siem reap city – On the road to the airport in Siem Reap City is the quirky Cambodian Cultural Village, a theme park that, as its name implies, offers a glimpse into the history and lives of the different communities of Cambodians.
Sitting on 21 hectares, the theme park has built 19 mini “villages” meant to reflect the cultural heritage of the country’s many ethnic groups, complete with full-size homes. It also has two museums; an archery range; a sculpture garden with miniature versions of famous Phnom Penh landmarks, such as the National Museum and the Royal palace; a handful of wild animals, including a pair gibbons; and even the “Tunnel of Judgment,” a haunted house filled with wax figures depicting what the afterlife will be for those who sinned on earth, according to Cambodian Buddhist traditions.
Upon entering the turnstiles, you first come to the two museums, which exhibit the ancient tools and vessels, stuffed wildlife and well-known personalities of Cambodia in wax, such as queens, kings, ambassadors, monks, entertainers, and a complex diorama depicting the construction of Angkor Wat.
It may sound kitsch from a Western perspective, and one may wonder what a couple of statues scattered across the park, such as those representing Tom and Jerry from the popular US cartoon series, a giant gorilla and Superman, have to do with Cambodia’s heritage. But in the end, it is all in good fun.
Cambodian Cultural Village was inspired by a Chinese theme park, said General Manager Chhor Cheyrortanak. “We had gone to see China’s Window of the World, and we learn about China’s cultural villages. That’s how we come up with the idea,” he said, referring to a park in Shenzhen, China, which has 130 reproductions of some of the most famous tourist attractions from around the world, including a 100-meter reproduction of the Eiffel Tower.
Mr Cheyrortanak said his park, which is owned by the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, received about 230,000 visitors each of the past two years but wasn’t a big moneymaker. “Cambodian Cultural Village looks good but it barely makes any profit.”
More so than even the wax museum or the miniature monuments, the highlight of a visit to Cambodian Cultural Village is the rotating schedule of traditional shows that take place throughout the park.
If you have never been to a traditional Cambodian wedding, there is a faux wedding every day at the Millionaire’s Mansion. With a cast that includes a tycoon and his daughter the bride, the groom and his parents, musicians and a master of ceremonies who waggles his eyebrows as he leads the audience–or “wedding guests”–through the ceremony. And while a traditional wedding can take days, the village version is over in 30 minutes. (Guests beware: It is possible you will be tapped to climb the stage take part in the ceremony, as one reporter was, either as family member or sometimes even the groom.)
From the Millionaire’s Mansion, guests are directed to the Mini-Theater for an Apsara dancing performance. On our visit, the story told of a woman who is the object of desire of two men, one rich and one poor, who both want to marry her.
And about every hour until closing there are traditional performances tailored to the villages in which they are held. For instance, at the Chinese Village, there is an impressive Chinese acrobat performance, while at the Kreung Village, a play is staged about a woman choosing her mate in accordance to the ethnic group’s traditions.
Mr Cheyrortanak said the performances, of which there are about 20 in rotation, are mostly geared toward educating the audience about different customs throughout the country and they match performances with the time frame of the holidays in Phnom Penh.
“If it is close to Khmer New Year, the performance would be about history of Khmer New Year or some kind of stories related to it. And if it is Pchum Ben,” Mr Cheyrortanak said, referring to a holiday when Cambodians pay homage to their ancestors, “the performance will be something about Pchum Ben.”
“We want to promote and disseminate Khmer culture to the people,” he said. And to that end, the park is looking to extend its 21 hectares and include more performances, including one about Cambodian folk tales.
The park has about 500 staff members, 200 of whom are performers. One actress, Yeiy Kunthea, 19, has been a performer at these shows for about a year, she said as she was getting ready for the Tycoon Wedding performance, where she plays a bridal attendant.
But it is not a job for everyone. “I had to pass the test before I was allowed to perform here. They need someone who can dance and perform well,” she said.
It is hard work, she admitted, but in the end it’s worth it. “I love art and performing. I love showing people the traditional dance and performance. Different types of nationalities come to watch performance. It makes me excited and happy when people laugh and applaud after the performance,” Ms Kunthea said.
From Friday to Sunday, there is a grand finale, titled “The Greatest King: Jayavarman VII,” which focuses on the 12th century ruler’s defeat of the invading Cham. An hour-long show, which begins just as the sun is setting, has professional sound and lighting, stunts, impressive choreography and a very large cast that includes two buffalo.