What is it? A museum that houses a panoramic mural of Angkor history is the latest tourist attraction in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Situated just a few kilometres from the Angkor Wat temple complex, the Panorama Museum is a grand collaboration between the Cambodian government and North Korea. Yes, you heard right. The cash strapped, H-bomb-testing North Korean government has bankrolled the US$24 million project.
Do go on … A large oil painting of a smiling Buddha (think Three Pacific Place, in Hong Kong) welcomes visitors. No smile at the reception, though - the place is empty. On the walls of the foyer hang framed paintings of happy Khmer children, waterfalls and temples. There are no portraits of the Supreme Leader but the style and theme of the artwork is unmistakably North Korean. "No photos, no photos," shrieks a lady appearing from nowhere. Now, where have I heard that before? Ah yes, Miss Kim, a guide in Pyongyang. It turns out that this guide is also a Miss Kim from Pyongyang. One could have guessed had she worn her "Dear Leader" lapel pin.
So, what's on offer? The centrepiece of the museum is a 120-metre-long, 13-metre-high mosaic depicting three scenes from imperial Angkor. Below the viewing platform (above), a stage-like set of huts, trees, paths, real rocks and gravel (below) seamlessly borders the mural. The scene depicting the construction of the Bayon Temple (top) includes elephants, bullocks and horses carting gigantic rocks, men chiselling sculptures and others carrying stones on poles or pulling them with ropes. Female visitors may linger over the loin-clad men sporting six packs and bronze tans. Another scene portrays warriors on horseback, men fighting with spears, camps burning and people being killed. The last one paints a picture of the daily life of Khmers - in a land of plenty where everyone is happy, the women are gorgeous and the men have perfect, round buttocks.
A North Korean artist from the Mansudae Art Studio, in Pyongyang, created the concept and theme. Sixty-three other artists from the studio worked on the creation, which took almost a year and a half to complete.
Isn't it bizarre for North Korea to fund the museum? Yes and no. Yes, because it is an impoverished country ruled by one of the harshest regimes in the world. No, because this is not the first time. The Mansudae Overseas Project Group is a North Korean art, real estate and construction developer that has been involved in mega monuments in Angola, Senegal, Benin and Botswana, to name a few.
Shady? Probably, under those colossal structures on a sunny day … There was a special relationship between former leaders King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia and Kim Il-sung of North Korea. The Great Leader is said to have built the Changsuwon Palace in Pyongyang for Sihanouk (who was briefly exiled) and the king employed North Korean bodyguards.
What's in it for Pyongyang? Well, a lot more Swiss cheese. In 2013, the nation's young, charismatic and Swiss-cheese-devouring leader tested a nuclear bomb. The UN immediately imposed an embargo that meant North Korea was unable to earn much foreign currency by way of trade. It looked to bring in the dollars by constructing monuments, opening a string of Pyongyang restaurants and exporting art. The Angkor Panorama Museum will be managed by North Korea for 10 years, after which it will be transferred to the Cambodian authorities. Profits will be split evenly between the two governments. The US$15 per adult ticket sales, plus takings from the souvenir and coffee shops (yes, there is kimbap), should help fill the chubby punk's coffers and, yes, import more Swiss cheese.
Is there anything else? A 15-minute 3D animated film on the construction techniques used in the building of the Angkor temples is also on offer, at US$5 per adult. The movie's historical value is questionable, however - it comes with a warning that some of the content is based on "guess work".