Shooting tourists in Cambodia

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On the streets of Phnom Penh it is difficult to miss the tuk-tuk (mini-cab) drivers who offer a tour of the city and surrounds. By far the most offered tour is to the ‘Killing Fields’, or Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, the site of Cambodia’s largest mass grave, where some 20,000 men, women and children were murdered. The area is a lasting testimony to Pol Pot’s bloody four-year reign.

The Killing Fields are surrounded by farms and villages, once flat, now made hilly by the excavation of the graves. At the entrance of the fields is a tall pagoda, the interior stacked with skulls, left as evidence of the atrocities. It’s a dusty, hot and unspeakably sad place. Once there, the tuk-tuk drivers suggest that you round off your trip with an excursion to a near-by shooting range, just 1km away from Choeung Ek. There you have the opportunity to fire a weapon of your own choice.

This side trip is said to be vastly popular amongst backpackers. The range receives some forty visitors a day. Upon arrival at the shooting range, which is a small brick building with guns mounted on the wall and beer for sale, the prospective shooter is presented with a laminated ‘menu’ with the words ‘no photos’ clearly inscribed. Choices range from AK47s (US$30 for 25 rounds) to Tommy guns (US$25) and hand guns (US$13) – which one American visitor passed over as they are 'widely available in the States.'

In addition to this assortment of guns, grenades and heavy artillery can be fired as well. Although live animal targets were once available, the practice has been (officially) stopped following the public condemnation by King Sihanouk in 2001. These days the gun of your choosing is fired into small brick corridors with paper outlines of a human torso and head, mounted in front of sand bags. Meanwhile, Cambodian soldiers who administer the range entertain themselves with Bocce.

The tourist firing range has its roots in the surplus weaponry found in Cambodia. A violent history has made weapons more readily available. The coup in 1997 is only the most recent incident which has helped make widely available these many kinds of weapons. The range provides an alternative source of income to poorly paid soldiers. The tourists who takes advantage of the opportunity to fire an AK47 thus engages with, and puts to profitable use, the products of a violent past. They are also taking advantage of continuing economic hardship.


The visitors' books of the Genocide Museum are filled with statements of regret, and with the resolve to ‘never let this happen again'. When one’s mind turns to the trip that many visitors have then made over to the shooting range, one does not see this little ‘jaunt’ as a massive mark of disrespect, and a dishonouring of, all the victims of the Khmer Rouge. The incongruity is more simple. It is difficult to understand why tourists, after witnessing the remnants of mass murder, would want to fire a gun. Honour for the dead is incompatible with the firing of guns for pleasure.

Some of the tourists to whom I spoke said that their visit to the firing range provided a ‘good release’ after the stress of visiting the Killing Fields. Others said that it afforded them the opportunity to take part in the ‘untamed, lawless or crazy’ Cambodia they’d heard about; a chance to indulge in some adventure tourism before they headed back into town for a beer. But the presence of the firing range next to the memorial of the killing fields is as incongruous as would be a shooting range adjacent to Sachsenhausen or Auschwitz; or a nuclear power station built at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

It says much that both historical atrocity and recreational gun use, the emotional saturation of the horror of Cheoung Ek and the ‘cathartic’ experience of firing a weapon, have become two sides of the same coin to the tourist seeking to ‘discover’ Cambodia.

 

 

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Thanks for presenting this article. Today I returned from a 12 day immersion experience in Cambodia. This was my second time in the country (I visited in 2004) taking four students from our school both times. I had not seen or heard of the firing range "opportunity" in 2004 and was horrified to see this advertised in our guesthouse in Phnom Penh. On both trips we have made a priority of visiting both S21 and the Killing Fields. Fortunately, our students found the firing range idea abhorent.
Matthew Green | 06 July 2006


hi liz,

i have just read your article and am very impressed. your commentaries on both killing fields and the shooting ranges are apt and revealing. i like your effort to include readers in your emotional and critical reponse to such a contrary tourist trade and those who support it. i can explain more in person, but i thought you'd be chuffed to get this funny mini message... suz.
suzi | 12 July 2006


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