For my final post on Cambodia, I want to talk about a visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum – a place I found incredibly moving.
The Cambodia Landmine Museum was founded by Aki Ra – a Khmer man who was orphaned by the Khmer Rouge at the age of 5. By 10 years old, they’d conscripted him as a child soldier to specialise in laying land mines. He has lost count of how many thousand he laid before his defection in 1987.
After the war, Aki Ra turned his expertise into a force for good, working as a mine clearer. Using basic equipment, years of experience and somewhat unorthodox methods he worked both independently and for the UN, ridding Cambodia of some 50,000 land mines before setting up his own NGO – Cambodian Self Help Demining (CSHD).
Land mines (or “anti-personnel mines” to use a more sanitised name) have been around since the Romans first figured a spike driven into a soldiers foot would hamper the progress of enemy armies somewhat.
In a disturbing demonstration of macabre pragmatism, land mines aren’t actually designed to kill their victim, but not because of unshakable human compassion. Oh no. They are designed to wound and maim to a precise severity where the victim will live, but by doing so becomes a burden to their comrades. A dead soldier, I read at the museum, costs one soldier. A wounded soldier costs three: him plus two others to treat him and clear him from the field of battle. Isn’t that the most twisted calculation you’ve ever heard?
Cambodia, as I’m sure you well know, has an epidemic of mines. Despite having been at peace for many years, in 2013 one hundred and eleven people were injured by mines. There are estimated to be some 3 – 6 million mines still lying in wait for a victim in Cambodia; the majority are concentrated in the rural North West region of the country.
Today, Aki Ra leads his NGO (staffed by Cambodians) to clear his country of their mines. In 2003 his work took him to rural villages where children had been maimed and orphaned by mines, and he and his wife took in 18 land mine victims. This work continues today, although the Children’s Home residents are now mainly from impoverished villages working for a better life through education Aki Ra provides to them. The Home isn’t open to tourists or visitors, and quite right too.
The museum is thorough and well done, explaining the who, what, where and how of land mines in Cambodia and the rest of the world. The “why” is more difficult to answer of course.
Although there is a global aim for a mine free world by 2025, mines are reportedly still being used today – particularly in Myanmar and by those international poster boys of murderous bastards everywhere – the Syrian government. China, Russia and Iran (among others) have refused to commit to ceasing production of mines; India, Myanmar and Pakistan (among others) may still be producing them.
As I stood looking out at the small mock-up of a mine field, I thought of the little patch of land that my parents own next to their garden. It’s a serene little field where you can walk through the soft, lush grass as our dog trots contentedly along the hedge. Imagine being too afraid to set foot in there? Even worse, imagine standing at the entrance and knowing that you have no choice but to set foot in there, because your livelihood depending on ploughing or collecting crops from that little patch of land?
It was here I felt like I finally “got it”. Up to that point I’d struggled slightly with Cambodia. I’d struggled to appreciate the country amidst the worst poverty I’d seen, the dust, the pushy sellers and the touts. But now, I felt a newfound appreciation for this chaotic country finding its feet.
To say Cambodia has been through the rinser is an understatement. The legacy of recent times has been – and continues to be – difficult to overcome. The targeted genocide of the Khmer Rouge robbed the country of many who would have been key to rebuilding it.
The story of Aki Ra seemed a fitting representation of Cambodia: a child who had been through hell, witnessed the worst of humanity and lived through it, and was now, as a grown man, rebuilding and creating hope – little by little.
Cambodia is not a beautiful country. The countryside lacks the majestic ruggedness of Laos; the food doesn’t have the complex, fresh flavours of Vietnam or the sophisticated spice of Thailand.
And yet, Cambodia captivates you and somehow wriggles under your skin. The Khmers have built empires and majestic, ancient temples and seen them torn down and fall to ruins. Despite this, there is hope, pride, determination and a welcome in Cambodia that is one of the best you can hope to receive in South East Asia. I am in absolute awe of this resilient country, and I’m so glad we took our time and spent a month exploring it. We met many people who came once and continued to return year after year, and many more who came with NGOs to play their part for this country. At the time, if I’m honest, I didn’t really understand what drew them. Now I do.
If you want to visit Cambodia
Please, please do visit Cambodia, but take your time. Visit a few different places, and get a little bit off the beaten track. It can be tough, but it rewards. I’m sure it doesn’t need saying, but visitors need to be mindful, responsible and respectful of the country and the people here. There are, sadly, a few spots where people aren’t doing that.
We spent 30 days in Cambodia – travelling first along the south coast and then heading back inland via the cities. The coast is cheaper than inland, from our experience. Our average spend was around £26 per person per day (about $39) – a little more than we’d hoped to spend, which was mainly because we weren’t keen on the street food and so ate in restaurants a lot more than we do in, say, Thailand. We stayed in private rooms in guesthouses and small hotels; we found around $20 per room per night was good value in terms of the quality of accommodation you got.
Travelling around between towns was easy (if not always pleasant) – Cambodia has a good bus network for the main traveller destinations. Tour agencies in towns generally speak good English and can help with bus tickets and visas for onward destinations.
If you want to visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum
- We stopped at the Cambodia Landmine Museum as part of our second day touring the temples of Angkor; it is easily included as part of a visit to Banteay Srei but you don’t need a temple pass to access it.
- The entrance fee is $5 per person; $1 goes to landmine clearance, $1 to rural village programmes and $3 to a fair salary for the staff and supporting the children’s home.
- As mentioned, you cannot visit the Children’s Home. If you would like to donate items to support the home and their rural village projects, they keep a wishlist on their website of things they would welcome, such as combs, pencils and soap. These can be picked up in Siem Reap easily ahead of your visit.