Siem Reap's new Grand Panorama Museum is |history with a social-realism |flourish
The North Korean construction chief beams with pride. His “baby” is a strange museum, the like of which you have probably never seen.
The new building stands close to the celebrated Angkor temple complex near Siem Reap, Cambodia, seen by a quarter of a million visitors every month during high season.
The latest attraction is designed to highlight a long-gone era of Cambodian history, yet a puzzling question remains: Why did North Korea build it?
The Grand Panorama Museum is a gift to cement the “glorious friendship between Korea and Cambodia”, says a young translator from Pyongyang, capital of the hermit state.
The talk here is always of “Korea”, with no mention of north or south.
The building site is still strictly off-limits as I visit but, despite the secrecy, the man in charge relents and provides a short tour.
The museum is right next to the new ticket booths for the temple complex. The avowed aim is to take visitors back to the heyday of Khmer culture, which flourished in Angkor between the 12th and 15th centuries.
The museum’s interpretation is not so much scholarly as glitzy, with otherworldly music and coloured lights. It also showcases the North Korean style of ultra-realist painting. A huge face of the Buddha looms at the entrance.
“A true-scale copy of the stone-hewn figures at the Bayon Temple,” says the building chief. The giant painting looks remarkably like a photograph. “Exactly,” beams the official. “But it’s not a photograph – it’s Korean art.”
The big Buddha is a product of the Mansudae art factory in Pyongyang, which employs a thousand artists turning out paintings in oil, acrylic and watercolours in the “social realist” style. Abstraction is not allowed.
The panorama is viewed from a platform in the centre of a circular room. The entire wall is a single vast picture, 13 metres tall and 130 long. It depicts the many temples and everyday scenes from the 12th-century Khmer era – or at least daily life as imagined by North Korean artists.
The official word is that all the scenes were painted “following consultations with Cambodian historians”, the site supervisor is anxious to point out. The finished product is strong on battles, with lots of bloodshed.
“We have a panoramic museum like this in Pyongyang too,” says the supervisor. Is it about ancient Korean history? “No, it’s about the Americans’ war.”
The illusion of being at the centre of the Khmer empire is extended by all manner of fake walls, cannons and plastic trees between the raised platform and the panorama wall. The models carefully match the objects visible in the painted panorama.
“We will have wind and fog-making machines so that the trees will rustle,” says the young translator.
The museum also offers scale models of the sprawling temple complex and a 3D theatre where films depicting temple construction will be screened.
North Korean art is on sale in the foyer, along with cute souvenir dolls dressed in what the North Koreans say is the authentic Khmer national costume.
One huge oil painting in the shop is definitely not for sale. It depicts a snow-covered landscape in Korea’s mountains with a little hut in the foreground highlighted by a shaft of sunlight.
“That is the birthplace of our Great Leader,” the supervisor says reverently. “The picture is here on loan.” The late North Korean founding father Kim Il-sung is revered like a god.
Amicable relations between the pariah state and Cambodia are further celebrated at a restaurant called Pyongyang in Siem Reap, where the waitresses are dancers, singers and fiddle-players flown in from North Korea to practise their female charms.
South Korean tourists by the hundreds seem to be the most eager customers, willingly forking over the equivalent of Bt2,600 to the waitresses for a quarter litre of North Korean schnapps. “Blueberry, very good!” a waitress in a red and white decorated gown trills beguilingly.
She crops up again as part of the evening’s cultural programme, whirling like a dervish across the stage with a vase perched on her head. The restaurant offers speciality acquired-taste dishes such as dog and chicken stomach.
The crowning glory is a cultural tableau after the meal. It follows a familiar pattern. Regardless of whether there is music, dance or karaoke, it all starts up slowly and gets progressively faster until everything comes to an end with a crashing drum finale.