Located just north of the Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia is housed in a graceful terracotta structure of traditional design (built 1917–20), with an inviting courtyard garden. The museum is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture – a millennium’s worth and more of masterful Khmer design.
The museum comprises four pavilions, facing the pretty garden. Most visitors start left and continue in a clockwise, chronological direction. The first significant sculpture to greet visitors is a large fragment – including the relatively intact head, shoulders and two arms – of an immense bronze reclining Vishnu statue recovered from the Western Mebon temple near Angkor Wat in 1936.
Continue into the left pavilion, where the pre-Angkorian collection begins. It illustrates the journey from the human form of Indian sculpture to the more divine form of Khmer sculpture from the 5th to 8th centuries. Highlights include an imposing eight-armed Vishnu statue from the 6th or 7th century found at Phnom Da, and a staring Harihara, combining the attributes of Shiva and Vishnu. The Angkor collection includes several striking statues of Shiva from the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, a giant pair of wrestling monkeys, a beautiful 12th-century stele (stone) from Oddar Meanchey inscribed with scenes from the life of Shiva, and the sublime statue of a seated Jayavarman VII (r 1181–1219), his head bowed slightly in a meditative pose.
The museum also contains displays of pottery and bronzes dating from the pre-Angkorian periods of Funan and Chenla (4th to 9th centuries), the Indravarman period (9th and 10th centuries) and the classical Angkorian period (10th to 14th centuries), as well as more recent works such as a beautiful wooden royal barge.