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This is a feature from Issue 23 of Charitable Traveller. 

In the shadow of the glorious Angkor Wat temple, amid the bustling charm of Siem Reap, lies an unusual but no less important attraction: the APOPO Visitor Centre (VC). Rather than focusing on Cambodia’s majestic architecture and history, here
the stars are a team of cute, twitchy African giant pouched rats, which APOPO trains to detect deadly landmines lurking beneath the ground.

Sambat Meas is the manager, and part of a unique global initiative that employs these rats, otherwise known as HeroRATs, to sniff out the explosives used to set off landmines. The landmines are remnants of Cambodia’s 20th century conflicts and while it is now safe for tourists to visit the country, daily life in its rural areas is still fraught with danger.

I joined APOPO in 2017, initially working as a tour guide at the VC before taking the helm of Siem Reap’s VC in 2019. Here, we educate Cambodians and international visitors about APOPO’s innovative solution to the tragic legacy that still scars the country. I was introduced to APOPO’s work at a presentation by a volunteer who introduced me to the concept of HeroRATs and was amazed at how the rats can use their sense of smell to detect landmines and save lives. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that there may be as many as six million landmines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance across Cambodia, and the fact these rats are capable of safely and efficiently identifying landmines without setting them off is incredible. Managing the APOPO VC is no small task. We run around 17 tours daily, and my routine involves meticulous planning and constant problem-solving. From ensuring the rats’ health and welfare to managing a growing team of staff, my days are busy. What captures the visitors’ interest the most are the demonstrations of the rats’ landmine-detection skills. Seeing them in action challenges visitors’ preconceptions about rats and highlights their contribution to humanitarian work, and I love to see the transformation in visitors’ perceptions from scepticism to admiration. Visitors also get a chance to handle and take pictures with our adorable APOPO rats. Some people who arrive hate rats, but then they end the tour loving our rats! APOPO also plays a larger role locally, which is important to me, and we’re deeply involved in community work, from mine risk education initiatives to supporting local farmers in post-clearance areas. The VC itself is an embodiment of sustainable practices and community support. Every team member is hired and trained locally and the VC promotes local artisans and environmentally friendly policies. The APOPO VC is more than just a tourist attraction; it’s a way of understanding the complexities of Cambodia’s past and the innovative strides being made towards a safer future. I believe that visitors to Siem Reap, drawn by its historical allure, should also make time for the contemporary African heroes contributing to the nation’s recovery. Siem Reap is the spot to stop for history, but APOPO and the HeroRATs are focused on a safe future for Cambodia.

was the fight to keep the VC open during the Covid pandemic, but thanks to my team’s hard work, we were able to recover quickly.

is the opportunity to educate and inspire visitors.

This is a feature from Issue 23 of Charitable Traveller.