Bullets over Phnom Penh

At the gun range operated by the 911 Paratrooper Commandos
At the gun range operated by the 911 Paratrooper Commandos
PHNOM PENH (TR) – Bullets and beer, a buck a pop.

After maneuvering down the bumpy dirt side street and clearing the single checkpoint, the entry to the Cambodian Special Forces shooting range is just ahead.

An employee rushes out to greet the car. A menu then falls on one of the half-dozen tables in front of the shooting area. A tray of cold Angkor beer ($1) — yes, beer — and soft drinks arrives quickly thereafter. But alcohol is not the only thing that makes this range special.

The price list includes just about every kind of armament known to man: machine guns, rifles, and handguns.

“Treat all firearms as if they are loaded,” reads one posted rule.

The range, operated by Cambodia’s 911 Paratrooper Commandos, is a 20-minute drive outside of central Phnom Penh and offers visitors a chance to shoot, launch, or toss dozens of different kinds of weapons in a country still scarred by the brutal regime of Pol Pot three decades ago.

Samples of the available weapons, all well-oiled, can be seen hanging by wood pegs mounted onto a bamboo wall. A Luger pistol, an Uzi submachine gun, and an AK47 automatic rifle are but a few. Dangling strings of ammunition round out what is truly an intimidating scene. At the register young boys fill empty magazines with bullets from boxes.

The range has two main areas. For lighter weapons, such as the AK47 or a M16 (either available at $30 for 30 rounds), slots spaced a few meters apart allow about a dozen shooters to take aim at targets containing a silhouetted marksman mounted 150 meters away in a grassy field.

“Keep your finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard,” another rule requests, “until ready to shoot.”

Visitors, wearing ear muffs, must obey the orders of their personal guide just prior to raising their weapon and emptying the clip.

“POP! POP! POP!”

After a few pulls, each shooter lowers the sizzling barrel and peers into the distance to observe his work.

Though in 2001 then King Norodom Sihanouk objected to the use of live animals as targets, very little coaxing of range officials is required to learn that chickens ($5) are indeed available. Various livestock and water buffalos range between $100 and $300, which are quite handsome sums given that in Cambodia a monthly wage of much less than $100 is common for school teachers and garment workers.

Such prices, however, are not a deterrent to foreign visitors, who are generally backpackers seeking a temporary rush. As far as popular tourist attractions, Cambodia’s gun ranges, which are often staffed by former Khmer Rouge soldiers, are mentioned in guidebooks nearly as frequently as the Killing Fields and the torture museum Tuol Sleng, both of which stand as morbid reminders of Pol Pot’s murderous rule that spanned between 1975 and 1979.

“Do not point at anything you are not willing to shoot.”

A narrow room of bricks with rows of sandbags at the end is used for unloading weapons like the K50, a submachine gun (not too dissimilar from a “Tommy Gun”) fabricated in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and capable of firing more than 10 rounds a second.

The beast roars: “POP! POP! POP! POP! POP! POP!”

Like an untamed animal, the weapon violently kicks and snarls, emitting a deafening report. Dark powder clouds rise and shell casings and sparks fly inside the enclosed area. The sandbags twist and fray with each blow.

Also on offer is the M60, a machine gun that comes with a bipod mounting and an effective range of 1,100 meters.

Still not satisfied? Single grenades can be launched from a M79 ($100) or a B40 ($200). For both, staff will transport the shooter to a “safe” location, which is about 40 minutes by car.

Should that distance be off-putting, a mere $15 is all that is required to lob a grenade into a pond on the range’s property. Upon each detonation, a cloud of water rises above the pond, not too dissimilar from a nuclear blast.

Perhaps an ominous sign posted on the wall of weaponry sums up the no-holds-barred attitude of the range best: “Mess with the best, die like the rest.”

This article originally appeared in August 2007 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.

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