When Dy Proeung takes a walk through his garden, he passes by the famed temples of Angkor. But in this version, the 82-year-old towers over the four faces of Bayon – one of four temples he recreated in miniature form at his home in Siem Reap, some 50 years after he sketched them for the first time.
Mr. Proeung’s peaceful garden tribute is easily found in the centre of Siem Reap, its entrance bordered by sculptures that hint at the wonders inside. For a fee of $1.50, visitors are welcomed into Mr. Proeung’s world, where the weather-beaten temple replicas have become hosts to nature, with moss, tall grass and weeds making a home just as giant trees grow through rock walls in the original version.
Just getting a glimpse of Mr. Proeung’s replicas makes the visit worthwhile, but those who pull up a chair to converse with the wise old man will find that he is as unique and interesting as the magical garden he has built. It is a story of one man having lived many lives.
Mr. Proeung lived under French rule and was a teenager when Cambodia gained its independence. He studied architecture at the Royal University of Fine Arts and then took the lead on a project that would shape the rest of his life – sketching the main temples of Angkor, a job that would take several years.
As Cambodia slid into the grips of the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Proeung decided to erase his identity – as an intellectual, he would surely be targeted – but he couldn’t bring himself to destroy his most precious works, so he buried his sketches in the countryside, in the faint hope that he’d be able to return.
For three years, eight months and 20 days, he managed to conceal his identity and survive the ruthless regime. When it was over, he headed straight back to Siem Reap and dug up his treasure, which had survived too. For years he obsessed over what to do with his sketches and in 1982 he quit his post as village chief and embarked on the next phase of life, recreating the temples of Angkor with his own hands.
In 1995 King Sihanouk praised the work and invited Mr. Proeung to share his stories with the young generation. To this day, he teaches aspiring architects – and he welcomes visitors to his magical garden each day.