Though most people associate ancient Cambodian history with the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat and legendary kings like Suryavarman II or Jayavarman VII, the history of Cambodia stretches back even further than that.

From the first to sixth centuries CE, there existed the kingdom of Funan, which was centred in the Mekong delta and stretched along Cambodia’s southern coast. Much of what we know about it comes from the writings of two Chinese diplomats sent there in the third century CE, but legendary tales about Funan have continued on as part of Khmer culture even up to the present day.

One such story is the tale of Preah Thong and Neang Neak, which is still performed as a traditional opera by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. Though there are several versions of the story its basic premise is a tale of romance and marriage between a king and a Naga woman.

According to legend, Preah Thong fell in love with Neang Neak at first sight when he saw her dancing on the beach with other Naga women, leading to their marriage where Preah Thong lifted his new wife’s veil and they – through their descendants – are considered the symbolic source of Khmer culture, civilization, traditions and customs.

One of the ways the legend has lived on as an active part of Cambodian culture is the ceremonial lifting of the veil between newlyweds at their wedding ceremony – a direct call back to Preah Thong lifting the veil of Neang Neak.

Now, an enormous monument depicting that legendary occurrence is being erected at a beautiful beach in Sihanoukville in the region of Cambodia that was once the Funan kingdom where it all is said to have occurred.

Copper Colossus

At a time of day when most people are home relaxing and eating their dinners, Sok Chamroeun and his team were hard at work hurrying to complete the installation of the statues in time for the upcoming Khmer New Year holiday.

“Neither I nor anyone else in our whole nation – nobody – has ever attempted such a large sculpture project,” copper sculptor and owner of Norak Singh Handicrafts tells The Post.

Static bursts from walkie-talkies echoed about as the busy team coordinated the final placement of the statues and their work was completed around 8pm with the statues finally standing tall together at a roundabout in Prey Nop district’s Ream commune in Preah Sihanouk province

The copper statues – the largest in the Kingdom – are 21 metres in height and weigh a total of 60 tonnes. Chamroeun was thrilled to see the results of all his hard work and labour towering over him.

“I’m so excited! As a Cambodian, I am honoured to have had the opportunity to create such a large statue that celebrates the history of our country. It is a source of pride for me more immense than I could ever have imagined,” says Chamroeun.

Prodigious planning

Chamroeun, 42, was born in Pursat just after Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime were driven from power. His mother moved to Phnom Penh in 1980, hoping it would bring greater opportunities for her curious young son.

Chamroeun began his career as a copper sculptor in 1995 and he says he has continually kept up his education over the years by researching sculpting techniques and information about Cambodian arts, both new and old.

With this being such an important project and the first of its kind in Cambodia, Chamrouen’s first step was researching historical clothing styles, jewellery and ornamentation to ensure the figures were as authentic to the time period they represented as possible.

“We collected many old documents on the subject of weddings and the Royal Palace provided some pictures related to the jewellery of the ancient kings and we began to merge what we learned from these different sources and create something that was truly in the Khmer style,” he says.

Chamroeun said that it took about three to four months to do the historical and cultural research and design the monument prior to beginning its creation and what they came up with was influenced by a number of sources of Khmer art and sculpture.

“But even then the preliminary work wasn’t completed and we made changes to it many times to achieve the best result. The whole process took us about a year,” he says.

The statues of Preah Thong and Neang Neak were cast at a Chinese copper factory but designed locally. SUPPLIED

Long hours, late nights

The copper sculptor found himself working late into the night on many occasions until they had moulds completed for all of the parts of the enormous statues. The moulds were then shipped to a foundry in China that his company had partnered with who would do the actual pouring of the molten copper into them.

“Even after we sent the moulds to China, we still had more work to do because the Chinese company we were working with, although very good, does not have much understanding about Khmer art. At different points they would have questions for us that would require further explanations and detailed drawings,” says Chamroeun.

The Ministry of Public Works and Transport’s scheduling requirements meant that they only had 25 months to finish the project, Chamrouen says, pointing out that his foundry’s capacity was perhaps 500 kg to one tonne of copper per day whereas their partners in China could produce 30 to 40 tonnes of copper per hour.

“The work was still slow, however, because it began just as the pandemic broke out and I wasn’t able to travel to China to inspect the ongoing work because the Chinese embassy simply wasn’t issuing anyone any visas.

“So we turned to online communications instead, but that’s not as good as an in-person visit. The result is that the work achieved is really only about 80 per cent compared to our expectations,” says Chamroeun.

Although Chamroeun is elated now to have reached the culmination of over two years of hard work, he admits that it wasn’t very much fun to be the person responsible for this huge job.

He says they still need to check the statues interior structure and he says that the ship carrying the statue from China to Cambodia encountered waves and was bumped around some.

“We need to fix some damage and connect each of the pieces, which takes a long time. It’s not about welding, steel framing or like constructing a building or something, it’s an art. Once we received the pieces we then had to adapt them to match the original design,” he says.

Mighty monuments

Despite the difficulties and challenges involved with this job, Chamroeun says he sees a lot of potential for the production of more giant copper statues and monuments and he expects there will be interest in more work like this in the future.

The public works project took two years of hard labour that culminated in the erection of the statues in Sihanoukville. SUPPLIED

“I think Cambodia has a rich history with kings, generals, ancient warriors and courageous patriots – all of them are charismatic guardian spirits,” he said. “We should choose symbolic figures that represent each province – such as in Battambang province, they could choose Ta Dambang Kranhong to turn into large sculptures,” he says.

Chamroeun says that his work was helped along due to the support of Deputy Prime Minister Chea Sophara, who is an art-lover himself and enthusiastic about having more of these grand works of public art created that will celebrate the history and local lore of each province.

“[Sophara] wants statues that will instill respect and awe in anyone who sees them and his view is that if they are built too small they just won’t have the powerful presence necessary to become iconic works that represent the province,” he says.

Although Norak Singh Handicraft provided a one-year warranty on repairs to the ministry, the sculptor claims that the statue of Preah Thong and Neang Neak should stand on its own for hundreds of years without being affected much by weathering or suffering any damage if the strength of its assembly and foundations are done correctly.

Old becomes new again

The sculptor adds that he does design drawings daily to create his own all new and original concepts and has even designed ancient houses architectural structures that have only ever existed in his imagination.

“I like to try out new styles and I don’t want to be repetitive or unoriginal, but I sometimes adapt new designs to the art from each cultural era – the Angkorian, Koh Ker and Bayon periods – they all had their own evolving artistic styles.

“Back in those ancient periods, art was always evolving and thus, of course, in the 21st century, even art inspired by the past will continue with its evolution as well,” Chamroeun says.