The Lucky Ones at the War Museum

Instruments of death don’t die. They rust.

Fifteen minutes from the happy pizza restaurants and nibbling-fish pedicure tanks of Siem Reap’s Old Market area is the War Museum. It’s not much of a museum, per se—it’s a grassy field filled with mango trees and the skeletal carcasses of tanks, missiles and planes used during the Cambodian civil war (the 1960s Lon Nol era through the fighting of the mid-90s). The “exhibits” sit exhausted and silent in the heat of the field. They’ve been striped for parts, all that’s left of them slowly turning brown, the same brown as the the earth.

“The memorials in Cambodia are so raw,” Anna’d remarked. “At Auschwitz, everything is behind glass or protected. You felt more separated. But in Cambodia, at the Killing Fields or S-21, there’s less between you and the stuff you’re seeing.”

I thought of Anna’s comment as I walked into the War Museum, past the massive helicopters that slept like corpses in the entrance. I’ve never been to Auschwitz or any similar genocide memorials, so I don’t have anything to compare the ones in Cambodia to. But there’s definitely a rawness. And it’s a rawness you feel in the whole country, not just at the memorials, but that the memorials seem to capture, to be the pure essence of, in a way that reminds me of whiskey distillation—too pure, the uncut soul of the thing, that if’s not diluted could kill you.

A guide approached us, a young man in a fake Lacoste shirt, frayed stitching and tell-tale grin on the alligator’s face. He was missing an arm; a nub extended beneath the sleeve, a little past his shoulder, and you could see it move around in there as he walked.

A sign announced that guides were free, so we went along with him, assuming a small tip would be expected. He spoke English well and was knowledgeable about the artifacts, mute metal that sat, refusing to decompose. Small wooden signs had explanations penned in a haphazard English.

“What is your nationality?”

“USA,” I replied. A pause. “We’re American.”

“Ah. America is rich country. Cambodia is poor. So if a pilot not fight well, if a soldier not hit target, he get killed—it a waste of ammunition. The pilot, they cannot eject from the plane, they trapped. The soldier get locked inside the tank, and if he don’t fight good, he stay in and die. We find still the bodies in many of these tanks.”

We stared at the machines; they reminded me of dinosaur bones or the great cranes at the Port of Oakland—metal with so much power, sitting still.

As we walked, he told us the story of how he lost his arm: when he was 14, his dad brought home a landmine. He was trying to dismantle it; we couldn’t make sense of why. The bomb exploded, killing his parents and two siblings, and leaving him with a belly full of shrapnel and one less arm.

“I’m lucky I’m okay,” he told us. “But I am very lonely, I have no family.” He went on to explain the difficulties of life as an amputee in Cambodia, with discrimination and lack of healthcare. He paused, looked at us. “You are very lucky, you have family.”

Types of landmines

We kept moving. He pointed out common types of landmines, explaining which countries they’d been made in: Russia, Bulgaria, the US. He told us 1-2 people a day in Cambodia are still injured by unexploded ordinances. “You are very lucky, your country no have landmines.”

As he stood talking, I slid a modest note into the “Donations for Landmine Victims” box. He watched me. When he finished explaining the table of empty shells, he pointed to the box. “This money go to the government first, then the people. The government take a lot.” I squinted my eyes, nodding slowly. It’s true—there’s a lot of corruption in Cambodia. But I could also sense where this was going. “It better you give to the people.”

I cocked my head as he lead us away. Everything I’ve read in every country I’ve been to—including the sign at the guesthouse I’d just left (that among other things encouraged me to not have sex with children)—tells you not to give directly to people but to worthy, legitimate organizations. It was unsubtle foreshadowing.

He kept us moving at a steady pace. I thought of my guide at the pre-Angkorian temples a week earlier—also missing an arm but older, darker, a man who only spoke Khmer. I thought of the way he’d clasped his phantom hands behind his back, and the way it made something in me pound, then sink.

This guide didn’t clasp his hands. He was wearing short sleeves.

We paused under the hot breath of the sun. “How many sibling you have?” he asked each of us and we each responded.

“That good. You lucky. I have no brother or sister now.”

We came to a row of wooden shacks, displays of exploded bombs. They looked like peeled fruit, like some modern-art interpretation of peeled fruit that you’d see in some chic lounge, that was trying to make some sort of terribly deep and obvious statement. But this wasn’t art and it wasn’t a lounge—it was a shack and twisted metal.

They’d sawed the blown bits of his arm off with a wire. Because he was young and still growing, he had to go back every four years, to have the bone re-sawed. He couldn’t afford to get the shrapnel from his belly removed; at $100-200 a pop, he said he’d had to leave it to float around in there.

“In America I hear they make a machine arm.” He looked around at all the dead, rusted machines. “Maybe soon they make it in China. It will be cheaper there, and if I work enough, one day I can get. This is my dream: you come back and I can give you a hug with my robot arms.”

We got to the end of the tour. “It is good if you give a tip,” he told us flatly, “so I can pay for my surgery. Many people give $20-30 each person.”

Suki and Alicia looked at me. They’d each been in the country less than 24 hours. I considered the fact that a construction worker makes $3 a day, your average tuk-tuk driver $5. I considered the fact that my daily budget was $30.

He stood a few steps back, staring at us, waiting. “Can you give us just two minutes?” Suki asked.

We whispered, gathered bills. We gave him a fair tip, said thank you.

Then he walked back to our tuk-tuk, heavy with sweat, our ankles covered in dirt the color of rust.

5 Responses to “The Lucky Ones at the War Museum”

  1. 1 Nathan April 13, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Hi there. I have just discovered your blog, but seem to have read most of it in the last few days!

    I have been to Cambodia several times, and like you, couldn’t make much sense of the prices of some things. Things like, little girls selling scarfs for a dollar, when their Dad is probably only making a few bucks for working a twelve hour day.

    This is how it goes (taking a few guesses for this situation):

    The amputee guy, is only allowed to hang around, give tours, and ask for donations, because there is a policeman that allows it. Most of what he gets, goes straight to the cops. If he doesn’t pay up, another person takes his place.

    I know this for a fact : the girls selling around Angkor Wat and the other temples, you give them a dollar for a scarf or other trinket, they give the money to their parents, their parents give most of the money to the cops. It’s a form of “rent”. If they don’t pay the cops, they can’t sell their goods at that prime tourist location.

    I have be-friended a Tuk Tuk driver in Siem Reap, and he now trusts me enough to give me all the answers to my questions about this perplexing, but beautiful, country.

    If you need the phone number of the best tour guide you will ever find in Siem Reap, let me know. Honest, hard working, and he understands the mentality of westerners that don’t want the typical tour. In any case, this isn’t a hard sell, but I am a well worn traveller (20 countries last year alone), and my opinion is that this guy will give you the best days you could ever have, anywhere on earth (all for $12 a day!).

    Thanks for your blog, it’s one of the good ones!

    PS – I have also had a Siem Reap cop offer to sell me his police badge for $10. He said no problem, he can just get another one.

    • 2 laurenquinn April 14, 2011 at 1:08 am

      Thanks for the info. None of us knew what to make of it, other than the fact that we were all really uncomfortable. It’s so hard to understand anything that goes on in this country, so I’ve learned to basically withhold all value judgements and just observe.

      Did Angkor today, but I’ll hit you up for dude’s info. Thanks again!

  2. 3 Nathan April 14, 2011 at 1:51 am

    No worries Lauren – details sent to your email.

    I know what you mean – I have been to Cambodia twice, and lots of things just weren’t making sense. Fortunately, my new local friend explained so much to me. He’s a genuine man about town, who knows whats goin’ down. Despite this, it wasn’t until he had met us (GF and I) twice, and we had corresponded by email and a few phone calls in between visits, that he started giving us the real low-down.

    My confusion stemmed from him telling me how much people get paid – he was making a buck or two a day working at a hotel, before he became a tuk tuk driver. His brother makes a buck a day, working at a garment factory (7 days a week). So, the little girls getting a dollar for a trinket? How does it make sense? Answer – the cops.

    The people who need the most help, are probably not the ones openly asking for it. When I saw our Cambodian friend giving money to an elderly Cambodian lady, with a child, it was clear to me that he had a heart of gold. Despite not being rich himself, he was helping out where he could.

    It can be a tough country. I have held back tears a couple of times in Cambodia, and watched my GF openly cry. We have seen a lot around this world, but Cambodia remains a very special place to me.

  3. 4 LEAH April 14, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Wow. It’s crazy that they still find bodies in the tanks. That’s an unfortunate situation about your tour guide and the land mines. I can’t begin to imagine what he went through. Thank you for sharing this story.

  4. 5 Ekua April 17, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Interesting observation about the rawness of Cambodia’s historical sites and museums. I didn’t think about it that way when I was there, but looking back, I remember how bare and honest everything was… perhaps the way places like that should be.

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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