Siem Reap may be the site of some fascinating temples dating back centuries, but for more recent memories of Cambodian culture, I would really recommend the War Museum Cambodia and the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Both of these will remind you that – despite their sometimes stuffy nature – museums really do matter.
I can remember spending some in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and was very intrigued to experience the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum there. I felt that it was just as much part of Cambodia’s history as all the various wats (temples) scattered over the city. The same could be said here in Siem Reap, where I felt Angkor Wat, Bayon, et al have to take a backseat occasionally to the sobering museums on offer. The War Museum Cambodia and the Cambodia Landmine Museum are two of the finest examples of museums mattering that I have stumbled across in my travels around Asia.
War Museum Cambodia is located near National Highway 6. The museum, which was built as recently as 2001, covers the last three decades of the 20th century when the Khmer Rouge was active in Cambodia, making use of guides whom are war veterans who fought for the Cambodian army, the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnamese army. There is a vast array of vehicles, artillery, weaponry and equipment on display like the famous picture-postcard T-54 tank, a fighter aircraft, a helicopter, and many artillery guns.
Competition from scrap dealers was not the only problem the museum faced as it gathered its collection: most of the machinery was very heavy and it was difficult to gain access to dense jungle areas to remove the items. Before used in Cambodia, some of the war machines have seen action during World War II. At War Museum Cambodia, visitors are allowed to hold small arms, like an AK-47, machine guns, or rocket launchers! It is very popular with backpackers who are curious about how the firearms played an important role in the outcome of the civil war.
During the 30 year conflict in Cambodia, it is estimated that around 6 million landmines were planted, and the Cambodia Landmine Museum represents an agonising window into the realism of the situation still facing everyday Khmers. This museum was founded in 1997 by Aki Ra, with the prime objective to make the country safe through the removal of mines from wherever he could find them. Aki Ra was forced to work as a mine layer by the Khmer Rouge, planting landmines from an age as young as five.
After Angkor Wat, the Cambodia Landmine Museum is the most popular attraction in Cambodia. The key highlight of the museum ($1 entry fee) is its vast galleries that include hidden mines, mortars, booby traps, and guns. A small shop and an area devoted to carrying out the work of Aki Ra’s efforts can also be seen here. Perhaps the best aspect of this museum is that it serves as a source of income for amputees to support their families, in addition to caring for hundreds of children badly affected by poverty and mine laying. This is why the mandatory donation of $1 is such a worthwhile expenditure.