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Museum to display Preah Vihear relics stumbled upon by soldiers

Among the items exhibited are an Angkorian jar that was once used as an oil lamp, and an urn that held ashes.
Among the items exhibited are an Angkorian jar that was once used as an oil lamp, and an urn that held ashes. JULIE MASIS

Museum to display Preah Vihear relics stumbled upon by soldiers

A new museum will soon open its doors not far from the disputed Preah Vihear temple near the Thai border, allowing visitors to learn more about the ancient Angkorian site.

The Preah Vihear Eco-Global Museum, which is located 23 kilometres from the temple, will be inaugurated before the end of the year, according to Kong Puthikar, an official at the Preah Vihear Authority. The museum will feature exhibits on the flora and fauna of Preah Vihear province, the Kouy minority group who live in the region and are famous for their iron-making skills, as well as a display of Angkorian ceramics that were unearthed recently near the mountaintop site.

Among the items that are expected to go on display will be an unusual Angkorian jar that was used as an oil lamp, a bottle in the shape of a human face, a ceramic elephant, ancient roof tiles and an urn that once held someone’s cremated ashes. (Archaeologists plan to analyse the ashes to determine their age.)

According to Pheng Sanoeun, the director of the Department of Monuments and Archaeology at the Preah Vihear Authority, these objects were most likely left behind by the people who built the temple. The construction of the breathtaking site took around 300 years, he said.

“Preah Vihear is not only an (isolated) temple on top of the mountain, but there were also a lot of communities surrounding it,” he said.

“This is very important for us because we know that Preah Vihear was a very important site during the Angkorian period, but we don’t know too much because we don’t have many researchers working on that.”

Ironically, the border conflict with Thailand has helped archaeologists learn more about the history of the ancient temple.

That’s because some of the ancient objects that will go on display at the museum were found by soldiers while they were digging trenches or building barricades during the fighting at the border in 2008 and 2011, Sanoeun said.

The Angkorian oil lamp, for instance, was discovered by a Cambodian soldier while he was “building a fortress”, he said.

Such oil lamps are quite rare and have only been found near the royal palace in the past, according to Sanoeun.

“This is the first time we found (an oil lamp near the Preah Vihear Temple),” Sanoeun said. “We consider that the civilisation (near the Preah Vihear temple) was very important.”

The museum, as seen from the gardens.
The museum, as seen from the gardens. JULIE MASIS

The temple surroundings were the subject of a land dispute in 2009, after villagers living in Ko Muoy village, below the ridge where the temple is located were resettled to a Samdech Techo eco-village, some 30km from their original homes. The government cited concerns over safety as clashes took place, as well as a desire to develop the area as a “cultural heritage site”, it was reported.

The government built a pagoda, a health centre and a primary school and provided the villagers with timber to build homes, Sanoeun said. The villagers are now being trained to make a living from agriculture, handicraft and sculpture making, and other activities related to tourism, he added.

Archaeologists found that the village of Ko Muoy, at the foot of the Preah Vihear mountain, was situated on top of an ancient village and an Angkorian reservoir.

Workers are planning to excavate the area around the village to determine how big it was and how many people lived there, Puthikar said.

Other than the display of Angkorian ceramics, the Preah Vihear museum will allow visitors to see the bones of a giant ibis, as well as photographs of some unique medicinal plants and rare local animals, such as the trogon bird.

The exhibit on the Kouy minority group – the first exhibit on an ethnic minority in Cambodia – will include traditional clothes, musical instruments, and toys made from bamboo and clay.

“We have a long history of Kouy in this area – dating back to Angkor era – and they still live in the province,” Puthikar said.

One of the people working to prepare an exhibition is Cambodian archaeologist Tep Sokha, who specialises in gluing together broken pottery after putting the pieces of jars and pots together like a puzzle – sometimes from as many as 80 parts.

He was particularly intrigued by the Angkorian green and brown bottle in the shape of a human face because these types of bottles are rare.

A little boy perches on the stone remains of the temple at Preah Vihear.
A little boy perches on the stone remains of the temple at Preah Vihear. HENG CHIVOAN

“It could have been used for worship,” he said.

Several Chinese ceramics from the 13th century –including a powder box – were also found near the ancient temple. This, according to Sokha, shows that the people who lived near the temple had trade ties with China.

The project to build a museum near Preah Vihear temple began four years ago, but the opening was postponed twice for various reasons, including the recent election, Sanoeun said.

The construction of the museum was made possible thanks to support from UNESCO as well as donors from Cambodia and Japan.

Once the museum is open, foreigners will most likely purchase a ticket that will combine a visit to the temple with a trip to the museum, Sanoeun said – although the price of this ticket hasn’t been determined yet. Locals will be admitted without charge.

He added that the museum is located at the spot where people who travel in large buses have to transfer to a four-wheel truck that can go up the hill.

“In the future, all visitors going to Preah Vihear will also see the museum – before or after coming to the site,” he said.

UNESCO could not be reached for comment by press time.

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