SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA —
The exhibit's wow moment: the 13-meter-high, 123-meter-long, 360-degree mural depicting thousands of warriors and artisans at war and work in Cambodia’s 12th century Angkorian Empire.
Situated only meters from the circular viewing deck, the cyclorama's effect is a three-dimensional immersion in an ancient landscape. A diorama of artificial tropical trees, plants and huts collapses space and time between viewer and mural, taking the eye to a far-off horizon.
Welcome to North Korea’s Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a joint venture between the Cambodian government and North Korea’s long-established Mansudae Art Studio,open since December.
The mural, which took 63 painters from North Korea's most famous school of political artistry two years to complete, is so captivating that some visitors quietly question its authenticity, wondering aloud if it isn't some sly video projection.
“Amazing! I can see everything…just sitting here in one place you can see everything,” said Keo Samoun of Cambodia's Banteay Meanchey province. Viewing the art after a stop at Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple, she said the museum helps place the temples in a historical landscape. "It's easier to visit the museum than some of the far-flung temples dotting the province," she added.
“I have never seen anyone paint anything like this," said Thoam Manun Tho, a Buddhist monk. "Amazing. Absolutely amazing!” he exclaimed, violating museum decorum by loudly invoking one of the viewing platform's most commonly overhead refrains.
In the Angkor era
Known for doing things on a vast scale, Mansudae was founded in 1959 to extol the revolutionary virtues of North Korea and its ruling family.
“With a labor force of approximately 4,000 people, 1,000 of which [are] artists, and an area of over 120,000 square meters, 80,000 of which are indoor, the Mansudae Art Studio is probably the largest art production center in the world and by far the largest and most important of the country,” the Pyongyang-based studio's website says.
Part of Mansudae's overseas expansion, a bid to raise foreign capital for the isolated regime of Kim Jong-un, the Angkor Panorama Museum offers a Socialist-Realist glimpse back to a time when Khmer warriors battled with spears, swords and huge fighting elephants. The empire also built stunning temples, now UNESCO World Heritage sites.
“[Visitors] feel as if they are right there during the Angkor era," Yit Chandaroat, museum vice executive director, told VOA Khmer. "They feel as if they are with the people selling vegetables [or] those on the fighting elephants in the painting.”
A visit to the museum should precede tours of the nearby temples, Chandaroat said, as more than 40,000 images of ancient warriors, artisans, farmers and animals help place those structures in a richer historical context.
Ticket sales and nuclear weapons
North Korea spent $24 million and four years building the nearly 6,000-square-meter museum, which rises to an imposing height of 35 meters.
Pyongyang’s decision to invest in Siem Reap was an act of fraternity between old friends, Chandaroat said. According to the contract, North Korea would completely reclaim its $24 million investment over a 10-year period.
At least, that was the plan. The 10-year recovery period for the initial investment was recently deemed too ambitious, and North Korea is not likely to see its original investment returned until the second 10-year contract, said Chandaroat, who is also a senior official at the Cambodian government entity managing the Angkor Archeological Park.
The museum and its painted panorama are slated to become fully owned by Cambodia under the agreement within 20 years.
Chandaroat denies links between museum ticket sales and funding for North Korean weapons of mass destruction.
Thai Norak Sathya, Secretary of State for Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, says the museum was built in the spirit of cultural promotion, friendship and cooperation rather than income generation.
“The North Korean company came to build the museum because of historical relations of the king with the country," Thai Norak Sathya told VOA. "Let me tell you that the North Korean company completely abides by the technical condition and Khmer style of art. So, it is not the nature of this business to generate income.”
Foreign visitors turn up their noses
For now, one of the profitability issues facing museum officials is that 90 percent of visitors are Cambodian. Foreign tourists, who bring much needed hard currency to Siem Reap's economy, have been prone to dismiss the museum.
English tourists Sarah and Ashley say they've traveled too far just to see a mere painting of the Angkor temples.
“I am quite surprised that they invested so much outside North Korea,” said Sarah, who only gave her first name.
“I want to see the real things. That is what I am here for," Ashley added. "That is what we are going to do today. I am not interested to go to the museum.”
French tourist Christelle Bimar, visiting Siem Reap from Hong Kong with her two sons, was unaware of the panorama museum. Despite her left leg being broken, Bimar had already visited the Angkor Wat temple.
Would she also visit the museum?
“I am not aware of what's inside,” Bimar said, sitting in a wheelchair in the shade of a palm tree in front of Angkor temple. “But, yes, I think Angkor and Siem Reap deserve to have many more museums,” she added.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.