Sunday, July 01, 2007

Battambang's Museums : 2006

Detail from a lintel at the Battambang Provincial museum
Continuing my 2006 travelogues from Cambodia.

Battambang's Museums

The city of Battambang is blessed with two museums, the main Provincial museum located on the west bank of the Sangker river, which is open daily except Monday, and a second museum in the grounds of Wat Po Veal pagoda on the opposite bank of the river. On two previous visits to Battambang in 1999 and 2000, the main museum was padlocked shut and no-one had the key to open it up so I was restricted to inspecting the half dozen lintels and two lions - which are all of good quality - housed on the steps of the building. My disappointment of previous years was certainly swept away when I arrived in Battambang on this occasion and engaged the services of Sak as my guide. Sak used to work at the museum before his current job in the city's planning office, so he was more than keen to show me around and in addition to that, when we arrived at the museum at 2.30pm - just two hours after getting off the bus from Pursat - he arranged for a personal guided tour by the Province's Director of Culture and Fine Arts, no less. Now that's what I call first-class customer service. The Director is Tub Tan Leang and he spends most of his days at the museum - whereas most officials at his level spend them in their opulent government offices - but Leang isn't your usual government official. Instead, he's a man whose passion for his museum and its priceless contents was obvious the moment I met him.

For the next two hours, the three of us inched our way around the museum's exhibits with Leang and Sak filling me in on each item's provenance where it was known, and in many instances its meaning, as in a lintel displaying the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Leang is better-versed in French with English harder for him, so Sak helped him out when required and it was clear to me that the two men got on very well, displaying an almost telepathic connection between them. Leang gave me the okay to ignore the 'no photographs' signs - something that would be unthinkable at the National museum in Phnom Penh - as I snapped away in a veritable treasure-trove of artifacts that included many lintels in fantastic condition such as the one from O'Taki, inscribed steles, a magnificent polished linga, lions, boundary stones, heads of gods from the causeway at Banteay Chhmar, other sculpted figures and a massive urn to mention just a few. There was also a collection of wooden buddhas and the most recent addition, a large head that had been found buried in the garden of the museum in the last month, presumably to avoid its theft by the Khmer Rouge. He told me that the museum opened its doors in 1968, only to close during the civil war and re-open again in 1986, undergoing a refurbishment in 1997. I felt privileged to be afforded such VIP treatment though it was obvious that Leang enjoyed talking about his exhibits as I did listening. With much of the museum's sculptures coming from the Angkorean temples that dot the landscape around Battambang, the museum is an important part of the jigsaw to fully appreciate a visit to temples like Ek Phnom, Phnom Banan and Wat Bassaet. We left and headed straight for Wat Po Veal on the other side of the river, wishing to visit the museum on the ground floor of the main vihara, only to be informed that the head monk was visiting the doctor and no-one could give us the key. It was case of deja-vu from my previous Battambang visits. Undaunted, we promised to return.

A couple of days later, we returned to the pagoda at 3pm and with great perseverance, Sak eventually tracked down the monk with the key to unlock the heavy padlock on the museum door. His name was Roeury Rien and he told us the museum was rarely opened but he'd be happy to let us in. Judging by the dust and cobwebs everywhere, the monk was right that the exhibits saw no visitors, as half a dozen monks also took advantage of the open door, to wander in with us. Inside we found another fifteen lintels, some upside down and all covered in dust, a beautifully carved boundary stone with an inscription and lots of other sculpted items. A real Aladdin's Cave of treasures, and I wondered if it's used as a storage holding area before the pieces can be exhibited at the main museum. I couldn't establish if the two museum's work hand in hand with each other, but I was aware that the museum was first opened in 1965 and it was clear that this building needed a good spring-clean if it was going to open its doors to visitors on a regular basis. We thanked the monk, one of 120 at the pagoda, and I left Wat Po Veal feeling my museum-hunting had at last paid rich dividends on my third visit to Battambang.
Footnote: I urge you to make time in your schedule to visit both museums, you won't be disappointed. And contact Sak to be your guide, he proved to be excellent.
Link: Cambodia Tales.

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