The Cambodia Landmine Museum
I knew the answer would be “No”, but I asked anyway. “Is Aki Ra here?”
The lady at the counter smiled and shook her head. “No, he is out. Out clearing mines.”
When I was in Siem Reap in 2007, I tried to pay a visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum, but couldn’t do so because it wasn’t ready yet. This year, since I was in town once again, I thought that I should give the museum another try.
This time, my motorbike guy was Soon Li, who cleverly cornered me when I checked into my guesthouse.
“Angkor Wat? Angkor Thom?” he offered, then pulled a long face when I told him that this was my second time in Siem Reap and I’d already done the temple circuit. Even if I wanted to see Angkor again I couldn’t, because I didn’t have the time. The only place I wanted to go to was the landmine museum and after that, the Old Market.
This was my second attempt and for a moment I wondered why I was so interested in the museum. Just a week ago in Vietnam I’d spent hours at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, looking at old warheads, missiles and heart-breaking photographs of Agent Orange victims.
What is this fascination, this obsession with wars? I asked myself. But there was no fascination. The fact is that war is a part of Indochina’s history, and understanding what happened seems, in a way, necessary in order to understand the people of the countries I was travelling in.
Soon Li missed the red signboard for the Landmine Museum, but I saw it in time. It was amazing that even after all these years, I remembered the route which Ta, my motorbike guy in 2007 had taken. I knew exactly when to look out for the signboard.
“You come here already?” Soon Li asked, amused that I seemed to know where the museum was.
If there is one thing which makes the Cambodia Landmine Museum unique, it is that it was set up by a man who wanted to atone for his past. He goes by the name Aki Ra, but that is because he can’t remember his real name or when he was born.
Kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge when he was only five years ago, Aki Ra – the nickname given to him by Pol Pot’s men- became a child soldier and was ordered to lay thousands of landmines all over Cambodia. He was good at his job, which he did for about 12 years until he defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1987.
In 1997, struck with remorse, Aki Ra decided to search for the landmines he had planted as a child and began to defuse them, one by one. When his collection of decommissioned mines grew, he opened the landmine museum near his house later that same year.
Today, the museum is at a new location some 25kms from Siem Reap. Displays educate the public on the history and horrors of landmines and include a mock minefield showing the types of mines.
The best thing about the museum facility, though, is that it also houses a shelter for children who have been wounded by landmines. I never thought I would feel uplifted at a landmine museum, but that was how I felt when I found out about the children’s home.
Over the years, Aki Ra and his wife have been taking in children who were orphaned or handicapped as a result of landmines. Children are particularly at risk because they enjoy wandering outdoors and often step on landmines or pick up the small ones and are hurt as a result. The landmines may have been planted decades ago, but they’re still active and there are still millions of them lying in wait all over Cambodia.
At present, more than three dozen children stay at the shelter, where they also attend school. I didn’t see any of these kids when I was there, but I did hear the sound of laughter somewhere behind the museum building.
Together with a demining NGO which he founded in 2008, Aki Ra, who thinks he’s in his 40s, now travels to remote parts of Cambodia to defuse the scores of landmines which are still unaccounted for.
Do pay a visit to this museum if you can. Ticket sales and donations go to the children’s shelter and school, and the museum itself.
Location: 25kms north of Siem Reap, 7kms south of Banteay Srey temple. I would recommend you go to the museum on the same day you visit the temple since it’s close by. If your tuk-tuk or motorbike guy doesn’t know where the museum is, tell him it’s on the way to Banteay Srey. Keep a look out for the red signboard because it’s not very big.
Admission: US$3 for adults; Cambodians and children enter free of charge. Note that the children’s shelter is closed to visitors.
Opening hours: 7.30am-5.30pm daily. For more info, go here.
© 2012 – 2014, Anis. All rights reserved.