Destination Inspiration: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap’s thriving contemporary art scene is helping to heal old wounds, through classes, exhibitions and joyous circus performances.

This story also appears in Volume 37: Craft.

After the sun-baked Siem Reap street, with its dust, drink stands and buzzing mopeds, walking into Theam's Gallery is like stepping into a willow-pattern plate. Lim Muy Theam has created a wonderland of interlocking courtyards, tiled-roof pagodas, a bridge, model traditional houses and antiques. Bougainvillea cascades; there are knotty banyan trees and orange-and-purple birds of paradise. A mynah bird bleats "hello". Maddy Lim, the artist's sister, shows me around. She's French-accented, erudite, and as elegant as a designer's sketch.

Theam's paintings explore his country's history, with poppy-red lacquer set against black and white, portraits and crowd scenes against Cambodian backdrops. He looks out from one, with the saddest eyes you've ever seen.

Before the pandemic, Theam had 40 artisans working alongside him here, but now, just a couple. Siem Reap's economy, reliant almost entirely on tourism, has been hit hard by Covid. Dubliner Robina Hanley, long-term resident and my art tour guide, tells me that during lockdowns, local government took the opportunity to fix all of Siem Reap's roads. "The place was ripped apart while we were broken inside," she says.

Now the roads are all good, and the tourists are slowly returning. When the first Singapore Airlines flights returned, many people went to celebrate and welcome the plane at the airport.

Maddy Lim pauses in front of a black-and-white family photograph. She was eight years old when it was taken, at a refugee camp as they fled from the Khmer Rouge. Her brother is a couple of years older, a far-off expression in his eyes.

"My brother was in a working camp," she says. "Escaping to France he had a new life, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, before returning over 25 years ago. He has been working ever since to revive local crafts decimated during the regime.

Most tourists are here to visit Angkor Wat, the extraordinary temple complex enfolded in the jungle, but Siem Reap is becoming increasingly renowned for its contemporary art. Hanley takes me to meet Nou Sary, who paints impressionistic canvases recalling his early life. He worked in the rice paddies until he was 12 years old, then walked to Phnom Penh in search of an education.

A security guard during the day, Sary enrolled in night classes at the University of Fine Arts and, together with other students without lodgings, slept in the classrooms. He drew postcards and sold them to tourists for £1 so that he could afford to eat.

"Art is a tool that can change a person and can bring you very far. It's a freedom," says Svay Sareth, as he and Yim Maline, his wife, both artists, show me around their extraordinary studio and workshop-filled house, which they're turning into an art school. Sareth, whose works can be seen in museums from New York to Singapore, discovered art as an escape, aged 7, at Site Two refugee camp. In one of his most renowned works, Mon Boulet, he pulled an 80kg, 2m-wide metal ball 250km from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. To him it signified Cambodian history, "like a ball and chain".

Read the full article in our latest print issue, Vol:37 Craft, here.

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