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 carefully tended 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.
If it’s at all possible, we recommend saving a visit here until after you’ve seen some of the temples, as the exhibits will resonate more once you’re able to mentally place them. That said, with as many as 14,000 different pieces on show or in storage below, it’s still a wonderful way to to come to understand some of the scale of what was achieved during the Khmer Empire in particular.
The museum’s location is designed to impress, next to the Royal Palace and with the Royal University of Fine Arts just behind. 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 that hint at what’s inside. Enter through the enormous carved doors, where you’re welcomed by an enormous garuda from Koh Ker, a 10th century temple complex. Turn left to start to follow the collection, which is housed in four wings arranged around a courtyard with perfectly manicured gardens.
The museum gives limited information about its exhibits in French, English and Khmer but 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 archaeological embarrassment. The exhibits are not represented chronologically, or by location, but rather by the nature of what is being seen.
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.
Just before that, there is a room dedicated to temporary exhibits. There was one examining the role of women in Cambodian economic, social and cultural life the last time we visited.
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).
Get to grips with Khmer art history and swot up on the museum’s wooden, ceramic and stone objects ahead of a visit.