“Thunder Ranch Shooting Range” is definitely on the tourist circuit in Phnom Penh. It’s in all the books, guides, and sample itineraries. And why not? In the USA, (and for that matter, many other countries) you can’t very easily (and legally) go and fire off fully automatic weapons unless you’re in the military or law enforcement. Well they seem to have recognized this in Cambodia and have quite the niche offering for tourists. It’s actually illegal for regular citizens to own guns in Cambodia at the present time. Despite this, they manage to legally offer a few ranges that allow for (mostly tourists) to fire the hell out of a wide assortment of weaponry. What you can shoot there depends mostly on how much cash you’re willing to part with. They have Tommy guns, Uzis, Belt-fed Russian machine guns, Anti-aircraft machine guns, Anti-tank guns, and loads more. They basically sit you down with a menu and let you pick. Hand grenades? $50. Shoulder fired rocket launcher? $350…. ouch. I actually wanted to throw a hand grenade, but all of the mortars and grenades and rockets and such require a 40 kilometer drive to the side of a nearby mountain. We opted to just shoot an AK-47 and an M-16 (both full auto). It was on the must see/do for us for sure, but we didn’t want to empty the bank account on explosives and ammunition or spend the whole day there. It was pretty fun, albeit brief. In addition to the targets, they put up a green coconut and I managed to completely explode that thing with the M-16.
Now, what makes this kind of a surreal item on the itinerary is the proximity to a couple other much more serious sites: Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison. They’re all on a lot of one day itineraries for the city, and they’re all really close to each other. Besides all of that though, another main reason a lot of tourists might end up visiting Thunder Ranch is because tuk-tuk drivers get a nice little commission from the place when they bring people that drop some cash there. It does seem a little irreverent, but it is what it is. A lot of drivers will take tourists to the killing fields first, because it’s farthest away. Then, after they’re all depressed and shaken having walked around bones and clothing and teeth emerging from the ground around mass graves and witnessed the spectacle of thousands of human remains stacked in a small building, it’s “Now let’s go shoot some guns!” Chuckle, Chuckle. Well, you can imagine that might not always go well. That is, not go well in the sense that many tourists would turn that down and then there goes the commission. Well we (and our driver) pretty much knew what we were getting into for the day, so we hit the shooting range first. Get up, nice complimentary breakfast at the hotel with a light omelet, delicious French imperialist bread, passion fruit juice, and extra strong “real” coffee….. then head straight to the shooting range for some simple-minded and glorious blasting away.
THEN… after you’re nice and awake and feeling great, it’s time for the sobering and depressing rest of the day….
I have to admit that I knew very little about the Khmer Rouge before today. I still don’t have a coherent explanation for how they were able to mobilize people to do what they did. It really is pretty shocking what happened in Cambodia in the late 1970s. During the four years that the KR was in power, around 25% of the population was killed, with estimates as high as 3 million. They systematically arrested, detained, tortured, and executed people all around the country with a network of prisons and “killing fields” where executions and disposal of bodies took place. The prison in Phnom Penh (Tuol Sleng, aka S21) and the nearby killing field Choeung Ek, are the largest in the country. There are multiple smaller sites like these around the country.
We visited Choeung Ek killing field first. It was the prior site of an old Chinese cemetary. During the KR rule, they would take victims from the nearby prison by the truckload at night to be executed and dumped into mass graves. Much of the site was excavated from 1979-1980 with clothing and remains preserved. All of this was housed under huts until the mid-1990s when a large stupa was constructed to house all of the remains. However, with each rainy season more bones emerge from the soil. It was honestly a very creepy place. I expected some sterile display in a temple, but the area around the place is anything but. It really speaks to the immensity of crimes that were committed there. There are foot paths around the excavated mass graves that have worn down the grass and exposed the ground beneath. All the areas with exposed dirt are pockmarked with half-buried clothing and little bone fragments. Martha tripped a little on a tree root and a human tooth (from a child) popped across the path. Walking around the place is chilling.
Next stop was Tuol Sleng genocide museum. It was originally a high school for Phnom Penh, but the Khmer Rouge converted it to a prison and interrogation center that they called “S21.” Basically, anyone accused or suspected of not conforming to KR rules was brought to a place like this, tortured until they confessed to something, and then brought to a nearby field for execution. Out of 22,000 people who were detained at S21, only seven lived. The site isn’t quite the visceral experience as walking amongst so many savagely killed human remains that a visit to the killing fields can be. There are several buildings around the complex. The first has large rooms for interrogating and torturing high value prisoners. Another building had mass open-air rooms with everyone shackled together. Yet another had really claustrophobic and hastily constructed single cells from brick and wood packed into all the large rooms. The place is creepy as well on a lot of levels. Walking through it, it’s clear that it was a school and the large rooms were once classrooms. The KR put bars and cement on all the windows and braided barbed wire and razor wire all around the open balconies. Lots of indoor space currently houses collections of stories and the mugshot photos of thousands and thousands and thousands of victims from there. It’s maybe a little haunting. Glad we saved that for the end of the day.
Knowing on a factual level that horrible things happened here thirty-something years ago didn’t really inspire the same reflection as seeing evidence firsthand. You can’t help but notice on a visit to Cambodia how young the population is. You just really don’t see lots of old people here. We both had observed this before and recognized that was likely a result of the atrocities that happened. Thinking about that a little now, it’s absolutely amazing how far this country has come in only a couple of decades.
Now, tomorrow is gonna be considerably lighter. Actually, the rest of the trip is… no more genocide museums or mass graves. I’m glad we saw all of that today, but it was definitely a bit of a downer.