We Went Back to Cambodia

We have been in Bangkok for a fairly long stretch this rainy season, but we broke it up by flying to Siem Reap last weekend. It is easy and cheap to fly to Cambodia and I don’t know why we don’t do it more often (except that on the Bangkok end one often spends more time getting from the airplane to home than one does on the airplane itself). This time we mostly hung out in Siem Reap, which is a pleasant town to do nothing in, not least riding remorks:


Many things were closed because it was Pchum Ben, the two weeks when Cambodian ghosts return from hell to be fed rice-balls. But we managed to feed ourselves.

The first thing we did was something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, going to the newly built Angkor Panorama Museum. What is notable about this museum is that it was made (and appears to be run) by the North Koreans, who have a friendly relationship with Cambodia on account of Norodom Sihanouk, the Cambodian king, living in exile in Pyongyang in the 1970s. Siem Reap and Phnom Penh both have North Korean restaurants (as does Bangkok now!), which I have also been curious about, though they are meant to be extremely expensive and a little ethically dubious. But with the Angkor Panorama Museum, the North Koreans are trying to become a force in the painting business. So we went to see them.

Although it is difficult to tell from its website, which suggests the prices are $2.50 for Cambodian adults, $1.50 for Cambodian children, and/or 30% off (for everyone?), the Angkor Panorama Museum is extremely expensive: if you are not Cambodian, you’re paying $20 for an adult. Children under six are free; Cambodians are more than $2.50/$1.50; as far as we could tell (which was not very much), no one is getting 30% off anything. $20 actually gets you two tickets: one is for the panorama ($15) and the other is for the movie ($5) though the tickets cannot actually be bought separately. I did not want to go to the movie, having watched the preview online, but that turned out to be wrong thinking. The museum unfortunately allows no photography of any of the interesting things, but I did get a picture of the prices:


Luckily they have put together a video that gives you a feeling of how it were be if you were a robot who had consumed too many sedatives and were trying to make your way through the museum:

The panorama is well-painted, particularly the bloody scenes where the Khmers are the Chams but $15 seems like a stretch. Various young people ask to take your picture, but we did not take them up on this, mostly because who knows how much a picture of your at the panorama would cost, but also because it seems a little foolhardy to give them a photographic record of your being there.

While the brochure announces that “The movie theater shows 3D movie reproduced high architectural technics and the building process of the mysterious Angkor Wat with fictions and historical data” this is not entirely true: the movie is 3D in so far as the screen is curved a little. It is worth noting that the seats in the theater are as hard as you might hope which makes it easier to stay awake for the movie. There is a preview for the movie online:

The whole thing is maybe fifteen minutes long and it describes the creation of Angkor Wat. The narration is confusing. Visually it seems to have been done as some kind of computer game; one might not expect quite so much focus on the manly thighs and buttocks of the ancient Khmer workers (this comes across a little in the preview) but I am not very familiar with North Korean film. The elephants particularly seemed mechanical. One was left with the impression that there weren’t any women at Angkor Wat. It was quite a film, and probably the best value of anything that is in the Angkor Panorama Museum.

After you leave the film you can go through the painting gallery where there are scenes of Cambodian scenes and dogs, presumably painted by North Korean artists, that you can buy. We did not buy any. Then we left. I am not sure that I would recommend the Angkor Panorama Museum to anyone. One is left with the impression that the primary purpose of the museum is to help the North Korean government assemble a collection of $20 bills.

* * * * *

The next day we went to Preah Vihear, which is something that I would recommend. Preah Vihear is an Angkor-era temple on the border between Cambodia and Thailand in the Dangrek mountains. There is a long history of the Cambodians and Thais fighting over it, and as recently as 2011 the Thais and Cambodians were shooting each other over it. (You can read a short account of the conflict here; for a fuller account, John Burgess’s 2014 book Temple in the Clouds: Faith and Conflict at Preah Vihear goes over it in exhaustive detail.) Basically, the Siamese and the French (who were running Cambodia) agreed to demarcate the border in 1903; the French made a map showing the temple on the Cambodian side, and the Siamese seem not to have bothered to look at the map (a Thai trait familiar to any tourist who has attempted to show a map to a Bangkok taxi driver). The Thais are unhappy that they don’t have Preah Vihear; the Cambodians are extremely pleased that they have it. The Thai army, for reasons that are best known to itself, continues to make, guard, and possibly destroy scale models of Preah Vihear.

While it was until a few years ago easier to visit Preah Vihear from the Thai side, the border is now closed and you have to go through Cambodia. It’s a three-hour drive from Siem Reap; but the roads are good & it’s not a very complicated trip. When you get to the base of the mountain, you’re transferred to a pickup truck for the ride around the mountain, which is somewhat harrowing; the pickup truck takes you to a plaza at the north side of the complex, and from there it’s a short walk to the start of the temple.

Preah Vihear is set up differently from other Angkor temples: it’s essentially a straight line, going north to south. You climb the hill until you reach the southern-most part of the temple, which is on the edge of a cliff which looks out over Cambodia. UNESCO’s putting money into conservation, but not a huge amount has been done yet; while there were a lot of mostly Cambodian visitors while we were there, you’re still allowed to scramble over the fallen bricks. Here’s the entrance, which is being propped up:


There’s a long processional path that goes uphill:


You go through a series of doorways into courtyards:


It is a fairly large complex:


And some of it is still in pretty good shape:


though not all of it:


There was a central tower next to the central shrine, but that fell down a long time ago (you can see the remains on the left):


And finally, when you exit the last courtyard, you come to the cliff’s edge.


This is looking south, so what we’re seeing is Cambodia. I don’t think that rectangular pond is Angkorian, though there are others like it outside Siem Reap:


More of Cambodia – this picture makes it clear that we were there during the rainy season, and the visibility probably wasn’t as good as it would be other times of year. Those hills are others of the Dangrek mountains.


Also there was a little pond at the top that was full of tadpoles:


It’s worth going to see! If possible, go when people aren’t shooting at each other.

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