Standing in the middle of the Siem Reap Angkor Panorama Museum’s 360-degree oil painting and diorama is like being transported to another era.
Only the air-conditioned environment detracts from the surreal feeling of standing in the open air gazing out on an ancient empire and a landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see.
After years under construction, the $24 million North Korea-funded museum – which critics have warned is little more than a way for the communist dictatorship to get around economic sanctions – finally opened its doors last week.
Setting aside the controversial nature of the place, the centrepiece is pretty impressive. Some 123 metres around and 13 metres high, it depicts three different periods of the Angkorian empire – construction, prosperity and war.
Standing on a platform simulating Phnom Bakheng, views look down on real dirt, gravel and rocks and out to a wraparound horizon complete with Angkor Wat, the Bayon, the Tonle Sap and rice fields.
At the base of the hill, houses stand amid sculptures of people in various aspects of life, along with horses and cattle. But it’s a keen eye that can spot where the models finish and the painting begins.
According to museum chief executive Yit Chandaroat, it took 63 artists – from North Korean construction firm Mansudae – a year to draw an outline on the wall, which was checked for authenticity and accuracy by a group of Khmer experts.
The final painting – which features more than 45,000 people – took about four months.
To provide further context, a 204-seat theatre within the complex features a 20-minute animated movie about the construction of the Angkor temples, with plans for more movies.
The museum also features models of all the main Angkor temples around Siem Reap, maps of all the ancient temples throughout Cambodia and information on the temple history.
In a city where the average tourist spends about three days, Sinn Meang, owner of Smart Tour Travel, said he had not seen anything like the artwork and welcomed the new museum as an additional activity for visitors and a boost for local jobs and economic input.
However, critics of the regime – such as Human Rights Watch spokesman Phil Robertson – have been highly critical of the project.
“By associating Angkor Wat with an international human rights pariah government like North Korea, Cambodia is tarnishing its historical legacy,” Robertson told Post Weekend. “Tourists should stay away from this museum.”
Others have claimed the museum is a means of filling North Korea’s coffers with hard currency during econo-mic sanctions.However, Chandaroat was quick to fob off such suggestions.
“This museum is not related to the politics – it’s only for the culture and tourism,” he said and pointed out that other countries have contributed to various museums in Siem Reap.
He said that for up to 10 years all proceeds would go back to North Korea to recoup construction costs.
But at the end of that period – or whenever the construction costs had been recovered – profits would begin to be shared 50-50 with Apsara National Authority.
Then 10 years after that the museum would transfer to 100 per cent Apsara Authority ownership.
“We allow [North] Korea to recover investment, but with the cooperation of the Apsara National Authority,” Chandaroat said.
“I think it’s not a political decision,” he added. “It is a company that invests around the world, not just in Cambodia.
“It’s not related to any political issue. It is for the promotion of Cambodian culture.”
The Siem Reap Angkor Panorama Museum is located about 3km north of Siem Reap’s city centre at the intersection of Road 60 and Apsara Road.
Entrance is free for the general information area, and costs $15 to see the panorama and $5 to see the movie.