Pagoda Chief is Guardian of Khmer Culture

Wat Bo pagoda chief Preah Moha Vimal Dhamma Serey Sovanno Pin Sem. Photo from Wat Bo Pagoda Facebook page

Siem Reap museum planned for antiquities collection

SIEM REAP--Preah Moha Vimal Dhamma Serey Sovanno Pin Sem of the Reach Bo Pagoda has dedicated​ his life to monkhood and advising laypeople and monks about Khmer culture and Buddhism teaching.

But he has another passion, saving and conserving traditions, including, art, culture, antiquities and Sbek Thom shadow theatre.

Believing only education can change the world, Venerable Sem built the Reach Bo Buddhism high school for monks to study Buddhism and science.

The school takes in about 300 monks from around the country every year. About 50 monks go on to study for bachelor's degrees after graduating.  

Because of his love of antiquities, Venerable Sem has collected ancient objects and wants to build a Buddhism museum in Wat Bo pagoda to house them.

Venerable Sem, 80, started collecting artifacts when he was 20. Sadly, many were destroyed in the civil war in the 1970s. He started again in 1980 and since then has built up a huge number for a museum he wants to build for the public to research, study and understand these objects.

“I will build a Buddhist Museum in Wat Bo, but I could not take care of all the objects myself,” he said.

“I handed them over to the Ministry of Culture to register and take care of them. We just keep them in the pagoda and want Buddhism to contribute to the preservation of all these things.”

However, it’s still unclear when this museum will be built. Currently, the Apsara Authority has helped with the design and the Ministry of Culture has donated $20,000 to initiate construction.

“I love this heritage because it’s an ancestral document for the young generation. because some objects are almost a thousand years ago, and some are from more than a thousand years before the Angkor era,” he said.

“We want to know what our ancestors did a thousand years ago to use as the world document. The owners have gone. Only their accomplishments remain.”

He wants to start building early this year. Construction is estimated to cost $900,000.

Artifacts he plans to display include objects made of stone and copper, deities, Buddha and god statues.

Wat Bo, with its trees and traditional art paintings on the walls of the beautiful building, is one of the top pagodas in Siem Reap for tourists.

The civil war also destroyed many arts including Sbek Thom​​​ shadow theatre but he has researched and re-established it. He has collected many artifacts associated with Sbek Thom for the next generation.

He said that since he was a child he had loved seeing performances of the epic poem Reamker at special events and regretted the loss of the art in the civil war. There were few Sbek Thom​​​ experts still alive and he thought it was becoming extinct.

He has started its revival by training young children and has faced many challenges. Sbek Thom​​​ shadow theatre in Siem Reap has seven episodes beginning when Preah Ream swims across the ocean to find Sita until Preah Ream kills Krong Rea.

 “Some say the performance is not right, but they were just born when it was performed last,” he said. “I try to keep the original form of the Siem Reap tradition. If we convert or change it, people who come next cannot figure out the origin. I have told artists not to change it.

“Some foreigners and Cambodians wonder how I can make this art again because I am not an artist, dancer or singer. In Buddhism, if we are really committed, we can do it.”

He said he was not addicted to art, just a monk who wants to Sbek Thom​​​ shadow theatre for the Cambodian nation.

“It is not my work, but the art, culture and exchange of music sent to the pagoda. If I do not save it, it will disappear.”

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