Rocket launchers and killing fields

Trip Start Feb 27, 2012
Trip End May 19, 2012

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Saturday, March 31, 2012

We have heard many things about “Scambodia” from tourists on our travels; the police are the best that money can buy, every second person is out to rip you off, but on the plus side the country is beautiful and anything you could possibly want is yours for a price - including in our case rocket launchers, light machine guns and grenades. However this place is still reeling from the effects of one of the worst genocides of the 20th century and its impact is very much out in the open for us to see and learn from.

Phnom Penh was our first stop and the bus here from Saigon was long and hot. The border crossing was hilarious – absolute chaos, luckily however we didn’t have to bribe anyone to get in. Normally we have been told a $20 “processing fee” tucked inside your passport is required by the customs desk.

Arriving at the bus depot with a serious case of beggar fatigue we were greeted by a dozen or so tuk-tuk drivers eager to take us to hotels for a “the best price in town” (i.e. the place that gives these drivers the biggest kick-back). One tried to wear us down for more than ten whole minutes while we were inspecting a map trying to work out just where the hell we had been dropped off.

Perhaps again we should have been a little bit more organised I hear you say – but where’s the adventure in that? Eventually we caved and decided to take our chances with the tuk-tuks although we insisted that he take us to a place in the Lonely Planet guide, much to his disappointment.

I can’t remember our driver’s name but he turned out to be a top bloke, and his previous service in the army was very helpful in organising our expedition to the firing range (more on this later). The tuk-tuks themselves are also not too bad here – some are even tricked out with neons and flashing lights. We had avoided them completely in Vietnam.

Our tour around town before checking in to our hotel was very cool – the inner part of Phnom Penh has lots of beautiful temples and is surprisingly modern (although the majority of the city is pretty rough). Later once we were settled we went for a wander and were invited into a Bhuddist temple by a monk, his English was rather rough but we had a really interesting chat to him about his beliefs and way of life – I’m not a religious person but I will admit that I am really starting to admire the Buddhist faith. 

That evening we tried in vain to find the local markets before Liz packed it in for an early night. I went for my usual midnight wander and was pretty shocked at the craziness of the nightlife – scary stuff.

The next day while sitting down at breakfast we were as per usual hassled by a number of beggars and hawkers. Cambodia however is in a different league with this kind of thing, for one the effects of years and years of civil war are very much visible – there are people without limbs everywhere (due to the millions of landmines that still inhabit the county) clearly the work opportunities for these kids are pretty dire. For once we decided that buying a meal for one might be better than just handing out cash, we have read that many of these children are effectively pimped out and don’t see much of the money they make themselves. At first the boy we picked, who suffered from brain damage due to a motor accident seemed confused about what we were offering him, but after making an eating gesture with my hands his eyes completely lit up and his head started shaking up and down uncontrollably. I gave him the menu and he without hesitation pointed to the biggest meal on the menu (American big breakfast..). The kid wolfed it down and then promptly finished off our left overs - he must have been so hungry! It felt good to bring a smile to at least one person’s face for the day.

The next port of call for the day was perhaps not so charitable. Our driver took us to the “Happy Club” where we were literally given a menu of all the different weapons that we could play with. Yes I know, this is possibly not the most beneficial form of tourism for the country – but hey, I think of it as helping with Cambodia’s disarmament programme. It’s not every day that you get the chance to buy a rocket launcher (and get a printed receipt to prove it!)

After deciding on our purchases we made our way to the local army base where obligatory bribes were made and found ourselves on a military firing range. The troops held a little vigil by lighting some incense and saying a prayer – not cool, if Cambodian soldiers are praying for good luck then you get the feeling that lots of tourists blow themselves up doing this. Especially since the drive to the base involved about a half-dozen near death experiences without the troops even batting an eye lid.

I was up first with my rocket launcher. With adrenaline pumping and my heart racing I was given my 20sec combined training and ‘safety’ briefing. “You shoot up, you no shoot down” explained the soldier gesturing with the barrel. Seems simple enough…  And with that I was handed the weapon, aimed the rocket high towards a hillside and the soldier flicked off the safety then darted off for cover.  Voices of my mother’s good common sense raced through my mind over the next few seconds – “what do you think you are doing?.. This thing is probably WAAY past its expiry date… what if it blows up in your face?”

Screw it…


The rocket followed a huge arc and shot off into the distance.  As the smoke began to clear I saw the flash of the charge burst just short of the base of the hill. Moments later a massive shockwave passed through us from the explosion, the video doesn’t even come close to convey how loud it was. Wow! That was possibly both the most expensive and most intense 10sec of my life!

Liz then stood up to the plate with her hand grenade. Her training was somewhat more involved – she was handed a small stick and shown how to throw is over a dirt bank into a pit. I was possibly more nervous about it than she was but all went well and good despite us doing super-man dives to the ground after it was thrown (much to the amusement of the soldiers).
Lastly I got the chance to let off a belt from a Russian made K-57 light machine gun. I use the term ‘light’ very loosely – it didn’t feel as such when the tracers were bouncing off trees in all directions.

That was fun. Next for the day we decided to learn about the nasty bits of Cambodia’s recent history. About thirty years ago the USA bombed the country back to the Stone Age (see Vietnam War) and shortly thereafter it was taken over by some nasty s.o.b.’s called the Khmer Rouge who promptly murdered two million people - or nearly one quarter of the population. One place where all this went down is the killing fields Cheong Ek which is now a museum. Thousands upon thousands of people were brought to places like this across the country to be executed. Because bullets cost money, most people were beaten or hacked to death. The most disturbing part Cheong Ek was the “killing tree” where the Khmer Rouge would swing children by their legs and smash their heads into the tree trunk before tossing them into a mass grave. Because there are so many bodies are yet to be recovered the place is still littered with bone fragments and clothing from victims.

The next museum we visited was the S-21 prison, where prisoners were tortured into making false confessions before being shipped off to the killing fields (including one New Zealander and two Australians who were unlucky enough to stray into Cambodian waters). Every person who stayed at the prison had their photograph taken and these are all displayed at one end of the museum. Brutal.

I’m really glad that we did all of the Rambo stuff in the morning because we were certainly not in the mood to play with guns after seeing all this. The experienced left me confused – I used to think that we didn’t let this stuff happen anymore and that we have learnt our lessons from the Holocaust etc. Now I’m not so sure, the world seems to only stand up for what is right when it serves our own respective self-interests. W.T.F.

What a crazy day. In the evening we did our best to take our minds off things, the markets and restaurants around town were very nice although Asian-madness still reigned supreme – at one stage the street we were eating dinner on nearly got evacuated when some guy set a scooter on fire (“those damn kids again!” remarked one of the cops). Before getting on our bus to Siem Reap we finished the evening with a night cruise along the Mekong River.
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