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Landmines were laid in Cambodia by the Vietnamese, the Cambodian government and the brutal Khmer Rouge in the 1980s and '90s and continue to have a devastating impact on the people of Cambodia. Around five million are estimated to still remain around the country, and Cambodia has one of the highest numbers of amputees caused by unwittingly standing on a mine.
The mines were spread throughout the country over several decades and a significant portion of the land which is suitable for farming is still inaccessible. Mines are even found in the streets of small remote townships, with unsuspecting locals living on top of them for years before they're discovered. Around 15 Cambodians are injured or killed every month – a shocking statistic in a country no longer at war.
Over time, the removal of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) has become safer and more refined. Back in the initial days, it was trial and error but now with the advent of better detection technology and skills, there are considerably fewer demining personnel being injured or killed. In one demining program, they have also chosen to enlist the help of the animal kingdom to find and remove mines safely.
Since 2016, Tanzanian organization, Apopo, working alongside the Cambodian Mine Action Center, has put Gambian pouched rats (African Giant Pouched Rats) to work sniffing out landmines and UXO. Due to their small and lightweight size, they are able to search across unchecked areas for landmines removing the risk for humans whose weight would set a landmine off. These amazing rats are trained to sniff for TNT explosives with accuracy, and can search 2,152 square feet (200 square meters) in just 20 minutes rather than the one to four days it would take a human.
As of August 2017, these furry little heroes have sniffed out more than 4,500 mines and 36,000 bombs, grenades, and bullets. Pretty impressive.
Additionally, Cambodian Mine Action Center uses sniffer dogs and has its own breeding program set up to continue the next generations of front-line detection dogs.
Locals are also being educated by de-mining organizations on the risks of landmines and UXO particularly in eastern Cambodia, where the concentration of devices is higher.
With the increase in de-mining initiatives across the country, the rate of casualties has reduced considerably. From January to November 2017, 51 people were either injured or killed by landmines or UXO compared with 77 from the same period in 2016. In 2015, 111 people were impacted by mine or UXO explosions.
The Cambodian Mine Action Authority reports that 64,713 people have been injured (including amputation) or killed since 1979 when the Khmer Rouge lost power due to the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam.
For tourists, the threat is much less than what the locals may contend with. The main routes are all well worn and the cities are largely untouched by the problem. It's when you step outside the main tourist areas that you're taking a risk, so here are a few considerations you might want to take on board before you head off to explore the unexplored on your own.
Because landmines were strewn indiscriminately around the Cambodian landscape, they frequently turn up in unexpected places. Temples, in particular, were popular targets for the enemy, so tourists heading off for some sightseeing are well-advised not to wander around in the surrounding undergrowth near religious icons and buildings.
Temples were also used as places to store ordnance during the Khmer Rouge era with many sites scarred by explosion burn marks and damage, even bullet holes.
Over the years and tragically by trial and error, the locals have learned where it is safe to walk, so take a guide (it helps the local economy, too) if you want to see more of Cambodia's amazing sights outside of the city areas.
Bear in mind that one reason there are so many landmines still covering Cambodia is that no one knows where they all are. They were laid by so many different groups, none of which documented their whereabouts, that they cannot be cataloged now. Hiring a guide is no guarantee against the threat of mines because your guide won't have a clue where they're laid either, but they give you a better chance of seeing the out-of-town places more safely than flying solo.
Although landmines weren't mapped when they were placed during the wars, it's known that the majority were placed along Cambodia's northern border with Thailand. You can avoid them by only crossing the borders (or traveling near to the border) using recognized roads.
Ever wondered what a landmine looks like up close and personal? If you take a 30-minute trip north of Siem Reap, you'll find the Cambodia Landmine Museum, set up by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier.
Using skills he learned working alongside the UN, Aki Ra has been finding and deactivating landmines in Cambodia for more than a decade and a half. His huts are full to the brim with numerous types of incendiary devices which are a chilling advert for the cruelty of war. In addition to the museum, the organization runs a relief center that provides education and shelter to local children who have been impacted by landmines. It also has a farm project which assists and educates locals with growing crops and a de-mining initiative that focuses on removing mines around small villages near the museum and in other provinces.
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What vaccinations do you need? Can you drink the tap water? Stay healthy while you travel with these tips to avoid health hazards and disease in Cambodia.
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