Nestled within the heart of Fresno, California – a city with a significant Cambodian community – lays a hidden gem that magically transports visitors to the ancient wonders of Southeast Asia.
Overlooking the smiling faces adorning the entrance, one cannot help but be struck by the striking resemblance to the grand temple entrances of the renowned Angkor Archaeological Park.
As visitors make their way inside, a remarkable sight awaits on the right side. Intricate temple ruins with interwoven roots create a scene reminiscent of the enchanting atmosphere found in Ta Prohm.
It is important to note, however, that despite the astonishing similarities to the renowned Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Angkor Thom, this captivating setting exists far from the ancient ruins.
The Kingdoms of Asia is a newly established section within the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, where visitors can embark on a captivating journey through the rich cultural heritage of Southeast Asia.
“The ancient temples and landscapes of Cambodia were an opportunity to feature wildlife intertwined with architecture and art,” said Bricken Sparacino, the director of learning and live interpretation at Fresno Chaffee Zoo.
She said the over 200 species zoo was fortunate to have the active participation and guidance of the local Cambodian community in shaping the design, thus ensuring an authentic and immersive experience for all guests.
The Kingdoms of Asia contains several buildings at the exhibit that has been built to resemble ancient temple grounds.
“This is an incredible addition to the experience here, an immersive journey into the habitats, the cultures and the wildlife of Southeast Asia,” said Fresno Chaffee Zoo director and CEO Jon Forrest Dohlin in the announcement.
As zoos around the world continue to update their habitats, many are shifting towards showcasing species by their geographic region instead of by animal type.
Kingdoms of Asia builds upon that model by also highlighting the overlap between culture and wildlife in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia, according to Sparacino.
“This creates an environment in which guests feel transported and are immersed in the art and culture of Cambodia while learning more about the region’s wildlife,” Sparacino, a performing artist who helped develop the Wildlife Theatre programme for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), told The Post.
Descending further into this mesmerising world, a serene stream comes into view beneath the ruined temple. Adorned with a thousand lingams, the stream pays homage to the sacred waterways found on majestic Kulen Mountain.
What is remarkable is that they use an archaeological style to represent the Khmer civilisation, according to Danny Kim, the chairman of the Cambodian Cultural Preservation Association in Fresno, who has lived in the US since 1986.
Kim, who also serves as a cultural adviser for the zoo, said that the project began three years ago when the giraffe shelter was relocated and replaced by the Kingdoms of Asia exhibit.
“As a part of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, we are proud to showcase the Khmer style of Southeast Asia within the permanent Kingdoms of Asia exhibit.”
“The temple style is used because Cambodia was once the largest kingdom in Southeast Asia and it is famous, including its depiction in the Hollywood movie ‘Tomb Raider’ with Angelina Jolie,” said Kim.
As a cultural adviser, Kim’s core work is to make sure the design follows Khmer traditions as ‘Kingdoms of Asia’ showcases the beautiful and colourful religion, tradition and culture of Cambodia.
Kim mentioned that initially, the zoo’s executive director wanted to include various designs, including an Apsara exhibition, without adhering to cultural precepts. However, after consulting with a team of Cambodian advisers, the zoo agreed to adopt a single style to prevent any misunderstandings.
“For all the styles in this zoo, no Thai or Lao side has claimed it as their own because the exhibit is strictly in the Khmer style,” Kim told The Post.
Before the opening of ‘Kingdoms of Asia’ to the public on June 3, Fresno Chaffee Zoo organised a special reception. The cultural advisers, who provided assistance and helped ensure accuracy and respect throughout the construction process, were honoured during the event.
“We also had a captivating performance by United Khmer Cultural Preservation, a local dance group, and a blessing of the new experience by monks from the Fresno Cambodian Buddhist Temple,” said Sparacino.
She emphasised that the success and immersive experience of Kingdoms of Asia for the guests would not have been possible without the invaluable guidance from the Cambodian cultural advisers.
“We eagerly anticipate celebrating Lunar New Year for the second time at the zoo, as it allows us to welcome and celebrate this diverse community,” she told The Post.
In addition to showcasing Southeast Asian wildlife, such as the Malayan tiger, Sumatran orangutan, Komodo dragon, a variety of Asian songbirds, and Sunda gharial, a massive freshwater crocodilian native to Malaysia, the exhibit also features species imported from Cambodia.
Sparacino said that Fresno Chaffee Zoo is proud to support a number of conservation initiatives working in Southeast Asia including Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, Wildlife SOS, International Rhino Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme focused on Malayan tiger, and the Sumatran Songbird Sanctuary.
The zoo is also a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which is working to reduce habitat loss due to palm oil production while improving working conditions for local people.
“We hope that our guests’ experiences in Kingdoms of Asia inspire them to take action to save the incredible diversity of wildlife found throughout Asia,” she said.
The zoo provides interpretive signs throughout the experience that describe the wildlife featured in Kingdoms of Asia and the threats to their wild counterparts and their habitats, according to Sparacino. Her outstanding efforts and innovative initiatives at the zoo earned her the WCS employee recognition award in both 2012 and 2015.
“We also have signage throughout the experience that highlights various aspects of Southeast Asian culture, including the significance of Apsara dancers and dragons,” said Sparacino.
“More importantly, we have a video playing in the Kingdoms of Asia classroom with our cultural advisers telling their family stories about their journeys from Asia to Fresno”.
Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s mission is to inspire people to care for animals, create connections, build community, and save wildlife. By inspiring the communities to care for and help participate in the efforts to save wildlife, the Kingdoms of Asia encounter can help create a world where people and wildlife thrive together.
During the construction of Kingdoms of Asia, animal welfare was given top priority, according to Sparacino. The zoo found a unique way to incorporate enrichment items for the animals while also accurately representing Cambodian archaeological ruins.
“Some of these items include large rock structures that our tigers can jump from and long rivers for our otters and sloth bears to enjoy,” she says.
Moreover, Fresno Chaffee Zoo is proudly accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums adhere to the highest standards in animal care and welfare, providing a fun, safe, and educational experience for families.
Less than 10 per cent of the 2,800 wildlife exhibitors licensed by the US Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 meet the more comprehensive standards required for AZA accreditation.
Fresno Chaffee Zoo has recently finalised its master plan, which outlines the construction projects for the next ten years across the entire zoo.
Sparacino mentioned that these projects will differ in terms of scale and size. The goal of each new experience is to provide guests with an unforgettable and impactful experience, leaving them with a renewed appreciation for wildlife and actionable steps they can take in their own lives.
For those seeking an even more lively zoo experience, the Longvek Market Place restaurant awaits. Here, the spirit of Khmer architecture and culture bursts to life with a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and scents.
The marketplace pulsates with energy as local artisans showcase their crafts, and the tantalising aroma of traditional delicacies fills the air.
Danny Kim also proudly shared that he was allowed to name the market “Longvek Market,” after a historic trading centre, which was a gathering point for people of knowledge including scholars and martial artists.
In addition to the built-in loudspeakers, traditional Khmer tunes are played, including Nokor Reach, Cambodia’s national anthem and pinpeat, ceremonial music of the royal courts and temples of Cambodia since ancient times.
“As Cambodians, when we go shopping or dine at the Longvek Market Place restaurant, we feel a great sense of pride for our Cambodian heritage,” said Kim.
However, he acknowledged that due to the lack of additional decorations representing the Khmer people, the complete details do not yet fully represent Cambodian culture.
Kim mentioned that the zoo still lacks representations of Apsara, Brahma, and Jayavarman VII, while other ethnic groups, such as Lao, have their traditional costumes on display.
With a deep appreciation for culture, Danny Kim used his own money to purchase an Apsara crown for the exhibition.