Before coming to Cambodia, I didn’t even know this museum exists. I saw a leaflet in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying in Siem Reap and so I decided to visit it. I didn’t expect this will turn into such an interesting experience – but not for the reasons you might expect.
As you can see from the official website, the War Museum Cambodia had its doors opened in 2001 and its purpose is to display the weaponry used during Cambodia’s civil war and to keep alive the memory of this painful episode.
Unfortunately, like many other important places in Cambodia, this museum is very little taken care of. To be more precise I’ve never visited a museum where the exhibits were neglected in such a disturbing way. The tanks were sitting directly on the ground, or on stones, rusty and decaying. The helicopter had large holes in it through which water was pouring, quickening, even more, its erosion. It was almost as if somebody abandoned some metals in a backyard and forgot about them.
I know Cambodia is a country with many problems, still trying to heal after losing 1/5 of its population no more than a few decades ago, so I’m not expecting to have the preservation of this museum or its amazing temples on the top of its list of priorities. I do think, however, that the international institutions in charge or protecting the world’s heritage should do more about it and assist these struggling countries, incapable at the moment of taking care of the important artifacts located on their territory. But what am I talking about, the international community is also struggling these days.
Aside from this, another thing that stunned me, even more, was that many of the exhibits were free for touching. It reads on the webpage of the museum as well: You can hold small arms, from a M16 or a AK-47 (Kalashnikov) till a machine gun like the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). You can even hold a rocket launcher! Before used in Cambodia, some of these guns have even seen action during World War II.
People were playing with real Kalashnikovs and taking pictures with rocket launchers on their shoulders. That was unbelievable, especially if you are used to the rigors from the Western museums. I captured this moment on video. Check it below:
If you are in Siem Reap, I advise you to visit this place. It’s the only war museum in a country that was devastated by war.