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One man's passion: saving the past for the future

One man's passion: saving the past for the future

Nou Sokha with a varied selection of boxes that contained lime for mixing with betel nut for chewing.

Nou Sokha is an inveterate hoarder, a passionate collector of all things old. Climbing

up a wooden ladder in his Phnom Penh home, he enters a dimly lit room and switches

on a light to reveal a remarkably diverse collection.

It has taken Sokha more than 20 years to gather the thousands of pieces in this room:

from postage stamps and coins, to antique jars, musical instruments, tribal jewelry

and ceramics. Pottery, tools and metal weapons date from a multitude of periods:

pre-Angkor, Angkor, Kulen, Banteay Chhmar, Bakhong and Phnom Da.

"I get huge enjoyment from collecting," he says, lifting up an ancient

ceramic bowl from a giant pile of similar pieces. "My hope is to create a display

center to allow others to enjoy what I have spent my life collecting. Then their

knowledge of my country will improve."

Sokha's collection - and it is far from being in an exhibition state - takes up most

of the space in the 4x4 meter room. Not everything is antique: stamps, cigarettes,

medals and toys are some of the newer items, as is a framed bronze wall plaque of

Captain James Cook, who's relevance to Cambodia is not entirely clear.

However, Sokha's enthusiasm is unmistakable. He says he began collecting when he

was a child: cigarette packets and caps were among his earliest acquisitions. That

collection, he notes sadly, was mostly destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime that

ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

"But I never abandoned my plans," he says, "and began collecting again

in 1980." Twenty-one years later, Sokha reckons he has spent more than $100,000

building up the collection to its present state. Initially he bargained rice for

his pieces, then turned to paying cash. Much of the money he has earned from his

Khmer sculpture shop in the capital went into the collection.

What do his family and friends think of his obsession?

"My wife and children have been very supportive of my dream," he says,

"although some of my friends think I am foolish spending my money on used goods

when I could have had nice cars and a luxury villa."

Sokha's next step is to get permission from the authorities to open his exhibition

center. To that end he has bought a piece of land 30 kilometers outside Phnom Penh

on National Road 2. Visitors will get the benefit of seeing his collection, as well

as the chance to enjoy the beauty of the area's rice fields.

Many pre-Angkor and Angkor-era clay jars are among Sokha's large collection of vases and pots.

The outlook is promising. His "Culture of Peace" site has received support

from the tourism minister and the secretary of state for culture.

At the Ministry of Culture, Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuth says that displaying

ancient items such as clothing, fishing tools, medals and money will help bring the

past into the present. That, he says, will also save the pieces from being exported

to other countries.

"I am sure it will be no problem for him to open this center," he says.

"It is good for us that he can help preserve old pieces from being sold on to

other countries."

Tourism minister Veng Sereyvuth is also keen to see more attractions for tourists

and feels efforts like this one could help extend the time tourists spend in Cambodia.

"Tourists do tell us they would like to see something out of the ordinary,"

says Sereyvuth, "and this idea could generate interest from tourists."

Sokha's ambition is to have the center up and running by 2005, but admits that will

depend on how much money he can save for the project. He plans to have free admission

for students and the young, with different prices for Khmer adults and tourists.

One aspect he is particularly keen on is having a musician to entertain visitors.

He would also like to employ disabled people to work there.

"The money-earning side of this project does not overly interest me," says

Sokha. "I am more interested in giving people knowledge about their past and

the present."

Sokha wants to display his collection by country of origin, and will invite the countries

concerned to help with their respective displays. That could prove a Herculean task

in itself: he has postage stamps from 108 countries and currency from 139.

He does not think there are any problems with storing artefacts in a private museum:

it is not wrong, he says, because his plan all along has been to save the pieces

and keep them in Cambodia.

"All of the oldest pieces are Khmer," he says, " and it is better

that we Khmers look after them. We lost so much in the past, and I do not want us

to lose any more in the future."

Earrings and musical instruments made from horns and tusks.

"For instance, look at this jar," he says, pointing to a half-meter high,

Angkor-period piece. "If I had not bought it, the country would have lost it

forever."

Sokha, 49, is also concerned that his collection not disintegrate after he dies and

has forbidden his children from selling any items.

"When I die, my children have agreed they will organize and run the collection,"

he says. "I hope my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren will also like

my idea and keep it alive."

His son, 25-year-old Bo Sathya, backs his father. He has provided much assistance

over the years.

"I am very supportive of him," says Sathya, showing off an album of Cambodian

stamps his father has collected since 1954. "I have helped him since I was 15,

and would like as much as he would to see this project succeed."

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