Cambodia’s Cultural Center

Chaktomuk Theater’s Stylish Renovation Brings Colonial-Era Building Up-To-Date

The newly refurbished Chaktomuk Thea­ter is a knockout. From its spectacular location overlooking the juncture of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong and Bassac Rivers, to its polished surfaces and Khmer art, the restora­­tion successfully melds old and new.

The workers have transformed what had been a dilapidated, termite-ridden relic of the colonial era into a capacious, modern center for meetings and performances.

“It is so nice,” enthused Hang Soth, director of the art department at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. In color and form, he said, it offers “real Khmer style.”

The architects have skillfully capitalized on the site’s strengths, using glass walls to offer pan­oramic views of the water, framed by the landscaped grounds.

At the river’s edge is an open-air pavilion of trad­­itional Khmer design, as well as a sidewalk where strollers can enjoy cooling river breezes as the flags of many nations snap overhead.

And the ministry is determined to keep it looking nice, Hang Soth said. Street vendors will be banned inside the compound, along with gum, cigarettes and litter. Signs will even admonish visitors to check their shoes for dirt, lest they track mud into the pristine complex, he said.

Workers this week were busily buffing floors and polishing wood surfaces, getting ready for the official opening ceremony presided over by Princess Bopha Devi, Minister of Culture.

Tie Daravuth, project manager for contractor Seng Enterprise Inc, said the $3.5 million renovation had employed as many as 400 local residents at a time during the past six months.

The building’s major space is the curved thea­ter that will seat 596 comfortably and is equipped with modern sound and lighting systems.

The seating is stadium-style, with large chairs upholstered in royal blue fabric and a big stage, suitable for theatrical productions, movies or conferences. Downstairs is a substantial lounge area equipped with a bar, which can be used as a cafeteria area for conferences, a concession area for performances or for receptions.

The building also features eight toilets and four VIP rooms for conferences or special meetings. A second building, planned for the theater grounds but not yet constructed, will contain more meeting facilities.

The building has also played a more somber role in Cambodian history.

In 1979, it was the site for the Vietnamese-backed “show trial” of Khmer Rouge leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, who were tried and convicted in absentia. The theater has also been discussed as a possible venue for an international tribunal of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. Legislation authorizing such a trial is currently stalled in the National Assembly.

The approximately $3.5 million price tag caused some controversy earlier this year, when opposition party parliamentarian Son Chhay alleged the government had ignored bids that were nearly $2 million less to give the contract to Seng Enterprises, based in Singapore.

Government officials said in July that a 13-member committee at the Ministry of Culture had studied the project and had chosen Seng because the 40-year-old company had the right equipment, extensive experience and a good record in renovations.

Finance Minister Keat Chhon said then that the theater was more than 40 years old, had never been renovated and was in very poor condition.

 

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