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Chaffee Zoo Relies On Fresno’s Cambodian Community In Designing New ‘Kingdoms of Asia’ Exhibit

Construction underway for 'Kingdoms of Asia' exhibit.

At the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, an animation video previews the upcoming Kingdoms of Asiaattraction. It’s playing on a big screen TV near where the entrance of the exhibit will be.

“Guests are transported to a lush jungle landscape, teeming with sights and sounds,” an announcer says, as the video pans over to show trees and wildlife exhibits.

The exhibit will feature 11 species native to Southeast Asia, including orangutans, komodo dragons, tigers and sloth bears. It will be designed to look and feel like the iconic Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The entrance is modeled after the famous entrance of the ancient temple, says Dean Watanabe, Chief Conservation Education Officer at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

“They have where the stones are stacked, which is where it gets this really distinctive look and has these really tall features.”

At the construction site, he points to the first part of a wall that’s been built to replicate the temple’s tiered design. It will be one of several buildings at the exhibit that will be built to look like the ancient grounds. 

“So that building you can actually see where it’s featuring that architecture,” he says.

For now, there’s a lot of work ahead. A construction crew is busy inside the fenced off zone, located at the center of the zoo. 

The $38 million project comes from Measure Z, a 1/10th cent county sales tax that benefits the zoo.

“So, the idea was proposed if we themed it after Angkor Wat, which is in Cambodia. And so as we started to really think about it, the idea came, it's like, ‘well we could do a lot more than just theme an exhibit. We should work with our community here,’” he says.

For the past two years, the zoo has formed a partnership with members of Fresno’s Cambodian community. One of them is Samnang Heng, who works at the Holistic Cultural and Educational Wellness Center at The Fresno Center.

“To be a part of this, give some input and advice, especially on culture things mean a lot to us,” he says.

And there’s a lot of pressure to get it right. Angkor Wat is a cornerstone of Cambodian culture, considered one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. It was built in the 12th century, and was the center of the Khmer Kingdom, revered for its architecture and engineering. 

Heng has visited Angkor Wat a few times and he said it’s always been a place where he’s felt connected.

“It really touch my heart when I get there. It’s like, ‘wow, this is something I’ve been missing since my childhood,’” he says.

Heng was born in Cambodia, but was thrust into the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime as a toddler. 

“I was sent off to work in a rice field to chase all the birds out from the rice field so that they don't destroy the crop. So after that, we fled to the camp, Thailand camp. So, all my childhood, it’s not really a childhood, you know,” he says.

Heng came to the U.S. as a teenager and finally had a chance to go back to Cambodia as an adult. He saw the temple for the first time in 2014, which makes his work now even more significant.

“You know, I never thought of this before as something in the lifetime that I have an opportunity to work with,” he says.

Heng has been a liaison to the local Cambodian community, consulting with elders to make sure every detail is accurate and authentic.

One of the places of inspiration is Fresno’s Cambodian Budhasasanac Rangsey Temple near Clinton and Valentine. 

New entrance being built at Cambodian Budhasasanac Rangsey temple in Fresno.

Morning chants are just starting, as worshippers pray to lost loved ones.

Lok Say Bunthon is one of the monks here. He was asked to show zoo staff the religious sculptures at the temple.

“I explain them the way that we have the Buddhist statues everywhere here you see,” as he looks out over the numerous statues placed around the temple.

He points to a statue of Buddha sitting under a large tree on the temple grounds. 

“And also here, is the day that they got enlightenment under the Bodhi tree,” he says.

Lok Bunthon walks toward the temple’s own construction project underway to build a new front entrance.

Animal carvings will decorate main gate at Cambodian temple.

“You see this kind of animal is called the head of Naga,” he says looking down at rows of concrete slabs on the ground. Each is carved with a dragon called Naga, a powerful mythical creature thought to bring good fortune and protection. 

Lok Bunthon says zoo staff were especially interested in the animal carvings that will decorate the gate’s arch. 

They’re all details that Dean Watanabe hopes to incorporate into the exhibit.

“Looking for those small things that you know, for most zoo guests they’re not going to notice or they won't know. But for those people that do know, they’ll see it and they’ll understand the thought that went into the exhibit.” he says.

For Samnang Heng, the partnership is a source of pride. And he hopes the exhibit will reach a younger generation of Cambodians, ones who haven’t had the chance to see Angkor Wat in person.

"I am Cambodian, you know, I’m proud of it. We want our next generation to say that and feel that way,” he says.

The first phase of the exhibit with orangutans and komodo dragons will open at the end of this year. The final phase is expected to be completed in 2022.


Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.