In the good old days, museums and galleries used to be portico-fronted, with large Doric columns and a grand staircase. The point was that you ascend to beauty and truth: it takes a little hard work. People fought and died, or dreamed great dreams of beauty and truth; you can’t just stroll in.
Gradually, over time, a gentle nod of the head towards those amongst us with different needs replaced steps with ramps.
Not so at the Angkor national museum, right here in Siem Reap, where it’s a round-the-back-and-up-the-freight-elevator affair for our disabled friends. Which is unfortunate when you consider the sheer number of people living here with (a) just the kind of vivid, rich connection with the country’s history the museum should engage, and (b) literally no legs.
Not only that – there are no sidewalks on the roads leading here, leaving the museum to cater for precisely the type of rich tuktuk-riding cripple that exists in a poor country with no social healthcare.
If there were any justice, they’d have brought along all the ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers knocking around and had them stood in ranks outside, giving a lift to the poor beggars crippled by their fathers. But there isn’t, and they’ve been nicely truth-and-reconciliationed into pensions on farms in the north.
Inside, the well-known impossibility of taking a good photograph of Angkor Wat at least explains why there’s not a single one in the museum dedicated to its history. Instead, you can’t move for Buddhas. Thousands of ’em, sir. Honestly, there’s an exhibition called “a thousand Buddhas”. At thirty years old I can honestly say that I’d die happy if I never saw another Buddha.
Well, not that happy, obviously.
And If the museum’s multimedia creators had spent a little less time playing Tomb Raider, they’d realise that ancient Hinduism isn’t the kind of mystic, unknown civilisation that needs history channel-style timpani and dramatic strings. It’s a fascinating story without the mood music, thanks very much.
But why they stopped there is beyond me, except to think maybe there’s a little b-roll on the cutting-room floor. Hours and hours of busty locals running around the forest, rolling in the leaves. Who can say? It’d at least lighten the mood.
There is a coffee shop, but only the exhibition areas are air conditioned so you’ll want to give it a wide, sweaty berth. My only thought about the shop was the disappointment I felt realising I couldn’t bung the lady a 20-note for an 11th century Buddha.
I’m walking back and it just started to rain, and when it starts here it doesn’t really stop. Luckily there’s a pharmacy with chairs, a parasol, and a beer fridge outside. A pharmacy that doesn’t sell a beer that’s under 5%. Here’s to Asia.