One of the best museums in the country
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—it is also arguably the best museum in the country.
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—and we consider it a must see. If at all possible, we recommend saving a visit here until after you’ve seen some of the temples of Angkor, 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 a magnificent 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. We recommend hiring the audio tour ($5) which works off numbers displayed at each exhibit. Not all displayed items are in the audio tour, but plenty enough are. The voiceovers are generally two to three minutes apiece and while a little repetitive, they are generally very informative and allow you to explore the museum your own way and at your own pace. It also helps to drown out the racket from the tour groups who can overrun the museum grounds at times.
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.
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).
Some the evening Cambodian Living Arts presents a dance show within the museum grounds. Prices start at $15 and reservations are recommended, especially in high season.
Address: Corner of Streets 178 and 13, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 211 753;
Coordinates (for GPS): 104º55'45.84" E, 11º33'56.16" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: $10 for foreigners, $5 for those aged 10–17 and under 10 are free
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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