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Retro museum finds its place in Siem Reap

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
Vintage motorbikes and bicycles on display in the Vimean Sokha Museum. KT/Taing Rinith

Because the items are worth no more than scrap to many Cambodians, who have been through years of civil wars and a genocidal regime, many have called a genuine collector “crazy, but he loves it. Having started out by collecting old things, from seasonal articles to vintage cars, a local man has established the first ever retro museum in the Kingdom, with thousands of collectibles, in Siem Reap. Taing Rinith visited Vimean Sokha Museum to explore this journey.

A dirt road in Siem Reap city’s Trapaing Ses village leads to a massive yellow structure, the only landmark in the area. At the entrance is a sign which reads “Vimean Sokha Museum”. Having opened over one month ago, this place promises visitors a “wrap to the past”.

Upon the first step into this structure, the first thing that will catch the eye are a number of vintage bikes including a 125 Bently and a Honda C92, manufactured in 1959 and 1960 respectively. There are also motorised bicycles with gasoline motors, manufactured by Japanese companies, probably a decade before the breakout of World War II.

Inside the building, there are glass cabinets of all sizes, in the hole-in-wall café in which many more vintage items are on display.

Ly Pengheng aka Crazy Man, the owner of the collections featured at Vimean Sokha Museum, with a 1959 Mobylette. KT/Taing Rinith

These include rows and rows of vintage cameras and oil lamps as well as instruments and toys from around the world, grandfather clocks and typewriters. Some visible rare articles include a Leica III (1936) DRP Ernst Leitz Wetzlar camera, several ship telescopes or spy-glasses used by Norwegian and British captains in the 1700s and 1800s and an Edison Standard Phonograph with all accessories, as well as the signature brick phone from the 80s. In fact, there is nothing from the past that one cannot find here.

“This Velosolex Bike really brings back memories,” says Yarin, a 73-year-old visitor to the museum. “In the 60s, I worked in a Phnom Penh factory which manufactured this. I also had one, which was stolen from me by a Khmer Rouge soldier during the evacuation in 1975.”

In the compound, a man in his 50s is wiping a Volkswagen, a 1938 V1010 model, with a piece of cloth. He is doing it very gently because he always considers this his treasure.

“This V1010 once belongs to Sinn Sisamouth, the most iconic singer in Cambodia,” says the man. “I am so lucky to be able to have this in my collection.”

The man’s name is Ly Pengheng, but people call him “Crazy grandpa”, thanks to his unique hobby. Pengheng, a businessman, has spent more than two decades to establish a massive collection of vintage items, which he has used to start the museum on the land of the former Angkorian Empire.

“I feel depressed if I cannot add more things to my collection,” Pengheng confesses. “Maybe I am addicted to it.”

“No! Don’t ask me which one I love best. Each and every one of them is important to me.”

Pengheng has always been interested in vintage items since he was a boy, but he did not start collecting them until 1998, when a prolonged civil war in Cambodia came to the end. The collector says it was a visit to a historical museum in Vietnam that first inspired him on the trek to collectables.

“That museum displayed so many vintage items,” he says. “Then I found out that there were museums like these around the world, except Cambodia. And then I asked myself, ‘why shouldn’t I start the first one here? ”

Pengheng first started collecting vintage cars, such as Volkswagen and Citroen, and after a while sold some of his cars and used the money to buy classic bikes, including Mobylette and Vespa, which had been popular in Cambodia during its post-protectorate period. Before long, he already found himself the owner of countless vintage pieces.

“It was very difficult at first because I did not know anything about old items,” he says. “Sometimes, I fall for a fake article, but as time goes by, I learn more and more about them so that no one can deceive me now.”

Pengheng counts himself lucky because his wife Meng Sokha supported him although she knows little about antiques – not to mention the occasional financial problem they face. While buying most of his collectables online, Pengheng also travelled the world to pick them – even if it meant running out of money for food and accommodation on some of his trips.

“To be honest, we never have any money in our savings because he always uses it to buy these items,” Sokha says while brewing a cup of Americano behind an Astoria coffee-making machine in her café, also located in the museum. “But, he is following his heart. As long as he is happy doing it, I support him.”

“And it is never boring listening to him talking about the new items he purchased.”

As his business improved and collection expanded, Pengheng first opened Vimean Sokha Historical Museum in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district to exhibit his collections, but it failed after a few years. Yet, he refused to give up and decided to re-establish the museum in Siem Reap, which was officially opened to the public last month. This time, he made the right decision.

‘Our museum is very famous online, and many people, both local and expats, are coming here to my collection and take pictures with them,” Pengheng says.

Other remarkable items in his inventory are a reproduced Benjamin Franklin’s Clock created by Thwaites and Reed Ltd., with a limited edition of 1,000, and a camera used to take the pictures of the prisoners at S-21 Security Centre, currently known as Tuol Sleng Museum.

A female visitor poses with the 1938 V1010 model, which Pengheng claims was once owned by Sinn Sisamouth. KT/Taing Rinith

Pengheng says many foreigners have made him offers, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he always refused to part with them. A true collector, he adds, is tied to his collection like an ‘invisible umbilical cord.”

“I believe in spiritualism, and I have felt that I have been connected to the spirits of the owners of things I bought,” he says, adding he always gets goose bumps whenever he talks about the spirits.

Pengheng’s dream is to enter the Guinness World Records as the owner of largest collection of vintage and classic items. He wants the Ministry of Tourism to help him with this.

“I want this museum to be an attraction for foreigners to come to Cambodia and spend their money to contribute to our economy,” he says. “People can call me crazy, but this crazy man is going to do something no one has done before in our history.”

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