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 about 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 nearby shooting range, just one kilometre 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 among backpackers. The range receives about 40 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 sandbags. 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 take advantage of the opportunity to fire an AK47 thus engage with, and put 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 then make to the shooting range, one wonders if they do 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 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 tourists told me 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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