I’m a little nervous about saying anything critical about War Museum Cambodia, I’ve seen the directors comments on TripAdvisor, he’s very active and doesn’t take criticism lightly. So, with that said, I’ll just say that my first comment upon entering the war museum was “I’m not sure how I feel about all of this historically significant hardware being left to rot in a field” and that is still very much my opinion 24 hours later.
War Museum Cambodia is a brief stop compared to the temples of Angkor Wat but as a military historian it was very much something I was looking forward to. I took our eldest who spends a lot of his time blowing up tanks on his iPad and we were accompanied by a teacher friend of ours who happened to also be in Siem Reap at the same time as us.
The museum is located about half way between the airport and the city on a de-mined field away from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist drag. Entrance is $5 per adult with children being free and for this you get free reign to roam the grounds or you can join a tour lead by an ex-soldier or land mine victim. We dipped in and out of a tour which was already in progress and so experienced the museum from both angles.
The museum itself is essentially a large outdoor area populated by a collection of military hardware in various states of decay. To the right of the entrance are the two aircrafts in the museums collection, a Mil Mi-8 helicopter and a MiG-19. These are undeniably impressive but look very much like what they are, two old aircraft left to the elements in the middle of a very wet and humid jungle.
The rest of the collection includes T-54 tanks, anti aircraft guns, mortar launchers and surface to air missle carriers. They’re big, rusty old things that have obviously seen better days. I’m not sure whether they haven’t been restored by choice or due to funding but many looked as if they were about to be reclaimed by the forest.
To either side of the museum grounds there are wooden shelters featuring a variety of small arms, automatic weapons, land mines and grenades for visitors to look at and, should the fancy take them, handle. Whilst the idea of being able to charge around the museum with a decommissioned RPG launcher did seem quite exciting, as a western visitor to a museum, it just didn’t sit right with me. Museums are supposed to be quiet places that revere the past and preserve it to inform future generations. Here I was in a field full of rusting tanks that we’re falling apart and sinking into the mud with an open gun rack full of historical pieces that I was free to handle as I saw fit. It just felt wrong.
As far as information is concerned, there are hand painted signs by each piece of hardware and further information in the huts containing the smaller weapons. These were informative but not of the quality that I would expect from a museum that markets itself as ‘the only war museum in Cambodia’.I love museums and so I was always going to find this place interesting. Our son also had a great time charging about, jumping over puddles and pretending to fire the anti-aircraft guns. The guides we overheard also seemed well informed and full of experience. But there was none of the reverence that I, rightly or wrongly, believe belongs to museums.
The website says that the museum faces stiff competition from scrap yards when acquiring these substantial war machines as tanks can fetch $300-$400 for scrap. It also says that a lot of the money raised from admission goes to good causes. I just left the museum wondering whether any of it actually went towards taking care of its exhibits. With the state of things as they are, I suspect there won’t be much left to visit in the future.
We passed a fun 45 minutes and the Tuk-Tuk fee from the centre of town was $4.