Mok, a friend of a friend and local tuk tuk driver met me upon arrival at Phnom Penh airport. We’d been in email contact in the days leading up to departure about my tenuous plans whilst I was in town. Mok suggested we make our first stop the one place I was dubious about. 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 ado, we headed down bumpy and dusty roads to an 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 violent atrocities devastated and decimated the local population.
Somewhere in that thought process however, 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 Auschwitz, 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’d also spent the last couple of years rebuilding my sense of self having lost it entirely when I lost my partner of 18 years. My whole world-view was undermined and it shook me right back to my foundations wondering whom I was and what I believed. It required an extraordinary amount of curiosity and self-observation on my part to not just revert to a way of being which had 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 the outcomes or myself. In this pursuit, it occurred to me that firing a gun was certainly something I hadn’t experienced before, nor had I wanted to. In fact, I’d say I’ve been staunchly anti-gun.
This wasn’t about trying to become the opposite of what I’d been, nor was 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.
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. I was casually presented with a menu not unlike a picture menu you might find in a Chinese restaurant only instead food, I had my choice of AK47, M16, revolver, shotgun, grenade, rocket launcher and other things that really shouldn’t be put into the hands of the untrained and inexperienced. It was too easy and too fast – no ID check, no explanation, no training. I tried to slow proceedings down by explaining that I’d never held a gun before. He lazily flipped to the M16 saying I should choose that because it had less kickback. I had thought I’d start with something smaller like a revolver 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 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!
He then 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 my head. He then handed me the gun and indicated I was good to go. The look on my face must have told the story. He actually rolled his eyes as he moved my hands into position. 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 that was riddled with holes in an actual scattergun 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.
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 didn’t convert me or bring out my inner-Rambo. If anything, it confirmed and consolidated my anti-gun stance.
And with that, my round-the-world-trip was off with a bang!