At the end of a fantastic two weeks of blissful temple seeking in Siem Reap, we did something a little bit different on our last day. I headed to APOPO Siem Reap to visit Cambodia’s ‘Hero Rats’ with my Mom, Tanya from Can Travel Will Travel and Sarah from Baby Elephant. They’re not just any ordinary rats, but rats that are trained to save lives! APOPO is a charitable organisation that trains rats to detect landmines in Cambodia. They are clearing areas of farm land to make it safe for farmers and their families.
Guide to Visiting APOPO Siem Reap
How to Book for APOPO
Tourists can visit the Hero Rats in Siem Reap. Book a demonstration slot in advance online (the demos take place every half an hour) or turn up and it’s quite likely that they will fit you in for the next one.
What is the Entrance fee for APOPO Siem Reap?
The entrance fee is $5 which is a charitable donation that goes towards the work of training the APOPO Siem Reap hero rats.
How long to Spend at APOPO and when to go
It is just a 30 minute to 1 hour visit and easily doable on an afternoon after the temples. However, the best time to go is early in the morning as that’s when the rats are most active.
What will you see at APOPO?
At APOPO Siem Reap office you will see boards of information about the landmines, a mock landmine field to see what they look like, a talk on the rats and a live demonstration by a hero rat sniffing out TNT! APOPO also has a shop where you can buy Hero Rat T-shirts. You also have the opportunity of sponsoring a Hero Rat if you would like to provide ongoing support.
How do you get to APOPO Siem Reap?
The full address of APOPO Siem Reap is:
APOPO VISITOR CENTER, TRAPEANG SES VILLAGE, KOUK CHAUK COMMUNE, SIEM REAP KOUMAI ROAD, CAMBODIA.
Most Tuk-Tuk drivers will know where it is as it’s just off Charles de Gaulle road which runs up to Angkor Wat. You can download the GRAB or PASS app and book your tuk-tuk through that. This way, you will know what you should be paying.
Siem Reap and APOPO Tours online
If you are looking to book full tours of Siem Reap including transport and a trip to APOPO, I highly recommend Viator Travel.
An excellent tour for those who are looking to further explore Cambodian history is this Private War Museum, Wat Tmey (Killing Field) And Apopo Tour. You will get an English speaking guide who will pick you up from your Siem Reap hotel.
If you are interested in a bit of culture and local life you can combine a visit to APOPO with a Cambodian cooking class on this tour – the One Day Private Guide Tour Cooking Class, APOPO & Quad Bike Sunset.
The Landmine Problem in Cambodia
Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge
Cambodia, you see, has a very dark side. The people of Cambodia suffered severely during the torturous and murderous reign of Pol Pot, head of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. It’s hard for me to believe that just a year before I was born, thousands were getting worked to death or killed in the Cambodian genocide.
Landmines in Cambodia
But it doesn’t end there, the civil war that continued into the 80’s resulted in the placement of thousands of landmines in Cambodia, particularly in areas close to the Thai border. Many of these are arable areas. The results were horrific including the loss of life or limbs for many farmers and there children who got blown up when they simply went out to farm their land or play outside.
Many mines planted in Cambodia look like this. They were originally intended for the Military, but now of course they are effecting civilians.
There is often a situation where there are double mines planted – an anti tank mine and a plastic one on top. So detonators have to be extremely careful. The plastic mines are specifically designed to mame or amputate. They go off when a person steps off it (not when you step on) and if you want to survive you need to replace your body weight with something else of the same or very similar weight almost instantaneously. In combat, this would mean that someone else would need to stop and help you, taking out 3 soldiers rather than just one.
Of course, not many civilians know this, which is why many end up losing limbs. Most beggars in Cambodia are amputees who step on a landmine whilst farming their own land. Sadly, approximately 19,000 people have been killed by landmines and 50,000 injured since the 1970s.
It’s possible that 3 million – 6 million unexploded devices are still laid in the rural land of Cambodia today. Some are unexploded bombs rather than landmines and may look something like this…
This type of mine can be deadly for children as they are naturally inquisitive and want to touch it to see what it is. The other form of dangerous unexploded device is one triggered by a trip wire. Look carefully….can you see it?
This is why extra care must be taken in jungle areas where there are trees. The rats are usually clearing predominantly sand and grass areas and looking for plastic and metal landmines.
Welcome to APOPO Siem Reap
APOPO Siem Reap is a non-profit organisation that have trained Giant African Pouched rats to use their scent to detect TNT and therefore find the location of a landmine. The rats can actually also be trained to detect TB (Tuberculosis) in humans, but they don’t train rats to detect 2 scents to avoid confusing them, they detect either TNT or TB.
The rats based in Cambodia are being used to detect landmines. But don’t worry, they don’t set them off! The rats weigh approximately 0.5kg and most landmines need at least 3kg to trigger. The Hero Rats will scratch repeatedly when they find a landmine and then the detonators can come in and make it safe. The Hero Rats are guided on a leash to sniff sections within a grid to clear an area.
They work very early in the morning because rats are nocturnal animals and this is when they are most active. So handlers start work with the Hero Rats at around 4am or 5am! The put suncream on their ears and tails before taking them out because of the strength of the Cambodian sun!
The APOPO Herorats of Siem Reap
The landmine sniffing hero rats are given names like Princess Diana and Harry Potter. They are bred and trained in their home country of Tanzania and then get their own passport and identity ready to work in the field! The Hero rats train for 1 year, work for 5 years and then retire. When working, the rats work quickly and safely early in the mornings. They then go home on their rat bus to a nice individual air conditioned room. The Herorats are very valuable and so treated extremely well. 22 of them work in Siem Reap province, but the rats work all over Cambodia.
Meet P. Derr the Landmine Sniffing Rat!
We were lucky enough to meet the delightful P. Derr who demonstrated for us how he would sniff out a mine out in the field.
Hero Rats have to be 100% effective. P. Derr was around 95% effective and so he does his job as a demo rat for tourists at the Siem Reap APOPO centre because he didn’t quite make the cut! Even though it was late in the afternoon and he was a bit sleepy, P.Derr still managed to sniff out and indicate a potential mine from the smell of TNT. It was amazing to see one of the Hero Rats in action!
Rats vs Dogs and Metal Detectors
Some other NGO’s work with dogs to sniff out the mines. However, the danger is that most dogs are heavy enough to set mines off. Additionally, dogs are loyal to only one handler whereas the Hero Rats can work with any handler. For this reason, it makes sense for rats to be used.
Rats also supersede the use of metal detectors for finding landmines. This is because metal detectors can malfunction resulting in death or injury of the person using it. The Hero Rats in the field are 100% effective – they can smell 1 trillionth of a gram of TNT.
The Success of the Hero Rats
In 2019 alone, the APOPO Hero Rats cleared 1,146,128 square meters and successfully detonated 288 landmines. Since the project began, APOPO rats have cleared over 5000 landmines in Cambodia.
As well as working in Cambodia, APOPO’s Hero Rats work in 8 countries around the world to clear areas and resolve landmine problems.
Further Reading on Siem Reap
If you are staying in Siem Reap, you will be sure to check out the amazing temples including Angkor Wat and the other temples on the small circuit and the large circuit. But be sure to add a third day or even extend to a 7 day pass so that you can include some of the outlier temples such as Banteay Samre and the Rolous Group temples.
What to Pack for Cambodia
Take light cotton tops, long comfortable trousers and maxi dresses that cover your shoulders. Thailand is a conservative Buddhist county and you are likely to be refused entry to top sites like the Phnom Penh Royal Palace and Angkor Wat with shoulders showing and shorts or short skirts. You can pack shorts and vest tops for hanging around your hotel or the pool.
Pack a water bottle because many guest houses are eco friendly and have a refill and reuse policy to cut down on plastic waste. The drinking water is fine and many hotels supply cold purified drinking water.
Bugs bite particularly in the evenings in Cambodia and so a bug repellant is essential. Also the sun can get hot – this Christmas and New Year temperatures were exceeding 32 degrees and so sun screen is another essential.