On the night of April 29, Phnom Penh city employees removed the statues of two lions that had watched over the intersection of Russian Boulevard and Kampuchea Krom Boulevard since the 1960s, municipal officials said Wednesday.
Their removal was intended to beautify Phnom Penh. Better statues will replace them, said Map Sarin, deputy governor of the capital.
“The lions did not look good for the city because they were opening their mouths to the passengers all the time,” he said Wednesday.
The city is contemplating suitable successors for the lions, he said, adding that the statues were carted off under the cover of darkness so as not to distract daytime motorists and cause a traffic jam.
The nighttime removal, however, has nurtured some suspicion.
The disappearance of another Phnom Penh public statue sparked gossip in July 2000. The statue of the monkey lord Hanuman wrenching the neck of a giant, as described in the Ramayana legend, was rumored to contain gold and precious stones.
A witness to its removal said he had seen about 30 soldiers with a crane and two trucks remove the cement combatants from Hun Sen Park at around 1 am on a Saturday.
One story had the monkey and the giant serving as the stash for Khmer Rouge riches. Rumors of looting followed, but then-municipal governor Chea Sophara said the statue had been rammed by a motorist and needed to be replaced.
Former and current city officials said Wednesday that they were unsure what had become of the monkey and the giant.
But five officials suggested the statue may had found its way to a river bottom. They said a government official despised the statue and saw it as a symbol of conflict.
Municipal officials, who asked not to be named, said the lion statues arrived at Wat Stung Meanchey around midnight, only after police, suspicious of theft, had stopped the truck hauling the statues several times.
“Statue removals always happen at night,” said one of those involved in the removal of the statues. But “at that time, some people accuse us of being robbers.”
Ke Chea, 51, chief of the pagoda committee at the lions’ new home, said Wednesday he had ordered workers to spruce up the grounds around the newly installed statues.
“If [the city] does not need them, I need them,” he said, smiling. “Whatever the statue, I will accept it because it costs a lot of money to buy one.”
“I would accept Neang Kong Hing, if they bring it here,” Ke Chea said, referring to the likeness of Buddha’s female protector who now serves as the center to a round-about near Olympic Stadium. “I built the foundation already,” he said.