The National Museum of Phnom Penh is instantly recognizable, with its warm red terracotta and its gracefully curved roof topped by dozens of guardian nagas. Located just north of the Royal Palace, off the street of Artists (178 street), it was designed in 1917 by farmed French architect George Groslier and the Ecole des Arts Cambodgiens, who made the most of traditional Khmer style. It was inaugurated by King Sisowath in 1920.
Worth visiting for its beauty alone, the National Museum also houses the world’s foremost collection of ancient Khmer archaeological, religious and artistic artifacts. The Angkor era is the museum’s specialty, but it also features other important periods such as the Funan and Zhenla, the two empires most closely seen as precursors to Angkor. More than 5.000 objects dating from the 4th to the 13th centuries are on display.
And these are only the tip of the iceberg. Lack of funding and special restraints have meant the museum’s vaults remain full of thousands more objects, many of them priceless. The museum is open daily from 8 am to 11:30 am and from 2:30 pm to 5 pm. French and English spoken guides are available, or visitors can purchase one of the books or pamphlets available and wander the four courtyards, each facing out into a garden, and try to piece together the complex history through these magnificent works ancient art themselves.
Among the most memorable of these is an eight-armed statue of Vishnu dating from the 6th century, but even the smaller, less imposing pieces a unique insight in to the skills of craftspeople that had inhabited this area through the centuries.