Rode our free guesthouse bikes to the War Museum that other day. It’s just out of town, and probably a 30 minute ride along the main highway towards the airport.
It was over 35 degrees C and I struggled with the heat, the dust, and riding on the (wrong) RIGHT HAND SIDE OF THE ROAD.
Definitely foreign to me, and so many times I got confused by turning left from the right lane, that I stopped mid-way through the intersection waiting for tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and trucks that were riding head on towards me. A lot of times they took pity on the panic-stricken tourist riding a single speed bike that they just stopped and waited for me to get my bearings again.
Finally made it down a dusty lane to the museum. We paid our $5 entry fee per person and as we were heading in, we got stopped by a Cambodian guy who asked if we wanted a guide. I asked him for how much (I had read somewhere that a guide is free but they expect a $20 per person ‘tip’) but he told us, ‘anything you want,’ so we agreed, as it’s obviously better to get some context on what we’re seeing.
He then took us to a hut where there were about 50 guns lined up along a wall. By guns, I mean there were some rocket launches, AK-47, M-16, Tommy guns, machine guns etc. It was crazy. He also made me lift an AK-47; it was damn heavy and it wasn’t even loaded!
He also pointed out the three guns that had shot him, and showed us his bullet scars. He made us touch the ball bearings that are still located in his arm and leg, and showed us a piece of shrapnel stuck in his eye. This guy was very interesting and his story was terribly sad. He was 12 when he was recruited into the Khmer Rouge, and then fought for the other side. He’s been shot three times, lost a leg due to a land mine, and he was blind in both eyes for a few years before the UN organised to restore sight in one eye. Four months ago he also lost his wife and two year old daughter to disease that was caused by ‘dirty bombs’ filled with uranium.
It was heartbreaking to hear his story, and he told us we were very lucky to come from a country where there wasn’t a civil war.
After showing us around and explaining the different types of weapons and vehicles used in the war, he excused himself and left us to roam around. We ended up meeting a German couple who said that their guide was telling them a story before he got too choked up and couldn’t go on, and also excused himself. The pain must still be so raw for these people in their middle age who still remember and know first hand the devastating experiences of war.
(We spoke to our young waitress last night who said she didn’t know much about the war as it wasn’t really spoken about when she was growing up. She also said she would ask people, ‘Was it fun?’ when guests said they went to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh as she didn’t know what it was despite living down the road from it!!!)
The German couple had also visited the landmine museum the day before and told us that children were given hundreds of landmines during the war and told to plant them everywhere. Thus, there isn’t a comprehensive map to locate the many, still live, landmines that are currently buried throughout the country. These landmines were also created to maim people, not kill, as both sides in the civil war wanted to cripple the opposition. Even today, landmines still explode and injure or kill Cambodians. It’s just crazy that this war raged on for years and the rest of the world wasn’t even aware!
It was a good little excursion from Siem Reap, not too far that we needed a tuk-tuk, and reasonable at the cost. Definitely worth having a guide as this is their way of supporting their families without resorting to begging (we’ve seen a lot of maimed people on the streets and it just breaks your heart), and you also get to learn a lot, first hand, about the recent history of Cambodia.
We took a few pictures of a cool old helipcopter, then ended up tipping our guide $10, and headed back to the city in the searing heat.