The wildest bar in Siem Reap’s history was the Minefield Bar run by the equally wild and notorious bar owner, New Zealander Graham Cleghorn.
The Welcome Drifter website posted a screed written by Jeff Huch in 1993 which described Cleghorn as, “At first glance, Graham seems like a cross between Lee Marvin and Mike Nomad, but whether it’s the 9mm pistol in the shoulder holster under his left arm, the stories he tells, or just his general demeanor, it doesn’t take long to realise that he’s no actor or cartoon – he’s for real.”
As for the stories told by Cleghorn, Huch recollects, ‘Graham is showing me some mines that had recently been dug up on the grounds of the schoolyard down the road. ‘Now this is Willy Peter,’ he says, holding up a white phosporous bomb. ‘I recollect this captain once tossin’ one of these down a hole to kill a rat, he put his foot on top of the hole and it burned right through his boot and about halfway up his body. We held him underwater but he kept jumpin’ up and as soon as he hit the bloody air he’d re-ignite. He was screamin’ and cryin’ ‘I’m on fire! I’m on fire!’ Poor bastard.”
As for the bar itself, Huch wrote, “Since opening in July, 1992 the Minefield has been the main Untac watering hole in the area. They keep a large supply of beer on ice in a huge metal cooler and also offer shots of whiskey, tequila, vodka, rum or cognac. Two glass cases display berets, medals, ribbons and insignia from past and present Untac units.
“The interior of the large open room is white-washed but all available wall space has been filled with mines of all types, rifles, military stickers from about twenty countries, and obscene graffiti in as many languages.
“Two large wooden slabs make up the bar, which forms a right angle around the small enclosed room used as the kitchen. A hand-lettered piece of cardboard lists the menu: hamburger, cheeseburger, steak and chips.
Huch wrote that the Minefield Bar has the air of “an old pavilion in a forgotten park taken over for a season by a gang of toughs who spend every day there then eventually move on.”
But part of the bar’s wildness can be explained by the wildness of the political scene that was playing out at the time, with the area being a stronghold of the left overs of the Pol Pot regime, operating under the name of the NADK, or National Army of Democratic Kampuchea.
In 1993 Huch recalled that, “The DK routinely mine the major roadways, maiming and killing the civilian population, and have attacked several villages populated by ethnic Vietnamese, murdering over a hundred people in March alone.
“In February ‘50 suspected DK guerrillas’ rode through the town of Siem Reap, firing rocket launchers and AK-47’s, killing three people and wounding eight more before stealing several thousand dollars worth of artefacts from a warehouse where they had been placed for safekeeping after being taken from the nearby ruins.”
As for Siem Reap itself, Huch recalls in 1993 that, “The streets of Siem Reap are completely deserted and there isn’t an electric light in sight. The sugar palms that line the road are riddled with bullet holes.”
Former UN career diplomat Benny Widyono was the shadow governor of Siem Reap at the time, and in his book Dancing in Shadows, he describes the bar.
He wrote, “Just to the right of the Grand Hotel was the Minefield Bar, run by an adventurous and enterprising New Zealander, Graham Robert Cleghorn. He was a burly and ruthless fellow, afraid of nobody, not even the Khmer Rouge, whom he befriended. Every evening his bar was packed with Untac military and police types along with civilians, downing those one-dollar cans of cold beer. He boasted that because of his contacts with the Khmer Rouge, they spared his bar when they attacked Siem Reap one night. After Untac’s departure, Cleghorn closed his bar for lack of customers and instead became a guide for tourists.”
In 1993 Huch also touched on Cleghorn’s relationship with the ‘NADK.’ He recalls a female journalist visiting the bar, discussing the Khmer Rouge, and asking Cleghorn, ““So are you still in contact with any of them? Is this bar safe?”
Huch reported, “I would think not,” replies Graham, smiling. “I didn’t make any long-lasting friendships in the DK. You talk to these bastards who might seem nice, but you can’t help but think that they’ve got a lot of blood on their hands or they wouldn’t be where they are.”
As for Cleghorn, his post-Minefield Bar history has been far from illustrious.
He was found guilty in 2004 of raping five teenagers, and his victims, aged 14 to 19, worked for Cleghorn at the time.
He was given a 20-year prison sentence for this and possessing illegal weapons in Siem Reap. All convictions were upheld in a 2007 Cambodian Court of Appeal ruling despite Cleghorn’s
continual protestations of innocence and the claim that he was framed by non-government organisation the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center which embroiled him in defamation charges in November 2010.
He’s still in prison in Phnom Penh.