Marijuana, Machine Guns, and Mayhem in Phnom Penh

The following article appeared in The Nation Junior, a magazine based in Bangkok in association with The Nation, and is recreated here for archiving purposes.

French colonial building in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Halloween, October 31, 2006 Phnom Penh is an anarchist’s wet dream, and I but a kid in a playpen.

I step off the bus into the middle of a mob of tuk-tuk drivers (an Asian 3-wheeled cabin cycle) that are fighting for a fare. Since the job market in Cambodia is less than favorable, every day is a constant battle for money, and the high poverty rate ensures constant competition. The French colonial buildings that line Phnom Penh’s streets stand adjacent to large Buddhist temples that give the city a vibe of Western and Eastern culture. However, there are no McDonalds or even public movie theaters, and large supermarkets, gas stations, and malls exist only sporadically. Most gas stations in Phnom Penh take the form of large barrels of gasoline on the sidewalk with hand pumps drilled into the top. It is similar to a scene out of a deranged dystopian dream world. After paying our driver the appropriate fare, we ensure him that we will give him work later. Today is the King of Cambodia’s birthday (eerily set on Halloween), and I had been expecting to encounter some sort of excitement on the streets. To my surprise nothing unusual (for Cambodia) was happening. Unlike the King of Thailand who is absolutely worshiped, the Cambodian people really don’t have anything to thank their current king for.

A roadside gas station common in Southeast Asia

The Cambodian government makes the Godfather look like the Peanut Gallery. The police are so corrupt that shake downs and extortion is almost common law. With the police busy collecting bribes and extorting brothels, the citizens of Phnom Penh are left to defend themselves. Wealthy men in Cambodia hire mercenaries that are usually equipped with everything from AK-47’s to grenades. Less wealthy citizens can hire hit men for a sum of $200 to $300 USD. Fortunately enough, with all these mini militias running amuck there are still very few shootouts. Still, piss off someone in Phnom Penh enough and you’ll wake up staring down the barrel of a gun. All this talk of violence and mayhem had my trigger finger beginning to itch. Luckily, in Cambodia there are many ways to itch whatever you please, and the Cambodian military has been so very kind enough to offer an entire arsenal of weaponry at a well-known shooting range a short tuk-tuk ride outside of Phnom Penh. After we leave the city for the surrounding countryside, we are forced to endure 15 minutes of dilapidated dirt paths that provide great views of Cambodian ‘gas stations’ and a few large pigs that are being pulled in rusty cages by aged motorcycles. Our driver pulls us up next to a rural shack where some civilian-clothed Khmer men greet us. We are handed a flimsy-laminated menu that reads: Happy Shooting Range. We read on down the list in an attempt to work up a fresh appetite. The starters are colt 45s and other assorted Chinese and Russian handguns for $13 to $15 USD a magazine, the chef specials are AK-47s, M-16s, or Uzi submachine guns for $30 a magazine, and for those who are truly hungry for destruction, your choice of main entrees include an anti-aircraft machine gun for $60 a magazine, a grenade launcher for $100, or a rocket launcher for $200 per shot. If you are seeking to shred more than a piece of paper, the Cambodian military would be glad to sell you live animals as targets. At $15 for a chicken, $100 for a goat, or $200 for a whole cow, you can quench your thirst for blood and make any vegetarian have nightmares for years. (Note: since publishing this story, the Cambodian military has stopped openly selling animals at the shooting range.)

Me shooting an AK-47

My need to spill blood was minimal that day, so I simply chose to shoot an AK-47 and proceeded to fork over the $30. He counted the money and brought it over to an old man in Cambodian military fatigues sitting in the corner next to a large wall of mounted weapons. I tried not to think about where my money was going and suited up for battle. It was my first time firing a gun and I practiced shooting single shots. The first shot was marvelous. I asked our Cambodian drill instructor to turn the gun on automatic, and I proceeded to experience what some would call one of the most empowering moments of your life. My German friend was in the mood for delivering more suppressed fire and ordered a serving of Colt 45. Just then a Cambodian child entered from behind us holding a loaded pistol in his hand, and handed it over to my friend. Cambodia was starting to feel surreal. With my ears still ringing, my companions and I felt it was time to indulge ourselves in some Cambodian history lessons, so we preceded five minutes down the road the infamous Killing Fields. When the Khmer Rouge overthrew the country, they evacuated the entire population of Phnom Penh into the country, tore roofs off buildings, abolished currency, and declared that it was the year zero. They murdered lawyers, doctors, politicians, anyone who spoke another language or wore glasses, along with their entire families. It was turning out to be a pretty scary Halloween. As you walk along the large holes where bodies were so eagerly dumped 30 years ago, you can still see bones protruding from the ground. Upon further examination, the white pebbles on the ground suddenly come into focus. The teeth and other smaller bones get pushed through the ground every rainy season and countless undiscovered skeletons in the surrounding lake wash slowly ashore.

Morbid memorial of skulls at the Killing Fields

I stare blankly as our Khmer tour guide stands next to a tree and nonchalantly describes how the Khmer Rouge smashed babies into this trunk. If they lived, they were thrown into the air and used as target practice. All this gunfire was quite expensive, so Pol Pot began recommending other means of execution. Hand drills, knives, hammers and nails, and slowly sawing the victims throat with the edge of a sugar palm leaf, became common means to an end in Cambodia. The sights and sounds of the afternoon drew a large demand for some sort of a pick me up. Yet, before any of that could be accomplished, there was the slight matter of tending to a rash I had acquired in Siem Reap some two days prior, and collecting some stomach worm medicine for my German American friend. We stop at a small pharmacy in Phnom Penh, which is more like a glass counter on the side of the road, and are immediately greeted by a young Cambodian boy. The 16-year-old boy informs my friend and I that he is the pharmacist in charge of the store for that day, and after some hesitation I showed him my rash. He gives me some cream for 2000 Riel (about $.50 USD) and slips over a piece of paper and says, “Excuse me sir. My friend is a student at an English school. Do you know what this word means?” I look down at the tiny slip of paper and read the words: wet dream. Out of pure instinct my friend and I laugh at the pure absurdity of a 16-year-old pharmacist asking tourists what the words wet dream means. Out of uncertainty, the young man retracts his statement, and with tears in our eyes we leave the pharmacy.

French tailored park in front of Independence Monument

As the sun sets behind Independence Monument, the sky turns a soft purple and all the French lampposts that stand high above the broken sidewalks light the park in front of the monument like the Parc du Champ de Mars. As night fall consumes the city, the hawkers quickly change their commodities from pineapples and bracelets, to that of a more cynical nature. As I walk down the famous waterfront of Phnom Penh, I can’t help but hear the merchants whisper into my ear their goods of choice: “smack, smoke a joint, pretty lady?” The penalty in Cambodia for drugs is quite heavy, but since most of the police are either involved in the operation or turn their heads for a price, the law is pretty much useless. After we decide to pass on the countless attempts to use heroin, we settle down for a drink and some traditional German food. A skinny white man with glasses enters the restaurant and sits down at the table across from us. He is from Germany and has been living in Phnom Penh for several years. Indeed this is a strange place to set up camp, and we ask exactly what his purpose in Cambodia is. The German stares at us and says, “Honestly. I teach English.” A sick thought pops into my head and I wonder if any of his students know what the word wet dream means. We are faced with the chance to ask an English speaking local for some advice on how to find some adventure, and we eagerly seize the opportunity. He grimly smiles and says, “Depends what you call adventure. Is adventure [for you] having unprotected sex with a hooker?” My jaw drops and I don’t dare ask how old the girl was out of previous knowledge that a disgusting amount of sex tourists come to Cambodia in search of the more nubile variety. He continues, “If you’re looking for adventure, you need only to step outside the door then pick: left or right.” Gambling in Southeast Asia is heavily restricted – except for Cambodia that is. I had heard that there was a really nice casino in Phnom Penh, and my thirst for adventure lead me to the far south side of the waterfront where the Mekong River begins to open up. At the door to the casino there is a large metal detector and a sign that clearly states: No knives, hand guns, automatic weapons, or grenades. When we step into the main game room, a feeling of bewilderment overcomes me. The ceiling to the room is curved upwards and painted blue with bright white clouds. The entire room is extremely over lit, and once you step into the room any hint as to what time of day it is dissipates in the iridescent glow. The gaming room is a Chinese garden that has fake trees with tiny red lanterns hanging from the branches, a large, looming stone structure in the center that is trickling a soft stream of water, and a small wooden bridge that glides over a miniature river. The room is almost completely silent except for the slow moving water, an occasional cough, and a repetitive soundtrack that is playing soft bird calls. I find myself reconfirming the thought that I didn’t have any happy pizza that night. The atmosphere is tense, unfriendly, and I begin to realize that all of the people here are well-dressed, light-skinned Asians. Suddenly, the thought occurs to me. I am standing in the middle of a Chinese mafia casino in Cambodia, and there are birds chirping in a heavily lit room in the middle of the night. Without spending a dollar, my companions and I head back toward the main waterfront of Phnom Penh. The waterfront is completely taken up by various foreign restaurants, and the only patrons that are ever feasting or drinking in these establishments are foreigners. One such place stands out of the rest and beckons to us as we walk down the strip. The Riverside Café is a quaint little pub and within its oak walls are large, elegant murals of Angkor Wat. No more than five minutes in the pub; a large balding man greets us with a booming voice. “World Series tonight,” he says. We discover that this rather buoyant man is from Germany.  He has previously lived in the Philippines and Vietnam over the past 10 years while suffering from a severe dependency to acid for most of the time. He hands over his business card and reveals to us that he is the owner of the Riverside Café, then proceeds to offer us a shot of Jagermeister.

Picture of the royal family in center Phnom Penh

He raises his glass towards us and proclaims, “Happy birthday to the King of Cambodia!” The other white men in the bar follow suite and we toast. All the bartenders have names sewed into their red uniforms; the fat German hints at us that it is possible to take them home. One of the waitress’s nametags reads: “Meas Teary.” You just can’t get away from sex and drugs in this country. When you combine a lot of tourists with waitress’s that make an average of two dollars a day, it’s not hard to realize why women take up prostitution as a part-time job. Most people in Cambodia would rather die of HIV in a few years then of starvation tomorrow. The German bar owner looks around at all he has conquered, laughs at the complete power he has over all his sex workers and employees, and takes another shot of Jagermeister. He looks me and my companions in the eyes and whispers, “Prove to me I’m not God.” Cambodia truly is a place that conjures up images of misery and chaos, but the pure innocence and passion that the Cambodian people have for life is something that most have forgotten in our modern world. Cambodia questions our concept of reality by bombarding us with ideas and images that are so profane that most visitors find it hard not to get lost in its utter absurdity. This place is as real as the corrupt regime and clashing superpowers that created it – only to leave it behind as a living by-product and testament to the catastrophe of war. There are countless organizations established to help Cambodia, but during my travels one stuck out in particular. For $13,000USD you can build an entire school that is fully furnished. They will even put your name on the school as an eternal sign of gratitude for giving a gift that so many Cambodian children thrive for and deserve. Go to for more details.

One thought on “Marijuana, Machine Guns, and Mayhem in Phnom Penh

  1. Pingback: #Cambodia : Phnom Penh 6 years on « Transcending Culture Shock

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