Siem Reap Cambodia Part 2 – The War Museum of Cambodia

Cambodia: Angkor Wat. Parade Police guard1992

Cambodian Police Honour Guard line the causeway to Angkor Wat Temple, 1993. Collection: Julian Tennant

In addition to the excellent Cambodia Landmine Museum, which I covered in last week’s post, there is another military museum close to Siem Reap town and the Angkor Temples.

Formerly known as the Siem Reap War Museum, the War Museum of Cambodia is located near National Highway 6 between Siem Reap and the international airport. It dates back to 2001 and was built in ‘partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence. The museum’s stated purpose is to keep the memory of the civil war in the history of Cambodia alive and to preserve the unique collection for posterity. However, at the time it was widely believed to be little more than a business opportunity for local powerbrokers to dip into the pockets of the lucrative tourist market who were flocking to the nearby Angkor temples. There may well have been merit in this scuttlebutt as for many years the museum was little more than a collection of deteriorating rusted old vehicles and weapons with little attempt to preserve or contextualise their history.

Siem Reap War Museum

Tail of a Chinese made Shenyang J-6 copy of the Soviet MiG-19 (Farmer) fighter aircraft featuring the distinctive three-turret Angkor symbol used by the Khmer Rouge. A Soviet Mil Mi-8 helicopter can be seen in the background. Photo: Julian Tennant

In recent years, under the leadership of a new management team, things have begun to change and whilst many of the objects on display are still left exposed to the elements or without solid contextual information, attempts have been made to provide a better overview of the three decades of war represented in the museum. Parts of the museum are being rebuilt and the first of these, the ‘Landmine House’ which is a huge improvement opened to the public in 2018.

After paying the US$5 entry fee visitors are free to explore (and play with) most of the objects in the museum. Guides are available to accompany visitors and whilst they are described as ‘free’, tips are expected for their service. In the early days of the museum many of the guides had first-hand experience of the war, fighting for one side or the other but most have been replaced with younger guides. This new cadre have better English language skills and could be useful for tourist visitors who only require a cursory understanding of the conflict and the exhibits but could lack the depth of knowledge that somebody with a deeper interest in military affairs could be looking for in a ‘guided tour’.  If time permits, an option is to use a guide to get their perspective and then spend time by yourself examining the objects in more depth.

Being largely outdoors and exposed to the elements, many exhibits are in very poor condition, rusting and in various states of disrepair. Textile items are particularly vulnerable when left outdoors in a tropical climate such as Cambodia and unsurprisingly there are few uniforms, flags or insignia on display. Most of the exhibits consist of vehicles, weapons, ordnance and some equipment.

Siem Reap War Museum

A pile of deteriorating Soviet era ShM-41mu Gas Masks rotting in an unprotected display area at the War Museum Cambodia. Photo: Julian Tennant

Siem Reap War Museum

A tourist hams it up for the camera with a couple of rusted WW2 era Soviet PPSh-41 Submachine Guns. Photo: Julian Tennant

If you choose not to use a guide and explore the grounds by yourself, signposts and captions accompany most of the items, identifying the object and in some instances,  who used them, or where they were recovered from. All the information is in English and there does seem to be a lack of descriptive information in Khmer, which to my mind once again suggests that this may be less about preserving the knowledge and history for future generations, but a venture that is aimed directly at the tourist market. Maybe I am being overly cynical about the museum’s intended function, but for a museum that is run ‘in partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence, until recently there did not appear to be much investment in actually preserving or presenting the exhibits in line with the museum’s stated aims. For many years the museum did look like a rusting junkyard that was being used as a cash-cow to line the pockets of some local military or government officials.

But thankfully the museum is undergoing some changes, with the aforementioned ‘Landmine House’ display being a good start, so hopefully this is the first of many improvements. And whilst I think that Aki Ra’s Cambodia Landmine Museum provides a better understanding of Cambodia’s recent past, the War Museum of Cambodia is also worth visiting to see the range of vehicles and weapons used during the conflict.

The museum is quite easy to reach being in Siem Reap town enroute to the airport. If you have time, I would suggest hiring a car and driver (for about US$50 per day) and heading out to the Cambodia Landmine Museum in the morning, possibly after visiting the nearby Banteay Srei Temple, (which is best early in the morning or late afternoon and much less crowded than other temples), then returning to Siem Reap for lunch. Then, after refreshing and avoiding the worst of the midday heat, the driver can take you to the War Museum of Cambodia for a couple of hours before returning to your hotel or heading out to Angkor Wat to watch the sun go down.

A Cambodian (L) and two Vietnamese soldiers converse outside the Angkor Wat temple in Angkor, Siam Reap, Cambodia, in 1982. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

A Cambodian (L) and two Vietnamese soldiers converse outside the Bayon temple in Angkor, Siam Reap, Cambodia, in 1982. Photo: Vietnam News Agency

War Museum Cambodia
Kaksekam Village
Sra Nge Commune
Siem Reap
Cambodia

Website: www.warmuseumcambodia.com
Email: info@warmuseumcambodia.com
Phone: +855 (0)97 457 8666
MRT: Silom

Open: 08:00 – 17:30 daily (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Admission: US$5 foreigners and US$1 for Cambodians.

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