All photos by Karl Hess
The man offering me the rocket-propelled grenade launcher was nodding and smiling broadly, waiting for my reply.
"Wait. What?" I said, wanting to make sure I had not misheard.
"$250. You take RPG, shoot cow. Very fun." He proffered the weapon again.
Yes, there was no mistake here. This man was, in fact, offering to me the opportunity to shoot an unsuspecting bovine with an RPG for 250 American dollars. And from what I had seen so far in Cambodia, I guess I shouldn't have been very surprised. This, after all, was a country that had no shortage of weapon stockpiles, a great need of foreign capital, and a somewhat laissez-faire approach to personal safety. I looked at the weapon, its wooden stock stained and worn smooth from years of use, then turned toward the jungle and made eye contact with the cow in question. He didn't look pumped.
I had come into Cambodia overland from Thailand, which involved a long bus ride from Bangkok during which I tried in vain to take enough knock-off Thai valium to pass out, but ended up just vacantly watching Bollywood musicals and Thai action movies on the grainy bus TV for hours, until we had to transfer to a car at the frontier to continue the journey. The bus could go no further because the roads in this area were, to put it charitably, non-existent. After a few hours in the back seat of a car that might have been in its prime during the Nixon administration, being jostled relentlessly on an aggressively dusty and deeply rutted dirt track while trying to chat with the seemingly very drunk and very Danish couple I had piled in with, we had arrived.
The border official eyed me warily, possibly because many single white males come to this part of the world to avail themselves of the services of teenage prostitutes, or maybe due to that fact I was sweating rather profusely in the tiny, sweltering border hut and had removed my shirt, attempting to fan myself with it. Either way, this steely-eyed guardian of the land seemed none too pleased and took his time giving me the forms I needed. Eventually, though, with a brisk and officious stamp of my passport, I was granted entry to the Kingdom of Cambodia.
One of the first things I noticed was that everyone seemed very young. It looked like a nation of twentysomethings. Of the few older people I saw out on the street, most were part of the contingent of severely maimed old men who would go around on crutches, begging for change. Many were missing limbs, and others were horribly scarred, burned, or disfigured. I soon began to realize that the reason you didn't see many older people here was because they were all dead.
What I was experiencing was the living legacy of a regime that had murdered an estimated two million people. The Khmer Rouge were gone, but their heinous rule would forever be a bloody, indelible mark on the past, psyche, and population of this country. And in a very real way, that past was still here, in the ground. Cambodia was heavily mined during the years of armed conflict and there are an estimated four to six million landmines still buried in rural areas throughout the country. It has the highest per-capita percentage of mine amputees in the world, with one in every 236 Cambodians living with one or more lost limbs. As a result, it probably also has the highest per-capita rate of foreign backpackers who have never seen a minefield wearing t-shirts that have a skull and cross-bones and say "Danger: Mines" in Khmer.
Right next to these ghostly old men in the street, stooped under the press of unknowable hardships and visions of the bloody madness of the past, though, there was a whole other Cambodia—one composed of smiling and enthusiastic young people, most under 25. They are the children of a generation decimated by war, eager to leave the bad old times far behind and to face toward a future filled with foreign dollars flowing in.
The owners of the guesthouse I walked into seemed to embody this positive, youthful energy. They were both 21-year-old guys, spoke English well enough to hold a conversation, and were exceedingly friendly. Especially when they found out I lived in California.
"You live California? You are surfer! Malibu!"
"Well, actually, I don't surf. But there definitely are surfers there. That is a thing."
"California dude! Surf's up! You surfer!"
"…Yes, I am a surfer."
Their enthusiasm and excitement was infectious, so I figured I'd just go with it. And it extended well past just their initial greeting. After I had dropped off my bag, taken a shower, and settled in to a hammock, they were by my side again, smiling and giving thumbs up.
"You want pizza?"
"I would love some pizza, that sounds great."
"You want regular pizza, or special pizza?"
Despite having just arrived in Cambodia, I had been traveling in Southeast Asia for a while, so I wasn't really going out on a limb when I asked, "Is the special pizza… drugs?"
They found that very amusing. "Special pizza is weed pizza! Very good!"
"Yes, I will have one special pizza, thank you."
They high-fived me and were off to the kitchen, but after a few minutes, one had come back and stood next to me. Smiling widely he produced from his pocket a very large bag of weed and threw it casually down onto my lap.
"Welcome present. For you."
It seemed like an excessive amount of marijuana for a gift.
"This is like a lot. Let me pay you," I said, reaching for my pocket.
"No, no. Gift. You enjoy." Another grin, and he was gone.
There was no arguing with Cambodian hospitality. So I dutifully rolled up a joint of the dry, brownish herb and shared it with some obligatory Germans who were sitting nearby, watching an X-Men movie on a portable DVD player.
Soon after, the weed pizza came and it was large, greasy, and delicious. Not incredibly strong in the "special" department, but the weed in Southeast Asia was pretty bad overall and I had paid approximately $1.37 for the whole thing, so I was happy with my investment. Plus, I found myself increasingly interested in the Germans' conversation about geodesic domes, so I must have been feeling it at least a little bit. After multiple beers, another round of high-fives with the owners, and an all-around group agreement with the Germans that Buckminster Fuller was, in fact, the man, I headed off to my tiny room and mosquito net to sleep. I needed my rest, as the next day I was going to get up early and find someone I could give money to in exchange for an opportunity to live out a lifelong dream I had entertained ever since my days as a young boy watching endless action movies and filling my youthful hours with GI Joes and Nerf guns: I was going to shoot an AK-47.
Not that it was going to be that much of an effort, really. You don't have to try too hard to find guns in Cambodia. Walking around the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh, I saw giant billboards with colorfully drawn scenes of smiling citizens handing over armloads of handguns, rifles, and grenades to men in official dress. The writing was in Cambodian, but the message was clear: "Hey guys, let's all hand in our arsenals and maybe take it easy with this whole 'everyone being armed to the teeth' thing, OK?" But I don't think anyone was in a rush to do that, as the massive weapon stockpiles leftover from the bloody bygone days served not only to protect against any re-emergence of Communist guerillas, but had also given rise to a new use for all this firepower: shooting ranges for foreign backpackers with money to spare.
Care to shoot an anti-aircraft gun into the jungle and chop down some local flora with waves of flak? No problem. Want to live out your 'Nam door-gunner fantasy and let loose with an M-60 belt fed machine gun, laughing maniacally as brass shell casings rain down around you? Right this way. But it will cost you. To put it in perspective, shooting an M-60 with one ammo belt of around 100 rounds would run you $175. In a country where you can get a beer for less than a buck and room for $3, that is quite an expenditure. Yet, despite charging amounts that could equal another month or two of travel for some backpackers, the men who ran these ranges were doing quite a business.
After taking a long drive sitting on the back of a hired moto where I mainly focused on hugging the shit out of the guy driving as he whipped excessively fast in and out of hundreds of other motos and brutal, career-ending potholes, I arrived at one of these makeshift gun ranges outside the city. It was little more than a cinder block building with a green plastic corrugated roof, surrounded by an area that had been cut (shot?) out of the surrounding jungle. One part of the structure was where you would stand to shoot rifles at targets set up outside, but the other was a room completely full of weapons.
Kalashnikovs, mortars, 30mm cannons, grenades, rockets, even an old flame-thrower—it was basically Hoarders: Collapse of the Soviet Union Edition. One got the sense that, for enough money, you could pretty much use whatever you wanted. Mainly because the dude in charge said, "Enough money, you use whatever you want."
But I was just there for the AK, and I stayed focused. Plus, I had been spending too much on this trip anyway, although I did firmly stand by my purchase of throwing stars on Khao San Road in Bangkok. The Kalashnikov cost $30 to fire, plus $1 for each round in the clip. If the United States could just take a tip from unregulated Cambodian jungle weapon ranges and charge a dollar per bullet, we probably could radically reduce gun deaths in America, I thought, as I handed over my damp, crumpled bills to the shirtless man in the bush hat. He slipped the clip into the rifle and was about to pull back the bolt to rack the first round into the chamber when I stopped him. "Please," I said, laying a hand on the gun. "Allow me."
The actual shooting was much like losing my virginity: tentative at first, then loud, awesome, and over far too quickly. I had fired guns plenty of times before, but this was my first time with a fully automatic assault rifle, and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. Despite going through rounds so fast that I was tempted to buy another 30, the Kalashnikov had all the power and violence befitting such an iconic weapon, and was eminently satisfying to shoot. Flame and vengeance spit from its barrel at a ferocious rate, the heavy rounds ripping massive, jagged chunks from tree, stone, and earth alike. As I finished the clip and lowered it from my shoulder, I turned back toward the guy with a huge smile on my face. I think that's when his savvy business mind kicked in, and he saw his opportunity to make some more cash and busted out the RPG.
"You shoot cow, no problem."
Despite it looking miserable enough that an explosive rocket blast might have vastly improved its day, I wasn't about to shoot that cow. I am not a monster. I may be a decadent youth of the West, but I draw the line at blowing up undeserving livestock.
It was definitely time to head back into Phnom Penh and continue my Cambodian adventure, so I politely declined the man's offer and was on my way. Although, if you are really looking for a reason to leave an angry comment, I did eat a dog in Vietnam like three weeks later.
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