Explosive Phnom Penh: Boom Boom Pow in the Jungle
The only thing I can smell is gunpowder. It flirts with my nostrils.
The sun is sinking behind lush green hills somewhere in the Cambodian countryside. It’s a sticky, humid, dusty mess out here. I’m sweating profusely and my hands are trembling like a kid about to ride a bicycle for the first time — except this bicycle was a rocket launcher. I lean over the barrel and squeeze the trigger.
Silence. Then a thundering boom. Smoke touches the crimson orange sky.
For a couple hundred bucks you can do almost anything in Cambodia, and blowing things up is one of them.
Let me rewind for a second.
After hopping a flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, I touch down in Cambodia in the late afternoon. I get my visa and meet my hotel’s driver and guide outside the airport. He greets me by holding up a sign with a funny spelling of my name on a white piece of paper. His name is Run. We enjoy a few beer (which are $1 USD each in Cambodia) and cigarettes at the airport before jumping into the backseat of his white Toyota Camry. After buckling up, he turns around and asks, “Want to shoot a rocket launcher?”
“What?!” I reply, momentarily flummoxed.
I realize he’s completely serious.
“Yes?” I say hesitantly.
We pick up a six-pack of Cambodian beer, another guide and speed off into the hills surrounding Phnom Penh.
On the drive out to the firing range, the other guide hands me a laminated piece of paper. It’s a menu of what’s available to shoot, explode and detonate. I feel like I’m ordering food. I check off all the necessities: a rocket and grenade launcher, hand grenade, M16 and AK-47 assault rifles and a PK machine gun.
He then asks me if I’d like to blow up a cow.
“How about some chickens?” he asks, as normally as if wanting to know if I’d like sugar in my coffee. I raise my eyebrows and shake my head. This place seemed stranger by the minute.
“Okay, you shoot coconuts then,” he says.
Once arriving at our location, four or five Cambodian ex-military types (so I’m told) greet me. They don’t speak English but crack silent, mischievous smiles and mechanically smoke cigarettes as they load rockets into barrels and belts of ammo into machine guns.
One of them walks towards me with the a rocket launcher. A hulking, cylindrical, greenish-steel bastard capable of decimating a house or turning a person to dust is placed in my hands. It’s heavier than I expect.
I picture a rocket blowing up in my face, incinerating the Cambodians and myself. A functional rocket whistles out of the barrel, carving a crater in the hills on the horizon.
Shortly after, I’m given a hand grenade. I pull the pin and hurl it into a small pond. I quickly pull out my cell phone to snap a photo of the impending explosion and — boom — water gushes several feet into the air like a mountain geyser. I erupt in hysterical laughter.
A grenade launcher is next to enter my hands. It’s an oily, greasy, hulking piece of metal.
With a heavy thud, a shell bursts out of the barrel into the distance. Another explosion. The grenade’s pin and the expired shell from the grenade launcher are given to me as souvenirs. Military tourism at its finest.
Next were the assault rifles.
I pick up the Russian designed AK-47, the most popular assault rifle in the world. It’s estimated there are 100 million in circulation around the world today used by both militaries, terrorist cells and guerrilla groups.
There’s no clay pigeons here. Instead, my target is a field of stationary coconuts. The range is scattered with them. I unleash a shower of bullets. My immediate vicinity becomes a flurry of dancing dust and coconuts. Brown shells crack, split and kiss the sky. I maneuver through the firearm’s options of single and three-shot bursts and move onto automatic fire. I also pop off a few rounds from a sleek metallic black American-made M16.
I finish my explosive Cambodian escapade with the PK machine gun, which uses a 25-round belt. Both the AK-47 assault rifle and PK machine gun were designed by infamous Russian World War II era arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, who died in December 2013. I empty a clip in seconds. My teeth rattle. The gun digs into my shoulder, turning my muscles into a bruised, overripe apricot. Gold casings are sprinkled across the ground. I later read that the PK is so powerful it can be used to repel aircrafts.
Another vehicle pulls up.
A second tourist hops out. He’s here for the same reason I am. His name is Chris Patarazzi and he’s from Chicago. I chat with him after he gets his explosive dose of rocket launcher mayhem.
“That was awesome. I just shot two rocket launchers,” says Patarazzi excitedly like a young boy who has shot a pellet gun for the first time.
“When I saw the advertisement to be able to do it I was like, ‘when will I ever be able to shoot a rocket launcher?’ Probably won’t be able to do that in the States. Might as well do it. It costs a little bit of money but it’s better to do it than not to do it.”
The smoke from Patarazzi’s rocket curls like a snake into the sky.
“Hopefully there’s no one backpacking through those woods,” he adds.
I agree and we both nervously laugh.
It starts to rain and the sun has disappeared for the day. I light my last cigarette before Run ushers me back into his Toyota. I wave goodbye to Chris from Chicago. We silently drive back to Phnom Penh under the gentle moonlight of the spring evening.
Connect with Dorian Geiger, editor of Sleepless in Singapore.