Biting the bullet

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Biting the bullet
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Today started with a polite awakening at 4.30am with the phone ringing in the room as requested – I expect this is one of many days ahead to begin with wondering where in the world I am and what I need to do about that.

Luckily the airport was devoid of people at that time so I was able to easily coast through passport control and find my bag waiting alongside many others at the Lost Property office, as predicted. From that point it was just a hop, skip and proverbial jump to Phnom Penh, Cambodia where I was met by my friendly tuk tuk driver, Mok. My friend Sarah had given me Mok’s details having befriended him on her recent trip herself. I’d emailed Mok to arrange this pick up and discuss a few other things I’d like to see while I’m in town. There was one thing in particular that I had been in two minds about which Mok now suggested we make our first stop as it is in the vicinity of the airport. I was confronted by the need to resolve my vacillation so suddenly and decided to just go with the flow and let it resolve itself.

And so without further adieu, we headed down bumpy and dusty roads to an apparently unmarked location to find the oh-so-inappropriately-named ‘Happy Club’ – a shooting range, where for a price, you can shoot any sort of weapon you like including hand grenades and rocket launchers. I’m sure some of you are recoiling in horror at the very suggestion just as I did when I first heard about it. More than that, I was indignant at the disrespectfulness of doing such a thing in a place where such violent atrocities devastated and decimated the local population.

But somewhere in that thought process, my curiosity was stirred and I wondered if perhaps the opposite might instead be true – if in fact the context of the genocide at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge made it an entirely appropriate place to explore what it means to hold and fire a gun. I thought about the time I visited the site of the concentration camps in Auschwitcz, Poland and remembered our guide speaking to us about the guards who were mostly ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances facing the reality of killing or being killed. He wasn’t excusing their actions at all, merely making the very powerful and poignant point that what happened there, as here, exists within the realms of humanity, not monstrosity. It would be folly for us to believe otherwise, lest we not recognise such dark forces rising again or indeed, within ourselves.

On a personal level, I’ve spent the last couple of years rebuilding my sense of self having lost it entirely when I lost Matthew. My whole world view was undermined and it shook me right back to my foundations wondering who I am and what I believe. It has required an extraordinary amount of curiosity and self-observation on my part to not just revert to a way of being which has clearly outlived its usefulness. I have tried to live as “a soul in search of experience” and to just allow myself to evolve as a result of those experiences without prejudging myself or the outcomes. In this pursuit, it occurred to me that firing a gun is certainly something I haven’t experienced before, nor have I wanted to. In fact, I’d say I’ve been staunchly anti-gun.

Please don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about trying to become the opposite of what I’ve been, nor is it to be confused with overcoming fears – people should fear guns! It’s more about being open to observe and experience the darker side of humanity that dwells in us all.

So what happened?

I walked into a shed lined with guns, big guns and I was struck by terror – a feeling clearly not shared by the non-plussed gents running the place who casually presented me with a menu to choose from – seriously, it was like one of those picture menus you often get in Chinese restaurants only with guns, big guns (AK47, M16, revolver, shotgun, grenade, rocket launcher and other things that really shouldn’t be put into the hands of someone as inexperienced as me!). It was too easy and too fast – no ID check, no explanation, no training. I tried to slow proceedings down by explaining I’d never held a gun before. He lazily flipped to the M16 saying I should choose that because it has less kickback. I had thought I’d start with something smaller like a revovler but this was a one-shot deal (pardon the pun) so I thought I might as well get out the big guns (literally!!) and go with his recommendation.

I realised that I’d formed a picture in my mind of what the place might be like. I’d imagined an open field with people lined up behind a line, maybe a small barrier, shooting and chucking stuff into empty space. Instead I was led into a very menacing, all black, bunker type set up with nothing but a small table and a littering of discarded bullet casings. The guy went to the far end to put up a paper target picture of a man which kinda freaked me out – I know it was just paper but it was the suggestion of a human form. He offered me a coconut to shoot instead for an extra dollar but I didn’t think the coconut deserved it either! Then he very nonchalantly got the M16, loaded the clip, sat me at the desk, put an army jacket over my right shoulder for padding and popped some ear muffs on me! He then handed me the gun and indicated I was good to go. The look on my face must have told the story. I think he rolled his eyes! He moved my hands into position and rested it in the makeshift thing that holds guns in place. He gave me some rudimentary instructions about where to look and that was that. He stood back and it was just me and the M16.

I pulled the trigger and bang! It was loud and it kicked back against my shoulder. It didn’t hurt but it shocked me as did the smell. It wasn’t nice like fireworks or matches – it was more acrid. I had 19 bullets left so I tried to focus on improving my aim and the guy helped by tilting me in the right direction. At the end, the gun was literally smoking. He retrieved the piece of paper which was riddled with holes though literally in a scatter-gun fashion. I’m no sniper, that’s for sure! I took it as a souvenir though I doubt it’ll ever be displayed alongside the snowdomes.

And that was that, I was no longer a gun virgin! It felt significant and it did feel powerful in my hands but in a way that was totally external and foreign to me, it wasn’t my power. It hasn’t converted me or bought out my inner-Rambo. If anything, it’s further validated my anti-gun stance. I stop short of calling myself a pacifist – I studied law and have very partisan politics, clearly I have an adversarial streak, I believe there are sides and things worth defending and fighting for – I just believe that violence should be an absolute last and desperate measure. Right, off my soapbox and back into the tuk tuk!

On the ride between the shooting range and my guesthouse, I saw more astounding sights than I could have spoken aloud had there been someone with me to hear it – bikes piled impossibly high and wide, entire families with new born babies on scooters, a blind goat getting a lift in a crate etc. The thrill of it all gave me that familiar rush that anyone addicted to travel knows well – that sudden, overwhelming sense of being alive and loving it! The unfamiliar sights, sounds and even smells that you just can’t get enough of no matter how quickly they’re being thrown at you. The visceral feeling in the back of that tuk tuk suddenly made the insanity of this trip make perfect sense.

Still, I needed to get out of my travel clothes and into something more appropriate for the pressing heat. Unfortunately, it was only 11am and the guesthouse has a strict 2pm check in policy. So I left my backpack and hit the streets to a relentless chorus of tuk tuk drivers offering their services. First stop, the Mekong River just at the end of the street, I walked along it’s banks to the Royal Palace and then cut back into the city to meander. I came across a local food market that was far fresher than I had anticipated with big, ugly, fish actually leaping out of their bowls and squirming on t
he filthy ground. I think it may have been a sales gimic because no attempt was being made to retrieve them but it made me glad of my vegetarianism. When I realised I was surrounded bt them on all sides, I also realised that there may still be remnants of my fish-phobia left to resolve! I had no choice but to suck it up and get the hell out of there!

I next headed to the Central Market with a little trepidation over that last market so I was absolutely delighted to find it so architecturally grand. It was built in 1937 in art deco style with a central atrium that floods with beautiful yellow light. The market itself sells all kinds of everything except what I really needed – a little lay down.

I went back to the Europe Guesthouse to prevail on their mercy but it was not yet 2pm so instead I settled for directions to a nearby veggie restaurant for lunch. It had dumpling soup and fake meat with rice – it was delicious and all the more for only costing $3.50!

Finally able to check in, I was thrilled to find my room so clean and air-conditioned. I peeled off my denim and jumped in the shower – I was actually glad to find their claim of ‘hot’ water to be a bit of a misnomer but not even that could revive me. Time for a nap… just another half hour… just another half hour… my mind and body had a terrible row about staying in but my mind won on the grounds that I’ll be off to Siem Reap tomorrow morning so I have to squeeze in as much of Phnom Penh as possible tonight. My body agreed but negotiated a deal to not go to far afield and to get a tuk tuk home.

It’s hard to believe that all this fit in a day and it’s only Day 1!


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