The Siem Reap War Museum is raw and visceral.
And I’d heard it was not worth visiting. “Boring”, a Cambodian youth had warned me.
Yet, I remained interested mainly because the museum provided guides who were war veterans. Ignoring the youth’s appraisal, I hopped in a tuk-tuk and made the 5 km journey from Siem Reap’s centre.
What greeted me was less a museum, and more a paddock containing decaying vehicles and weaponry.
This unassuming appearance disguised the traumatic stories hiding within.
Both living and dead.
Siem Reap War Museum
I paid the $5 admission fee and walked through the entrance. I was greeted by rows of vehicles in a long field.
There were aircraft, tanks, howitzers, and small arms. You could touch everything. The only roped off area was the minefield.
For the history buff, there was a lot on offer. The museum had a MiG-19, the Soviet Union’s first supersonic fighter. There was a Mil Mi-8 helicopter, another icon.
85mm howitzers pointed into the sky, ready to rain hell on imaginary foes.
Mortars were setup in firing positions alongside anti-aircraft guns and recoil-less rifles.
I was thrilled to see a Katyusha rocket-truck, a fearsome WW2-era weapon. The Germans called it “Stalin’s Organ” due to the terrifying sound it made when firing. Deflated tyres hinted at the upkeep it’d received.
Beside the vehicles were gun racks containing small arms from all over the world.
There were M16s, AK-47s and PPSh-41s. Browning machine guns and rocket launchers. Even old hand grenades. Hopefully defused.
As I held a tired AK-47, a thought chilled me. There was a real possibility that someone had once looked down the barrel of this gun and ended another human’s life. These were combat-used weapons, with battered stocks, scratched barrels, and worn triggers.
Real history indeed.
Most extraordinary though were the rusting hulks of Russian T-54 tanks. The museum had a number of these behemoths, and they were imposing even in death. A few had massive rends in their hull, the victims of anti-tank mines.
I looked at one particular tank, and the museum guide told me to peek inside. The entire front had been torn open. Scorch marks could be seen beneath the orange rust. Scattered throughout the tank’s interior were white fragments, like sticks, some over a foot long…
“That’s the old tank crew,” the guide laughed, in a sardonic manner I’ll never forget.
The guide was not insane. Nor did he strike me as a sadistic man. Rather, he was a victim, both morally and physically. He’d lived through some of Cambodia’s darkest days. This man was a survivor.
The guide’s story is a tragic one that’s all too familiar in Cambodia. In his fifties now, he’d joined the army as a young man and fought the Khmer Rouge.
For political reasons, I won’t use his real name. Let’s call him Serey.
Serey had personal cause for hating the Khmer Rouge. It all stemmed from an event in the late 1970s.
One night, some armed Khmer Rouge cadres visited Serey’s family home. They dragged his mother and father outside and tied them to a tree. Serey was just a young boy, and was forced to watch what happened next.
“BANG BANG! went the guns.”
Serey pointed between his eyes.
“My parents were dead. I cried and cried.”
∗ ∗ ∗
The Khmer Rouge were ousted from power by the Vietnamese in January 1979. This was merely the start of further conflict, as the Khmer Rouge remained in control of western parts of Cambodia for years to come.
Serey was a soldier in this struggle. He told me about a particular episode.
During a skirmish with the Khmer Rouge one night, Serey became separated from his unit. Alone, and with the enemy in pursuit, he dived into a river to hide.
Submerged underwater, with only his nose protruding, the Khmer Rouge scoured the riverbank. Serey could hear the soldiers searching just metres away from him.
“I had to keep quiet, which was hard. Not only was I scared, the river was full of buffalo leeches. I could feel them all over my body, sucking my blood.
But if I made a noise, the men would kill me.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Serey’s soldiering ended after he was seriously wounded by shrapnel. He recovered, but his mobility suffers to this day.
Unfortunately, a worse blow was still to come.
“The Cambodian government promised all soldiers a pension, but we were never paid. I fought for Cambodia, nearly died, and I got nothing. The fucking politicians betrayed us!”
Serey had hatred in his eyes.
“But I’m a lucky one. Because I learned to speak English, I can work in tourism. If I couldn’t speak English, I would be begging in Siem Reap. English is the reason I can earn a living.”
Here was a tale of personal tragedy that I’d not expected to hear when I left my hostel that morning. Serey had been denied a normal life, by circumstances entirely outside his control. His strength and fortitude astounded me.
As I was leaving, a teenage boy arrived and tapped Serey on the shoulder. Serey rolled his eyes, turned around, and handed some money to the boy.
“My son,” he explained, a proud smile transforming his face.
Maybe a normal life had not been entirely denied to Serey, I thought. It seemed teenagers were the same everywhere in the world.
Would you visit the Siem Reap War Museum? Have you heard any shocking personal stories you’ve heard while traveling? Leave a comment below