National Museum

Exhibits may not be breathtaking, but building is

What we say: 3.5 stars

Cambodia’s National Museum (saa-ra moo-un dti if you want to impress your tuk tuk driver) is a reference point around Phnom Penh, an impressive red-tiled, red-walled building set in tropical gardens. On the corner of Street 178 and Street 13, two blocks from FCC and the riverside, this is a regular stop off point for foreigner visitors and students interested in Angkorian history. We could be picky about the limits of the collections and the old school approach, but the very fact of the museum’s survival and the building itself make this a pleasant cultural interlude.

Classier than a gnome

Classier than a gnome.

The museum’s location is designed to impress, next to the Royal Palace and with the Royal University of Fine Arts just behind. For full impact, approach through the park in front and turn around to see the two colonial mansions, looking like ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures in a restoration company’s brochure. The shiny clean one is occupied by UNESCO, the shabby chic version is derelict. It’s easy to image the carriages and parasols of colonial times and appreciate the French enthusiasm for Khmer art and architecture. Opened in 1920 and extended in 1924, the museum building itself has so many pediments, loggias and multi-tiered spired roofs, it threatens to upstage the exhibits it houses.

Dotted around the museum’s lush grounds are statues which hint at what’s inside. Enter through the enormous carved doors, where you’re welcomed by a 10th century sandstone Garuda of more than human size. The museum’s collections are arranged on the ground floor in three cool and airy wings around a central courtyard.

Impressive from all angles

Impressive from all angles.

The museum’s exhibits in French, English and Khmer gives limited information and the displays of giant statues and temple decorations can be confusing. Hiring a guide for $6 will help you distinguish your pre-Angkorian linga from a post-Angkorian fronton, saving you from much archeological embarrassment.

From the entrance, a hall of small artefacts extends left and right, with glass display cases full of bronze statuettes, quartz linga, elephant bells and rice spoons. Generally, visitors take a clockwise direction. To the left are halls of sacred statues. Museum staff will hand you wonderful smelling jasmine flower sticks to offer to the divinity of your choice. And what a choice — Brahmanism and Buddhism are equally represented, with Durga, Vishnu, Bodhisattra, Lakshmi, Ganesha and plenty of Buddhas. These icons still hold religious significance, so as with Angkor Wat, it’s best to dress and behave respectfully.

Amazing what you find lurking in the undergrowth

Amazing what you find lurking in the undergrowth.

The collection leads into the personal, with military and agricultural implements, theatrical costumes, intricate marriage boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, and a tobacco pipe in the shape of a fish. Royal highlights include the funeral urn of King Sisowath, a large statue of King Jayavarman VII (builder of temples) and 12th century gold regalia including a crown, ear pendants and hair covers. The exhibition of unexpected discoveries gives information on how an archeological dig works and exposes the problems of looting from sites. The circuit ends with a a room of wooden Buddhas and a photo wall of the founders, directors and staff of the museum since 1920.

Very realistic statues

Very realistic statues.

The courtyard garden at the centre is a peaceful and fragrant place to reflect on the influence of Khmer art in modern Cambodia. Stop by the discreet shop on the way out if you want a torso-less head of your very own (it’s easier to pack that way).

The museum is open daily 08:00-17:00, with last entry at 16:30. Entry fee is $3 for foreigners, with children under 5 free.

Further reading
Get to grips with Khmer art history and swot up on the museum’s wooden, ceramic and stone objects.

More details
Corner of Street 178 and Street 13, Phnom Penh
Opening Hours: Daily 08:00-17:00, last entry at 16:30
Last updated: 23rd August, 2015

About the author:
Abigail has been stoned by villagers in India, become an honorary Kenyan tribeswoman, sweet talked border guards and had close encounters with black mambas. Her motto is: “Live to tell the tale.”
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National Museum
Corner of Street 178 and Street 13, Phnom Penh
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