Few places are more steeped in history than the temples of Angkor. Yet many visitors go no further than what is presented in the history section of their Lonely Planet guidebook. Setting out to change that is the Angkor National Museum, home to over a thousand artifacts recovered from around the country and reclaimed from abroad.
I skipped visiting the museum during my 2009 visit, and hesitated before attending this time. Opening it’s doors in 2007, the Angkor National Museum has been faced with some harsh evaluations in it’s short lifespan. Naysayers criticize the high entry fee, the somewhat out of place mall-like exterior, the fact that the company is Thai owned (though will be transferred to Cambodia after 30 years), and even the need for a museum dedicated to the temples when the real thing lies moments away. As a museum lover and an Angkor-enthusiast, I decided to see for myself.
While I agree that the exterior of the museum is a slight eyesore, the interior is stunning. A spiral staircase brings you to the main galleries and also served as the lift for heavy stone artifacts that otherwise would not have made it to the second floor, while a reflecting pool used in official water ceremonies is a calming presence. As a design geek, I found the museum design and the display design to be on par with any world class museum.
Of the eight galleries of the museum, the most breathtaking, visually and intellectually, is the Gallery of 1000 Buddhas. The custom built display cases that cover all four walls and house hundreds of Buddhas is a design element I would love to replicate in my future home. The Buddhas are made from materials from wood to jade, and many of them have fascinating stories of how they came to live in the museum. I could spend ages in this room.
Other highlights include special coverage of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and the great Khmer Kings. Displays are interesting and informative, and the artifacts are plentiful. While there are many carvings and decorations on the temples themselves, many of the original Buddhas and other sculptures were long ago looted or defaced. The museum worked hard to recover them, and this is your chance to see them up close. We spent nearly two hours wandering the galleries and soaking up as much as we could.
So how did I feel about those negative critiques of the museum after visiting? When I spoke to a representative, she defended the appearance of the building by stating that their main priority was longevity, and they hope that the building will safely hold the artifacts within for 100 years. I can’t much argue with that logic, and as I mentioned before the museum’s interior is handled beautifully. As for the museum’s Thai ownership, I agree it isn’t ideal. But they are doing a fine job setting up a museum filled with national treasures that will be handed to the Khmers in 26 years, and in the meantime providing jobs for locals. To those that state that a museum isn’t worth visiting when the temples are still standing and so close by, I admit they might be right for tourists who only have a day or so in Siem Reap. In that case, time should be spent at Angkor itself.
Still, the main thing that may rub visitors the wrong way is the high entrance fee of $12. Compared to the the relative costs of traveling in Cambodia and also perhaps most interestingly compared to the $3 entrance fee at the National Museum in Phnom Penh or the $20 entrance fee to the temples themselves, this is quite an investment for a visitor to Cambodia. I agree, it’s pricey! However, there is a coupon inside the Siem Reap Travel Kit map, which can be found all around town, allowing for a $10 admission. Try asking about tickets at your hotel as well, which may be able to offer the same deal. There is also a 50% discount for kiddos.
Despite the entrance fees and the other issues, for lovers of art, history, and design, this museum will not disappoint. The galleries are stunningly designed and do justice the the amazing artifacts that they hold. And despite reading numerous books and stories about the temples’ history, I really came away with a better comprehension after visiting the museum. I can also see how it would be a great option for those that don’t wish to use a tour guide to visit the Angkor Temples but want some background and history to supplement their trip.
The museum is open from 9am-8pm daily and is located on the road to the Angkor Temples, a do-able walk from the old town. I recommend taking the $3 audio tour. I do not recommend the $2 camera pass, as you cant shoot in galleries even with it. Call (855) (0) 63 966 601 or visit www.angkornationalmuseum.com for more info.
Please Note: Due to restrictions preventing photography inside the galleries, only the first and last photos are my own. All others are property of the Angkor National Museum. For the purpose of reviewing the museum, we received complimentary admission. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.