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Shooting tourists in Cambodia

  • 26 June 2006
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