Travel Report: War Remnant Museum, Siem Reap.
War Remnant Museum, Siem Reap.
January 2020. I’m unlikely to ever forget our visit to Siem Reap’s so-called War Remnant Museum. Not, I should point out, for the right reasons. Sladja and I had some truly unforgettable experiences during our seven months in Siem Reap. Hiking with the elephants of Kulen Forest. Meeting the legendary artist Dy Proeung. Watching the insanely talented performers of Phare Circus.
However, if I were to order our Siem Reap adventures into an end-of-season league table, I’m afraid to say the War Remnant Museum would be facing certain relegation.
It had all sounded so promising on paper. Come, said the online blurb, to “a place of healing for bodies, hearts and minds”. To an exhibit that is “more than a museum”. As a result, Sladja and I headed out there one January afternoon with something of a steely resolve.
We were expecting to see a new angle of Cambodia’s troubled history. To hear first hand stories and grieve for those who’d suffered from decades of war. Crucially, I was hoping for tales of recovery, lessons learned and redemption. These were the thoughts that filled my mind as our tuk tuk turned off the main road, down a dusty country track.
War Remnant Museum, Siem Reap.
When we arrived at the museum entrance I was somewhat confused. Jumping out of our tuk tuk, we found ourselves at the edge of a large, grubby field.
There was no one around, save for a lone Khmer man stationed at a tin shack ticket office. “$5 per person” he announced. Exchanging uncertain glances with Sladja, I handed the money over and we headed inside.
With no leaflet, audio guide or museum staff available, we simply followed the handmade wooden signs around the complex. Interestingly, a tatty info board revealed that the museum stands on the site of a former Vietnamese military camp.
Apparently, the rusting bits of artillery housed in this field are from those attacks. We could see the remains of a tank and a couple of anti aircraft guns. Elsewhere, we came across a rusty, unlabelled bicycle. No indication whatsoever of its relevance.
What To See & Do, Siem Reap.
The first thing that struck me was how spectacularly uncared for the entire complex was. The grass, plants and flowers in the fields were scorched. Moreover, there was litter everywhere, including tossed plastic bottles and candy bar wrappers.
Working our way around the site on the main path, we ducked into the various exhibits, which are little more than makeshift shacks. One showcased a number of military uniforms from the 70s, displayed alongside collections of projectile shells.
It was depressing because a) it got me thinking about the futility of war and b) whoever had made this exhibit clearly spent no longer than five minutes putting it together.
Another little hut held nothing more than a dozen helmets. Again there was no information about their history. Nevertheless, one of the helmets made me think of Stanley Kubrick’s chilling war movie Full Metal Jacket. Sladja and I would soon embark on a Kubrick marathon, so I guess it served some purpose.
Another shack contained a collage of tatty, faded photographs. No labels, no info, nada. Among the many sad images, I spied a gaggle of Khmer child soldiers grimacing at the camera. Then a shot of Princess Diana in Cambodia helping to clear landmines. Elsewhere, various amputees in hospitals, their faces twisted in agony as doctors and nurses loomed over them.
War Remnant Museum, Siem Reap.
In the far corner of the compound stands a modest memorial to a mass grave found here in the mid 1990s. Two hundred people were executed and buried by Khmer Rouge soldiers. On the one hand, you can’t help but feel moved. On the other, surely the museum curators could have done a bit more with the memorial.
The most interesting part of the museum is the arms store. Outside, a somewhat nonsensical sign states: “This store make your eye change. And emotion because of that evidence are collect from the reals battlefield”.
Inside, at least, there’s plenty of information on the landmines, shells, grenades and guns on display. It’s a sizeable and sobering collection which, I’d say, justifies the entrance fee all by itself. It was at this point that our clearly bored tuk tuk driver joined us and began providing commentary on some of the weapons in broken English.
He certainly wasn’t shy in getting his hands on the guns! In fact, he hauled several directly off the wall and gave me an impromptu demo of how they worked. He talked very matter-of-factly about the damage they inflicted on people, emitting a few nervous chuckles and a weary shake of the head.
Furthermore, he insisted I hold one, something I wasn’t particularly comfortable with. “It’s heavy” was all I could manage when he probed me for some kind of response.
Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Finally, we learned that the site was also cleared of mines at some point in the early 2000s. In true War Remnant Museum style though, further information remains thin on the ground.
So what conclusions can I draw from my visit to the War Remnant Museum? While overall the experience left me cold, I still found it interesting, not to mention a touch macabre. Thus I would recommend it for a visit, so long as you know what it is you’re getting.
There are very few reviews of WRM online, inspiring me to include it in our Siem Reap files. In one online piece I read that the museum opened just a few years ago in cooperation with The Cambodian Army. If this is true, it makes the general state of the place unforgivable.
My first impression was that the complex had opened say twenty years ago and had been rotting for quite some time. If you’re in Siem Reap and interested in seeing a more considered overview of the country’s war years, head to the well-reviewed War Museum.
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