Phnom Penh, Cambodia - (map)
The images made my eyes physically hurt. Tim and I toured the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. The 3-story buildings, surrounded by thick walls and barbed wire, were once a children's school. But in 1976 the Khmer Rouge regime converted it into a prison called Security Office 21 (S-21). Used for interrogating and torturing those the KR deemed as opposition, over 17,000 people passed through the prison before being exterminated at the famous Killing Fields outside of town.
The museum grounds were peaceful as birds sang in plumeria trees and sunshine reflected off playground equipment sitting in a grassy area. Yet there was a disturbing quiet in the air. Disturbing because I knew in this place so many lives were silenced and that the present quiet seemed only to scream the past horrors.
Touring the museum was a sad and sobering experience. On exhibit were rooms used for torture and classrooms converted into cells to house the prisoners. The Khmer Rouge took pictures of every person who entered S-21 and the museum displayed their black and white portraits row after row and room after room. Haunting faces of men, women, and children lined the walls, their eyes telling stories of pain, defiance, terror, or resignation to their fate. Tourists walked around the displays numbly, trying to comprehend how and why fellow humans could be so cruel to one another.
It was a sobering experience and a vivid reminder of the atrocities that had occurred not too long ago here in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia - (map)
Our guesthouse is in the middle of Phnom Penh, yet it sits on a dirt road so rutted and rocky that motorcycles can only weave past us at a slow crawl. And even at their slow pace, they churn up red dust clouds that permanently hover between the high security walls that line our street.
Phnom Penh is a living version of America's wild west. Except here, moto drivers are the new cowboys. They've traded in horses for Honda motorcycles, cowboy hats for baseball caps, and cattle for passengers, but their spirit is the same - harsh lives of long hours and hard work. Like horses in front of watering troughs, their motorcycles congregate outside of restaurants, on street corners, and near markets, patiently waiting for the next fare.
Like the wild west, there is a feeling of lawlessness in Phnom Penh that is both freeing and oppressive. It is a place where traffic never stops - the vehicles move into the intersections and right of way is determined by size and speed. It is a place where the low police salary of $20 a month forces every lawmaker to take bribes, so that a man with money can pay his way out of any small trouble with ease. It is a place where limbless land mine victims beg in the dirt street next to a corrupt official's new model Mercedes sedan. It is a place where "happy" pizzas from Happy Herbs Pizza are topped with a special ingredient that is illegal to posses in most countries, and where people can fire machine guns, throw grenades, visit huge brothel areas, and sing all night in the wild west equivalent of a saloon - the karaoke bar.
A sign on our guesthouse wall warns us not walk around after dark or with valuables. In this wild west, it is hard to see what trouble lurks around the next dark corner.
This atmosphere thrives today thanks to 30 years of Cambodian troubles - the American bombings during the Vietnam war, the Khmer Rouge genocide of 1-3 million Cambodian people, the Vietnamese occupation, the years of Cambodia civil war, and the current corrupt government. But now that peace has arrived, foreign aid and investment is slowly helping Cambodia enter the modern world. During our stay in Phnom Penh, we drove on a new US financed highway and heard much excitement about a new Japanese financed highway. We passed several new clothing factories that promise to offer new jobs, and conversely, met a newly arrived labor union organizer who helps these garment workers receive fair wages. Medical care in Cambodia is terrible - 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5 and life expectancy is a meager 51.6 years, but foreign funded hospitals are now beginning to offer free medical care to the needy.
The city is full of western expatriates teaching English, working for aid organizations, and setting up new business ventures. It is an exciting time to be here.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia - (map)
The little boy in me laughed in giddy anticipation as we arrived to the shooting range. I'd heard it was actually possible there to shoot a rocket-propelled grenade and I obviously couldn't let such an opportunity pass me by.
"So how was it?" I asked a 20-something Brit as he was leaving. He replied, "The machine gun was brilliant, but I'd give the grenades a miss." This was definitely going to be fun.
We sat on plastic chairs around a folding table and took a look at the "menu". Thirty rounds with an AK-47: $30. Thirty rounds with an M-16: $30. One grenade: $20. (Could I get that to go? Maybe that would be a bad idea!) One hundred rounds with a tommy gun (think gangsters): $70. Various pistols and other weapons were also listed, but no rocket launcher. How disappointing! I was sure there was a juicy story behind the discontinuation of the rocket launcher option. Perhaps someone launched one at a car or fired it backwards. I asked three Cambodians and received three different stories - and none of the stories were all that exciting. One said the shells were too expensive and loud, one suggested that they didn't have enough room, and the last just said, "not possible." I wondered if it had anything to do with the go-kart track on the other side of the firing range or our close proximity to the airport. But for whatever reason, my plan was thwarted.
I ordered the AK-47 and received one Russian-made rifle with folding stock and a clip full of ammo. But then I was told I'd have to fire it in semi-automatic mode. So many rules here in Cambodia - I might as well be home! If I wanted to fire a machine gun I'd have to shell out $70, and that price was much too high for a few seconds of craziness. So I fired my 30 rounds at a target 50 meters away. I'm no Rambo, but I still hit the target 27 out of 30 times and even scored a dead on bulls-eye. The Cambodian who added up my score seemed impressed - apparently I scored really well for a tourist.