Volume 2 No.5

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An Ancient Art Revived
By: Jon McCoy. Pictures by : Sem Vannjohn ( May, 2002 Volume 2 No.5 )

It is not an art exhibition, but simply some stores set up along the highway by village sculptors in the province of Banteay Mean Chey to attract passing tourists. Except for the hard-core gambler, tourists visiting Cambodia for the casinos via the Poipet border gateway from Thailand, would usually extend their stay to also visit the Angkor Wat temples in the province of Siem Reap, after spending day or so in the 'Vegas of Cambodia'. This past two years have seen the border town of Poipet transformed into a Vegas-like casino sanctuary attracting even more visitors to cross over from Thailand. The journey from Poipet to Siem Reap takes between three and a half to about five hours depending on the mode of transportation. Some sectors on this stretch of highway is undergoing major repair at the moment and before work is completed at the end of the year, traveling on this stretch can be quite a bumpy and tolerating experience.

Fortunately for the travelers, as though set there to cheer the spirit, there are rows of stalls that sell attractive stone sculptures on both sides of the highway passing through the district of Preah Netre Preah. Whether it is by taxis, tour buses, pick-ups or private vehicles, almost every tourist travelling on this stretch of road, will be tempted to stop to admire the many pieces of art forms on display. Here in this otherwise sleepy town, folks can be found chipping away at sandstone blocks under the shade of miniature palm trees or in make shift shacks, artistically producing beautiful sculptures of ancient Apsara dancers, deities and other religious artifacts, etc. It is perhaps a noteworthy fact that good sculptures, those that resemble the real McCoy of the Angkorian era are not commonly available in shops around the country. "Firstly, it is because of the fact that good stones are rare and difficult to come by. The other reason is that, tourists are afraid to buy them for fear of trouble with the authorities," said Mr. Pok Chourn Nath, an instructor at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, who teaches sculpture. There are different kinds of sandstone and each has its unique characteristics and quality. A sculptor will select his material according to the quality and hardness of the stone to produce a desired sculpture. Not all types of sandstone can be used to sculpture the bigger statues. However for the smaller items, any variety can actually be used although the more experienced sculptors would have their individual preference.

Mr. Nath pointed out that some sandstone are reddish in color like those used for the Banteay Srei temple while others are bluish, similar to the colors of the Angkor temples. Each has its natural beauty and the different shades make the sculptures more outstanding according to the character of the sculpture.
Twenty-year-old Ms. Kagna who owns a souvenir shop at the Toul Tum Poung market in Phnom Penh, confirms that few shops sell such sandstone sculptures nowadays. If there are any at all, it is only tourists from European countries who would be interested in such items and then again, they are rather selective; buying only high quality ones.
Many people still harbor the belief that the Angkor temples are not built by human beings and interpret the smiles and expressions on the faces of the sculptures in and around the ancient temples as messages from beyond. The present day sculptor tries to translate and imitate the forms of the ancient sculptures meticulously; sincerely believing that in the process of their effort, secret messages from the beyond could perhaps be revealed to them. With this belief, the village sculptors are becoming even better in their art, resulting in some pieces being so similar to the real antiques, that it is difficult for the tourists to differentiate without assistance. "I will ask my ministry to issue permits for me to sell my sculptures on the market so that people can buy and take them to anywhere without having any problem," said Mr. Pok Chourn Nath, whose works are amazingly like those made by the 'unknowns' during the ages of the Angkorians. Mr. Nath prefers to use the same kind of stones as those on the ancient temples and that perhaps contribute to the amazing resemblance of his pieces to the originals. In Cambodia today, perhaps only in Banteay Meanchey, Pursat, Battambang and Siemreap can one find good sculptors who are keen at reviving this ancient form of the arts.