre tourist attraction, the Cambodian Cultural Village, located along the Airport Road 6, is what ever happened to the remains of the unknown UNTAC soldier once depicted in the museum walking out of a local drinking den with a hot little bar girl in his arms?
And indeed, are there any remains remaining?
Has he been tucked away in a storage room somewhere in Siem Reap? Or has he and his dodgy consort simply been melted down to become a blob of worn-out wax?
The answer is that as of now, nobody knows anything, and nobody’s saying anything, either.
But the story of this mysterious UNTAC soldier begins in September 2003, when the multi-million-dollar, Canadia Bank-funded, Disneyland-Khmer-style Cambodian Cultural Village first opened.
One of the village’s major exhibits, the wax museum, immediately became embroiled in controversy as reported by Gordon Sharpless on his Tales of Asia website.
In December of 2003, Sharpless wrote: “Siem Reap's latest tourist attraction has run afoul of the UN for placing in their wax museum ... the controversial (well, controversial to anyone with no sense of humour or grasp of reality) UNTAC soldier figure.”
Sharpless spoke to a couple of guides and learned that “someone from the UN” had complained.
According to Sharpless, “One guide, Soun Chamnan, said, ‘But we don't see this as bad. We want to show that UNTAC came here to bring peace, bring elections, worked hard through the day, and then enjoyed themselves at night. We wanted to show their enjoyment’.”
Sharpless responded by noting that the appearance of the soldier and taxi girl in the wax museum summarised the entire, massive 18-month UN operation, adding, “We both had a good laugh. And wasn't it Hun Sen who once said something along the lines of all UNTAC brought [to] Cambodia was AIDS?”
The wax-figure controversy raged on the web for some time with typical comments being, “This, in effect, represents the official government position on the role of the UN. It is hard to imagine just how insulting this display would be to the families of the soldiers who lost their lives in trying to bring democracy to Cambodia.”
Academics weighed in, too. Sandra Whitworth, in a study titled Men, Militarism and UN Peacekeeping: A Gendered Analysis, said, “The [UNTAC] display was not, apparently, intended as a criticism of the mission, [but] simply as a presentation of typical scenes from different moments in Cambodia’s past.”
Then, in late 2007, the Khmer press reported that the exhibit vanished in August due to Prime Ministerial displeasure.
What became of the wax rendering is unknown, but this is not the only controversial element of the village. The topless renderings of some indigenous women in the wax museum and several apsara paintings have also raised eyebrows for being a tad too “realistic”.
In fact, for many westerners, the sprawling 210,000-square-metre theme park itself raises eyebrows because of its perceived tackiness and its clashing mix of Cambodian culture with Disney-esque gross-outs. A hokey Tom and Jerry cartoon statue sits opposite the entrance to a mini indigenous village, while King Kong and a headless Superman statue join numerous nagas and other mythological Khmer critters.
The village is a huge draw card for Khmer visitors who turn up in their hundreds, perhaps even thousands, while westerners are rarely even sighted.
But for connoisseurs of Asian kitsch, the village is right up there with the equally bizarre Tiger Balm Gardens, built by ointment tycoons Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par in Hong Kong, Singapore and Fujian in China.
The Cambodian Cultural Village supposedly sets out the history and culture of Cambodia, but academic authenticity is not on the agenda.
Entry to the theme park is via a museum that has two sections: The first features stuffed, tattered animals; old tools, implements and jewellery; plus large, eye-boggling wall murals.
The second section is the infamous wax museum, which displays figures from Cambodian history, beginning with an apsara dancer and ending with a present-day modern or “happiness” family.
The rest of the sprawling park features a small zoo, a ghost house and reproductions of ethnic settlements including the floating, Chinese, Cham, Kroeung and Kola varieties. A “millionaire house” is also on display.
But perhaps the philosophy of the village is best exemplified by the electric car driver-cum-guide who told 7Days that one of the big advantages of the theme park is that people who want to see the sights of Phnom Penh don’t actually have to go to the capital. They can see it all here in miniature!
Having just heard that, the electric car rounded a bend and there it was – mini Phnom Penh complete with the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, Central Market and Wat Phnom. It was, however, minus the bars.
And all this for a mere 11 bucks for foreigners and $4 for Khmers. Wowee.