In April this year, a museum dedicated to the history of money in Cambodia opened up in Phnom Penh’s old colonial district. In a renovated building that shares a block with the National Bank of Cambodia and the building of the former Banque de l’Indochine, sitting just north of Preah Ang Duong Street, the Sosoro Museum sets out to describe 2000 years of Cambodia’s monetary history.
The opening of the new Museum, also knowns as the Preah Sri Eysan Voraman Economic and Monetary Museum, coincided with the 40th anniversary of the reopening of the National Bank of Cambodia and the reintroduction of the riel into the Kingdom's economic system which came one year later. The idea for its creation was inspired by the chance discovery of a 7th century coin in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market. The National Bank then took on the project following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s call for the creation of more museums in the nation’s capital.
The museum traces Cambodia’s monetary history all the way back to the pre-Angkorian era through ten rooms each exploring different historical periods. The exploration goes all the way back to the Funan kingdom, whose capital at Angkor Borei has yielded a wealth of coins from various parts of the world, including Rome, Persia, Malaysia and India, a reflection of the Funan’s engagement with the world. In common with the Angkorian kings though, the Funan kings did not mint their own coins, but instead relied on a barter system.
It was not until the creation of modern Cambodia under the reign of King Ang Duong (1841-1959), some 400 years after the fall of Khmer Empire, that a formal currency was established in the Kingdom. The king understood the interest of a currency-based exchange system to finance the reconstruction of a territory that had withstood persistent siege and encroachment from its neighbours to the east and west.
Resisting these twin threats compelled Ang Duong’s successor, King Norodom, to request the establishment of a French protectorate over Cambodia in 1867. Eight years later, the French founded the Banque de l’Indochine whose Cambodian branch opened in Phnom Penh in 1890 (in the building currently inhabited by the restaurant Palais de la Poste), with another opening in Battambang in 1904.
The French also introduced the piastre de commerce, a currency whose use extended across French Indochina from 1885 to 1952. But this was supplanted on independence with the Cambodian riel, issued by the National Bank of Cambodia. In those early years of independence, the first riel banknotes were also denominated in piastres, and the Cambodia branch of the Institut d’émission des Etats du Cambodge, du Laos et du Vietnam issued notes with dual denominations in both riel and piastre, with the two currencies on a par with one another.
The riel, a symbol of independence, was however abolished by the Khmer Rouge, along with the nation’s entire banking system. Reestablishing a currency and banking system was one of the tasks needed for the reconstruction of Cambodia. This part of the museum’s exhibitions takes up an educational mantle with plenty of interactive games and challenges on Cambodia’s future economic direction. The exhibition thus is not simply an historical perspective on a nation’s currency, but also a useful lesson in the role of money and monetary policy in sustaining a functioning political, economic and commercial system.
A full exploration of the exhibits should take a good three hours. Entrance is 2,000 riel for students, 4,000 riel for Cambodian nationals and 20,000 riel for foreigners.
And if you feel in need of a little relief and sustenance afterwards, you’ll be pleased to hear that Khéma La Poste is just a minute away on a tuk tuk, or four minutes by foot.